The virus has hit childcare and lower income jobs, all of which involve disproportionate numbers of women, says Linda Scott © Bryce Vickmark/FT

Linda Scott has spent years collecting data on gender inequality and exploring the dark history of female subjugation. As an academic researcher, she has documented the first-hand experience of obstacles to women’s economic advance towards equality, from villages in Ghana and Uganda to the campuses of US business schools.

But it was the coronavirus pandemic that brought the issues to her doorstep, in the form of her young granddaughter.

With US nursery schools emptying for lockdown and hospitals filling up with cases of Covid-19, Prof Scott’s daughter, an emergency room doctor, was suddenly on constant call. Meanwhile, her architect son-in-law was diverted to urgent projects refitting factories to produce emergency supplies.

The family agreed it was safest for Prof Scott to become the primary carer for her four-year-old granddaughter. They started isolating together at her home on Rhode Island, on the US east coast, in the face of pressing deadlines and the imminent publication of Prof Scott’s book The Double X Economy.

Linda Scott, emeritus professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Oxford, tells the story not because she is unusual. In fact, the reverse: her experience during lockdown underlines some of the common themes she has found affecting women in developing and developed economies: “The pandemic and the economic downturn make the particular worldwide pattern . . . perhaps more visible than it has ever been, because the way this pandemic is playing out is the same: it’s hitting women hardest and it’s hitting hardest for the same reasons”. For instance, she says, the virus has hit childcare, service industries, part-time work and lower income jobs, all of which involve disproportionate numbers of women.

Prof Scott is concerned not only about setbacks for women in autocracies such as China or Cuba, but also in established market democracies © George Frey/Getty

The Double X Economy, a concept Prof Scott devised in the 2000s, is for women what, say, the gig economy is for independent workers — “an identifiable part of the world system” with “certain ways of doing business, as well as typical products and services”. When women are enabled and empowered to participate fully in the economy, she writes, their involvement “produces a better environment for all citizens” and, in the poorest countries, alleviates distress and suffering.

She points out, though, that this huge source of economic potential — in the US, the Double X Economy would be big enough to join the G7, if it were assessed as a separate nation — is largely ignored by economists and policymakers. In the second of two FT interviews — one in March as the pandemic was closing in on the US, and the other last month — Prof Scott outlined her fears that the acute pressure of handling the pandemic and its consequences would reinforce their tendency to treat women as “bit players”. The “people in charge” will say “‘We have got to focus on the real economy here’ — and that means men”, she says.

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Prof Scott has worked closely with multinationals, such as Walmart, the retailer, and Avon, the cosmetics company, to study how their supply chains and distribution systems can help women advance in countries such as South Africa and Kenya. She recognises, though, that other companies’ gender equality initiatives may be less secure. As they fight for survival through the coming pandemic-induced recession, business leaders “who have issues with gender equality and are not very informed” may argue for gender programmes to be set aside. The virus “gives them a ready-made excuse”, she says.

An English and history graduate who went on to complete an MBA and a doctorate in communications, Prof Scott started her academic career in the 1990s studying advertising and marketing. Instead of swallowing the view of some feminists that cosmetics and consumer goods companies were exploitative, she saw that both their products and their global structure could underpin women’s economic progress.

“If you had one of those big war tables like they had in Game of Thrones, where you’ve got all the generals standing around the table and . . . if you had that for the world economy, one of the most striking features would be the supply chains of the multinationals,” Prof Scott explains. “And so from an efficiency standpoint and from the standpoint of trying to accomplish your goals as soon as you can, you really want to work with them, because that’s your main waterway.”

In the past five years, however, her enthusiasm for “market feminism” has been tempered by the growing realisation that untrammelled free markets do not help women if they systematically deprive them of access to finance, capital, and economic and business power.

She is concerned not only about setbacks for women in autocracies such as China or Cuba, but also in established market democracies. “In the United States, everybody is focused on the abortion fight, and that is of course very much front and centre right now,” she says. But they “haven’t really noticed that the conservative judges have essentially blocked the employment rights won in the 70s”.

Between her two FT interviews, Prof Scott has also watched the growing protests about the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. She grew up in the South during the civil rights movement and says she is “horrified” by racism. She points out that it is important to stay focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, “because a movement only gets [its] moment every so often”.

Six ways individuals can support women in the economy

Investment Invest in gender-supportive companies, female entrepreneurs, and large-scale projects that aim to benefit women. Disinvest in companies that egregiously violate gender equality.

Consumption Choose products made by gender-friendly companies.

Employment Share information on pay. Mentor and sponsor up-and-coming women. Evaluate and incentivise managers on their diversity achievements. Speak up about sexism and harassment.

Awareness Raise awareness about women’s exclusion. Share information, tweet or write about the cause.

Speech Avoid using “implicit bias” or “unconscious bias” to describe conscious bias, let alone outright bigotry. Shame those who withhold fair pay from someone who must support children.

Charitable giving Give to charities that specialise in empowering women economically, globally or locally.

Adapted from ‘The Double X Economy’, by Linda Scott (Faber)

At the same time, she is aware that in the past women’s rights have been crowded out, as happened in the 1970s when the peace movement “wouldn’t hear of including the women’s movement in their agenda”. Similarly, she is wary of companies’ tendency sometimes to fold gender diversity into a wider “sustainability” budget. “What happens to a gender issue when it gets muddled in with other good things . . . is that it tends to disappear,” she said.

Despite the data- and research-based evidence that Prof Scott marshals to support her argument that women are being held back, she remains hopeful about the prospects for, and potential of, the Double X Economy. She rewrote the concluding chapter of the book to be more upbeat. And she is determined that, despite its passion, it should not be seen as an “angry feminist rant”.

What distinguishes her book from such polemics, she believes, is that she cites abundant evidence for her case, outlines practical steps that individuals, companies, and global organisations should take, and includes an open invitation to men to join what she describes as “one of the most important causes of our time, perhaps in history”.

Still, she expects to hear plenty of new excuses for not pressing forward. One is likely to be the idea that existing homogeneous teams will make better decisions in the coming downturn than more diverse groups. She has this retort: “One of the ways in which you would not make good decisions is you would ignore half the population.”

Watch Linda Scott talking to Andrew Hill in 2013 about her concept of The Double X Economy. The conversation was part of the FT’s Thinking Big series.

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