Marilyn Waring is a farmer, university lecturer, development consultant, and writer. She is an important voice challenging mainstream economic and political ideologies currently driving globalization. Her best-known work, If Women Counted, describes how economic orthodoxies exclude most of women's productive and reproductive work, rendering half of the world's population invisible. This book is now available from the University of Toronto Press under its original title, Counting for Nothing, and is the subject of a full-length documentary film, Who's Counting? produced by the National Film Board of Canada and released in 1995.

Waring argues passionately, powerfully, and convincingly for the urgency of rethinking basic economic concepts such as gross domestic product in ways that take community well being into account. In her latest publication, Three Masquerades
(Auckland University Press, 1996), Waring explores the interconnections between equality, work, and human rights. "Until the whole is exposed to question," Waring warns, "nothing alters in the power dynamics of who chooses, who judges, who defines, who rules, who imposes..." and lies masquerade as truths.

The following interview was conducted by Dr. Cathy Cavanaugh, professor of Women's Studies, Centre for Work and Community Studies, Athabasca University, in January of 1998.


Waring on her perspective.

If Women Counted

Aurora: It's been ten years since you published If Women Counted. Can you bring us up to date with your current work?

Waring: My most current research is in international human rights law and development assistance programs. I arrived at this research by exploring the invisibility of women's work from a human rights perspective. I've spent some time in the past few years looking for human rights instruments that would assist us in gaining visibility.

Since 1988 when the book was first published, there have been some changes. For example, in 1993 the boundary of production for the purposes of national accounts was moved with the instruction that all women's subsistence agriculture, and activities such as carrying water and collecting fuel wood should now be counted in the main production accounts. At the development conferences in Beijing and Copenhagen, there have continued to be calls for the establishment of satellite accounts.

In the mainstream, any movement has always been toward the "market." That is, there continues to be the assumption that the only way in which work can be visible or valuable is if you treat it as if it were a market commodity or a market service and you attribute a value to it. That approach is anathema to me. As somebody on the front line of making policy, the information I need is what women do with their time.

I can give you a very good example. In Alberta, you've gone through a rough period where government services have been cut and the responsibility for continuing to carry out a lot of services hasn't devolved to the private sector, but to the "community." We know that "community" is usually mom or daughter or aunty or neighbour or some other woman who already works 16 to 18 hours a day. Sometimes she's in the paid work force; sometimes not.

There's been no investigation in Alberta into whether quality care or quality servicing can go on in this devolution. There's no investigation about the training or the time available to these people. They are just supposed to take over. The most important question is not what is the value of the work they are doing, but do they have time to do it? What inputs do they need to be able to do the work adequately? Is it laundry services? Is it domiciliary nursing services? Is it some kind of transport subsidies? Do they need to know how to get dietary instruction to be able to cook special food?

Time-Use Surveys

Waring: I've been interested in the progress of time-use surveys. Canada has one that it does by telephone, but it's not very sophisticated. The telephone is a very blunt survey instrument. And we know the reasons why: it has everything to do with class access, who answers—a variety of things.

In the European OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in the last three years, there have been major pilot studies carried out in seven countries, with national time-use studies carried out in the last year.

These were justified by countries saying that it would assist them with transport patterns so they would know where people were in case of a civil defense emergency. It would help them with planning community adult education, library usage, and a myriad of issues. But those of us who have thought about the application of time use in a policy framework know that the range of possibilities that the information brings to the front-line is enormous.

Aurora: Are we dealing with two problems? That is, one, the problem of what we value and how we value it, and two, the problem of time?

Waring: Yes, there is a fundamental question in economics about what we value and how we value it. It's a fundamental ideological question. If you ask people what they value most in life, they will say my children, my partner, my health, my religion. Usually, it's something that can't be bought. At the same time, we're invited to believe the Chicago School rhetoric that market pressure determines value.

So you have that difference. That's one part of the huge question; and in that answer, women's work has no value.

Aurora: Are you suggesting that time-use surveys will pull public policy into women's real world?

Waring: Yes, I think that there is an enormous potential there. In Australia, they are up to their third nation-wide time-use survey. Although I have an objection about imputing value, sometimes you're forced to use a tool you don't like to attract the attention you need.

