Women, work and the economy

Feminist scholars research impacts on gender and labour driven by the new economy.

Having grown up in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, University of Newcastle Sociologist, Professor Lisa Adkins experienced the impacts of economic, political and social restructuring and the transition to neo-liberalism first hand.

"I grew up in a world of strikes, urban riots, punk, the closing down of the manufacturing sector, the rise of service sector employment and the mass sell off of public housing. I think my passion for my field of research grew from the direct experience of that restructuring – an experience of a world in transition,' Professor Adkins said.

Professor Adkins is now leading a group of top international feminist scholars as part of the Gender and Labour in New Times International Research Network that has come together to rethink the categories of gender and labour in the new economy.

"The major rearrangements of labour and life associated with the new economy demand that social scientists rethink many of their key categories of analysis, including the home, living, working, the private, the everyday and even the future," Professor Adkins said.

"The new economy characterised by shifts away from manufacturing to service and knowledge production has heralded a shift in the way people work and live their lives. Through our research we want to look at how this shift reshapes the way people live now and how it will impact the future," Professor Adkins said.

With her passion for developing fresh and innovative conceptual ideas about how and in what ways the economy and world of work are changing, Professor Adkins says the network aims to bring key scholars together to shape a novel research agenda covering such areas as: the home, working agreements and work contracts, unemployment and underemployment, money and finance, austerity, the law, and debt.

"Through our research we want to shift the terms of academic and policy debate concerning gender and labour. In particular, we want to highlight not only how female labour is a site of intense and complex activity in the new economy, but also how such labour is a now key object of analysis for understanding forms of economic and social change," Professor Adkins said. 

"This means moving away from some of the familiar problematics through which we have come to understand relations between women and work, including the idea that women must 'balance' work and life. Such framings hold little traction in the new economy where distinctions between working and non-working and between work and home are increasingly difficult to draw."

The expansions in the employment of women is one area the network is focused on because it's often understood as simply a 'good' thing, but Professor Adkins says there are important issues at play which go beyond this straightforward understanding.


"It's not just about the consequences of contemporary employment for women or issues such as care deficits, the use of contracted labour for care work and domestic labour, or the loss of a work/life balance," Professor Adkins said.

"Instead the central issue is a transformation of capitalist accumulation in which women's labour is centrally entangled. Indeed, in our current moment women's labour is a site of complex and intense activity. By understanding this complexity and activity we can, I believe, come to grips with major forms of social change, crucially including transformations to capitalist accumulation processes."


Professor Adkins says that with increasingly few borders between work and life, it's becoming more important to understand the contemporary economy and work, which in turn allows us to understand life in a much broader sense.

"There are also processes at work within contemporary capitalism which are all about the making of social inequalities in new kinds of ways. One of these processes is what the geographer David Harvey has called 'accumulation by dispossession' particularly via debt," Professor Adkins said. "So understanding the economy necessarily means confronting how new forms of inequality are being made and shaped."

"We are at a moment in which all manner of certainties regarding the economy, work and employment are in doubt. This is a moment of the vast accumulation of wealth, but also of wage stagnation, underemployment, precarity and unemployment," Professor Adkins said. "It's our job as social scientists to understand these apparently discontinuous and contradictory processes."

Professor Adkins has served on the Australian Research Council's College of Experts over the last three years and has previously served on the Academy of Finland's Expert Panel (Division of Society and Culture).

"As well as hard work, this service is immensely exciting and rewarding as you get to play a part in the shaping of research and national research cultures," Professor Adkins said.

A further highlight has been various Visiting Fellowships and Professorships that she has held during the course of her career."These kinds of positions are vital for intellectual exchange and in my view are 'core business' for any academic. In 2014 I will hold a Guest Professorship at the Institute for Advanced Social Research, University of Tampere, Finland, and will be a Visiting Scholar, at the Kent Centre for Law, Gender, Sexuality (KLGS) at the University of Kent, UK, (2014). I have also recently held a Visiting Scholar position at the McGill Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, (IGSF), McGill University, Canada (2011-2012)," Professor Adkins said.