Despite the ideological claims of neoclassical economists, the capitalist system is not neutral, but perpetuates systemic bias against women. Stark global statistics, produced by the likes of the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, demonstrate a worldwide pattern of economic gender disadvantage. Two decades of research has produced a clear explanation: there are laws, religious strictures, family norms, employment practices, social prejudices, and financial barriers that consistently block women’s economic participation in every nation on the planet.
Today’s capitalist system perpetuates ancient exclusions against women’s economic participation.
Gender constraints on women's economic participation have a deep historical origin, dating back to ancient legal systems like the Code of Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi's Code. These constraints evolved over time, forming a complex system that denied women access to land ownership, credit, financial participation, employment, and investment. Even in the early 20th century, these restrictions persisted in developed societies.
Today, these restrictions continue globally, reflecting a historical pattern that likely originated when humans first migrated from the Great Rift Valley and was carried around the world with traders and warlords for thousands of years. The profound impact of the resultant globalized system is evident now in country-level statistics on women's economic status. The numbers show a dramatic pattern of disadvantage, as distinctive as a fingerprint, impressed upon every national economy.
Yet capitalism refuses to acknowledge the existence of such rules. And so they continue.
Structural barriers make access to capital unequal for women.
Men own over 80 % of titled land, humanity’s most enduring source of wealth and power. Probably since the invention of agriculture, but certainly since the first legal codes, land has only passed from male to male in virtually every known society.
»The Inequality is eerily consistent wordwide.«
The rules that originally produced the stark pattern in the graph above have been elaborated in practices from primogeniture to Sharia, but their roots go much deeper than Islam or the nation-states of Europe. As a result, this inequality is eerily consistent worldwide. For instance, Western Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa both have a 16.1 % female landownership rate – and European women own about as much land now as they did in the 8th century.
Capital breeds capital and it changes hands only very slowly. Ultimately, the male monopoly on land rolled up into control of the world’s wealth. At the starting gate of every enterprise or investment scheme, therefore, women, as a class, are systematically handicapped.
Women have not had control over their own assets and income.
Laws governing marriage historically allowed husbands to control whether a woman could work, often keeping them at home. Women were required to hand over their earnings to their husbands, a practice not confined to the »Third World.« In Europe, »Head and Master Laws« granted men authority over household assets and income regardless of their provenance, spanning from common law to the Information Age. Swiss women gained the right to work and manage their earnings and assets without their husbands' consent in a narrow 1985 vote. American women only obtained constitutional control over their income and wealth in 1982.
Among women, throughout historical time and across geographical space, these conditions produced chronic cash poverty and dependence on men for basic necessities. This situation severely restricted women's freedom of choice and often coerced them into acting »irrationally,« facing punishment both at home and in the workplace for displaying any form of self-interest.
Women have been excluded from the financial system since it was invented
The financial system originated with clay tokens used to track trade and eventually morphed into letters and numbers. Women were forbidden literacy, so they could not participate. Going forward, men obstructed women's access to education on a global scale, especially in math and science, and enacted laws excluding them from the banking system.
So, for thousands of years, women have had no way to safely store what little cash they might be able to acquire, nor to save or invest. In many countries today, including the developed nations, women have not been allowed to use banks, even for checking, until relatively recently. In Middle Eastern Muslim countries, it is still normal for women to be forbidden bank accounts.
Women have not had access to credit, usually by law. When microfinance burst upon the world scene in the 2000s, the innovation was not really lending to the poor – loan sharks have always been available to the impoverished – but that banks like Grameen were lending to women for the first time in countries where females were not allowed credit. Again, though, this is not a problem restricted to the poor countries: women in North America and Western Europe could not get credit in their own names until the 1970s.
Without the ability to own and control assets or earnings, save, invest, or borrow, women obviously did not have the same command over productive resources that men did. Indeed, women, as a class, have seldom had any financial power at all.
Resistance against women’s freedom finds ways to force women back into dependency
Industrialization first opened opportunities for single women to work, especially in textiles and garments, during the 1800s in Europe and North America . As late as the 1960s, women in the US and UK were forced by »marriage bars« to quit work when they married. If not then, women had to quit when they became pregnant. Today, in the developed world, we don’t expect that married women will not work, but mothers are still pushed ruthlessly back toward stay-at-home status by intolerant employers and co-workers, unequal advancement opportunities (mommy-tracking), and governments that refuse to support working mothers by investing in childcare. Global data show that a consistent »motherhood penalty« in pay can be discerned in the statistics for every country. Because the war against working women is being waged over childcare right now in the developed countries, the motherhood penalty is strongest in those nations that otherwise show the most gender equality – and accounts for a larger portion of gender discriminiation. It appears that, having lost the right to force women to stay home by law, a last ditch effort against gender equality is be fought over the heads of our children.
Capitalism uses false myths and pseudo-science to cover its bigotry
Capitalist apologists often use misleading claims about primate behavior, hunting, and brain differences to justify women's inferior treatment. They argue that nature dictates women's domestic role or that male brains are superior due to testosterone exposure in utero, attributing discrimination to unconscious bias.
In reality, hunter-gatherer societies rely heavily on plant-based diets, with both men and women hunting. However, men tend to monopolize meat, leading to negative nutritional impacts on women.
While both genders undertake essential work, women's contributions often go unnoticed and unrewarded. For instance, during the pandemic, 80 % of health workers were women, saving lives through difficult and dangerous work while remaining underpaid. Our identical genetic similarity to chimpanzees (male dominant) and bonobos (female-dominant) raises questions about what our »natural« gender/economic system is – and our common ancestor's traits remain utterly unknown.
The outdated notion of testosterone's influence on brain function lacks scientific support, as evidence shows male and female brains are equal in capabilities, including math.
Unconscious biases arise from societal upbringing that perpetuates gender inequality. Addressing bias, rather than excusing it, is the solution. When employers and economists use nature and history to justify bigotry, it becomes evident that prejudices are not unconscious but consciously articulated.
Capitalist economics calls itself a science, but is premised on a self-serving fairy tale
Capitalism is based on the idea that rational individuals with full access to information and freedom of choice create the best outcome for all. However, this premise starkly contrasts with the economic reality of women. They often lack individual agency, face limited choices, experience coercion, misinformation, and societal pressure to be selfless. Discrepancies between genders should prompt reevaluation in any real science. However, capitalist economics seems willing to ignore evidence to preserve a system where men hold wealth and power. This perpetuates the belief that women and the disadvantaged are incapable of improving their own circumstances, maintaining their misery.
Those are six reasons among many why no one should ever say that capitalism is gender-neutral. But these will provide a good starting place for pushing back on a system that has succored the rich and powerful – and therefore male – for too long. It’s long past time to call their bluff.