Australia has used the traditional economic input-output model, imputing value for the labour, depreciation allowances for the capital stock, and rentals for the place where the service and the production happens. They are able to demonstrate that household production is the single largest productive sector of the Australian economy. It exceeds the value of all manufacturing by a multiple of 10, and the value of all mining and mineral extraction by a multiple of three. Household production is overwhelmingly the biggest productive and service sector. In the allocation and distribution of public funds, that raises a question I think people have never contemplated.

Think about Alberta, and about the huge incentive and depreciation allowances for the growth industries. The question arises: which is the biggest industry here? Which is the biggest productive and service sector in Alberta, and why can't those allowances be extended to that sector?

Time use not only offers—at a micro level of household to household or at a community level—the opportunity for women's lives to be visible, but it offers us a massive tool to challenge the kind of "mateship" that goes on in government as well.

Aurora: So it links women's previously invisible domestic labour to the marketplace—traditionally dominated by men—to public policy and public decision making.

Waring: I think it does it from a different value basis.

Aurora: It changes the value from money or market to time?

Waring: Yes. Time is the one commodity we all have. We might not all have as much discretion as we'd like about what we do with it, but you can't make more time, and you can't take it away.

In New Zealand, we are about to embark nationwide on the most sophisticated time-use survey carried out anywhere in the world. I'm very excited about it. It's going to be conducted over a 12 month period, mostly via self-administered diaries. But one cohort will have a diary filled in by a participant observer, so that we can check the reliability and validity of the self-administered diaries. It includes not just primary and secondary activities; it includes all activities: simultaneous activity, where you're doing it, whom you are doing it for, and so on.

Aurora: It's also very timely since time itself is being redefined by the computer chip. It seems to me that we are facing a situation where the clock never stops. All time seems to be pulled into productive labour. A time-use survey now would also make that visible.

Waring: It's wonderful, because it raises a challenge to the current orthodoxy across so many lines.

Aurora: When you started researching the UN national counts, I understood your purpose was to find a way to value women's work in market terms.

Waring: I wanted to make it visible. As a member of parliament, I was having to respond overnight to the immediacy of policy demands. The most simplistic way would have been to give it a market value—that was my knee-jerk reaction.

Once I read the rules and the national accounts, I was profoundly disturbed by what they meant, not just for women, but for the planet. I was so disturbed that imputing a market value was no longer a possible answer. It was a co-option by a pathological value system, a system that said that making and storing nuclear bombs is good for the national economy.

Getting Permission from "the father"–John Kenneth Galbraith

Aurora: When you were in the midst of all this you went to see John Kenneth Galbraith. Why did you go see him? What did you want from that conversation with Galbraith?

Waring: Well, I think it's a very big joke on myself. However feminist you try to be, there are still old knee jerk reactions, like seeking permission from the "great man" I was quite delighted that he was interested in my work, and a little in awe that he was interested and willing to discuss it with me.

I was a member of parliament when he visited New Zealand. He had followed the anti-nuclear debate down here with considerable interest, so I wasn't a complete unknown to him. But I've often thought of the final meeting I had with him when he said, "Oh, Marilyn, stop trying to find any definitive work on it. There is no definitive work on it. You know enough; you write it." That was definitely "the permission from the father."

Aurora: I wondered if what you were seeing was just so crazy and nonsensical that it was difficult to really make any sense of it. Or were patterns emerging?

Waring: I needed verification from someone with a lot of clout that I wasn't completely off the wall and so it wasn't just seeking permission. It was like him saying, "No, you're not misunderstanding it; that's exactly what was intended. That's how it works."

The old system [as evidenced in the UN national accounts] worked by holding power—the power of definition (who works and who doesn't, what's in and what's out), and the power of value (even if it doesn't enter the market, we'll work out whether it's in or it's out). Enormous power and control; and the most unbelievable lack of imagination.

How could anybody think that the tradable pollution permits at the Kyoto Climate Summit could be seen as progress? How could anybody think that something that is common to us all—clean air—can be turned into something that companies own and that they can trade among each other. It's unbelievable!

