Are We Economic Engines Too? Precarity, Productivity and Gender

26 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2019

Date Written: 2018


Addressing women’s inequality in the workplace will require challenging the gendered ideas of productivity that have contributed to rising precarity and inequality for most workers, across gender lines. This article examines how a contemporary narrative of new “economic engines” of innovation and growth responds to broad economic distress by reviving an older moral order where productivity normally and naturally requires gender, race, and class inequality. Current ideas of economic power recuperate older legal structures that made labor an obligation owed by dependent subordinates to their political and legal masters. Drawing on sociologist Erin Hatton’s research on the twentieth century temporary staff industry, I consider how gender ideology contributes to constructing workers in general as costs rather than productive assets. That reasoning helped rationalize the twenty-first century shift to a “gig economy” where workers hired as independent contractors increasingly bear the risks of production, including the risks of race and gender discrimination. The contemporary emphasis on economic innovation and entrepreneurship further mobilizes masculinized ideas and practices to undermine workers’ economic power and security. The article surveys evidence that technology enterprises hailed as engines of the new economy particularly feature gender inequity and harassment. I conclude that women’s subordination at work will requires countering the view that productivity depends on granting unequal power and protection to uniquely talented and unaccountable risk-takers.

Keywords: gender equity, sex discrimination, economic inequality, employment discrimination, gig economy, precarity, economic development, knowledge economy, innovation, venture capital, masculinity, intersectionality, productivity, law and economics, political economy, sexual harassment

Suggested Citation

McCluskey, Martha T., Are We Economic Engines Too? Precarity, Productivity and Gender (2018). 49 University of Toledo Law Review 631 (2018); University at Buffalo School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-016. Available at SSRN:

Martha T. McCluskey (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States
716-645-2326 (Phone)
716-645-2064 (Fax)

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