Aurora: Yes, it's staggering that we can continue to think, as you say, in these uni-dimensional ways. That raises the question of having the power to shift these debates to think in more creative ways. But with globalization and free trade we seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

Waring: I know, and with such speed. It doesn't matter whether you are looking at NAFTA or APEC or at the World Trade Agreement that is replacing the GATT—see the pace at which this is happening and the myopic view and the cant that goes with it.

I wonder if that's why I wrote If Women Counted and tried to demystify economics. Then I whipped around the corner and came at it from international human rights. I thought if we could demonstrate overwhelmingly that women's unpaid household work could be defined as servitude, then all the countries noted for human rights—like Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the Scandinavians—would be in breach of their fundamental human rights obligations.

Now I've whipped round the next corner. I'm trying to find out whether in the kind of development assistance given by CIDA or New Zealand —even if they continue to be involved in these totally fascist-corrupt places like Indonesia—there is any way the citizenry of Canada or New Zealand can use their international human rights obligation either to change the nature of that development assistance, or to force the country to withdraw. These are all inter-linked. I sometimes feel a certain panic in myself.

Sources of Inspiration

Aurora: What gives you optimism?

Waring: The lives of the women I see in places like Bangladesh, Ethiopia, or the Philippines. The courage of women still trying to be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. The courage of Palestinian women still trying to work peacefully for their homeland. The courage of women working on the front-line in places like Mali or Zaire against female genital mutilation. They inspire me.

Nobody is ever going to come for me in the early morning for any political activity I've been involved in. I'm totally safe. I can do what I do, whether it is legitimate or outrageous, because nobody will come for me. People come for them all the time. They are so resilient and so imaginative and so funny. They have a wicked sense of humour in the face of the most ungodly oppression. They are who keep me going.

Unpaid Work as Human Rights and Development Issues

Aurora: Are all of these—the human rights avenue, time-use surveys—strategies that can be useful for us in pressing ahead to gain recognition, rights, and opportunities?

Waring: Yes, absolutely. Last year, when I was at the University of Alberta, I met with a group of women who wanted to know how, in Alberta, they might be able to raise the question of the exploitation of women's unpaid work as a human rights issue against the provincial government, because of the devolution of responsibilities to women without assistance from the current government. I understand that's going ahead.

In New Zealand, I've worked with women to initiate a major human rights challenge on unpaid work. Our human rights commission has accepted the complaint and is investigating it—a major breakthrough in itself.

Also, we are using human rights instruments to challenge the number of women in our parliament, claiming that the words "on equal terms with men," which guarantee women's access to public and political office, mean that we have to have half the seats in parliament.

In my book Three Masquerades, I outlined the strategies that we pursued in New Zealand. One reason for doing that was in the hope that such tactics could be replicated in countries like Australia and Canada. In my new work on human rights and development assistance, I am getting help from all kinds of people in Canada– from parliament, from CIDA, and in particular from Osgoode Hall Law School of York University and the Department of Law at Carleton University in Ottawa. It's an international question that many other activists and academics are interested in.

Aurora: Do you see these strategies as applying across the developed and developing world?

Waring: I'm a citizen of New Zealand, and I figure we have some obligations. This is where I can use the system. I'm not interested in being matronizing about doing good. I think there are some possible strategies and tools to try here.

Aurora: What are some of the critical elements for development assistance programs that include women?

Waring: I think the most critical is the visibility. For example, I think that every investigatory phase of major development programs should include time-use surveys of the whole community—men, women, children, elderly. Time-use surveys should also be included in the midterm and final evaluations, so at the very least we are getting a tracer.

The terms of reference for the head of mission should be accountability in terms of women—and not through some junior national who never comes to the planning meetings, who's called the women's desk officer. There should be no development project in the field where the head of mission is not the key person responsible for women's issues.

Contract renewal should be dependent on performance. I've seen the Dutch do this in the field and they are the only country that do it—where at the end of each twelve months of the project, if the terms of reference in respect to women haven't been filled, the Dutch refuse to spend more money or move another bulldozer until the recipient country fulfils those obligations.

Sometimes, they get to the point of withdrawing from the project until the performance is there. All nation states should be operating at that level. I think it is more about that kind of application than making sure that, for example, there are income-generating projects.

Further Links

Citation Format

Cathy Cavanaugh (1997) An Interview with Marilyn Waring, Aurora Online