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Virtual Exhibit <em>Economica</em> Spurs Discussion of Women's Global Earning Potential

The International Museum of Women exhibitmanages to humanize the impact of policymakers' and institutional decisions by inviting women to tell their stories themselves.
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I was listening to Slate's Money Talks podcast when I first visited the online exhibition Economica, and it struck me that I was listening to four male commentators share their opinions on economic recovery. No women economists or policymakers were mentioned in the nearly hour-long recording, and the observations shared were essentially void of the effects that the crash has had on individual people worldwide. While I'm glad that NPR's Planet Money regularly presents a comprehensive set of viewpoints, I still find myself wanting for more in-depth and personal synopses from demographically and politically diverse sources.

Timing aside, my introduction to the International Museum of Women interactive exhibit was fortunate. Economica includes opinion essays by development and policy leaders alongside slideshows and podcasts, and the result is a thorough multimedia presentation on the state of the global economy through a feminized lens. (For the less financially inclined among us, a refresher on economics terms meanings is included.)

The thing that sets the exhibit apart from many displays of public works -- beyond the fact that it's available online only in keeping with the San Francisco-based IMOW's virtual offerings -- is a call for viewer stories and artwork. User submissions are being solicited and will live alongside curated work, including photo essays by photographers around the world on subjects such as the education of illiterate women in Morocco and China's "floating population" of female migrant workers.

One particularly striking piece is Viviane Dalles' Growing Debt about the effects that the introduction of genetically modified cotton to India has had on indebting farmers and the responsibilities that their widows must take on after their fairly common suicides. But not all of the work presented is dire: a podcast with curator Dr. Masum Momaya and social economist Naila Kabeer describes ways that political organizing has improved women's money-earning potential in both the formal economy.

Clare Winterton, executive director of the social change-oriented IMOW, said the topic of women's money-earning capacity worldwide had been planned as the exhibit to follow last year's "Women, Power and Politics", which generated participation across 200 countries. The economics project was underway when global markets collapsed, which made looking at the global economy from women's perspectives more timely than the organization could have realized.

Winterton acknowledged that bringing attention to women's contributions and voices hasn't been easy, even as the credit crunch has drawn attention to the personal economic situations of the middle class. (A slideshow on families affected by home foreclosures is forthcoming.) "There were several recommendations to tie in purse-related themes and soften the economic focus, but we think it's important that women can claim having a voice in the economy," Winterton said.

Momaya, who curated both the economics and politics exhibits, noted that few people have talked about what the economic collapse has meant for women. "Women have been long in crisis, between managing scarcity in their homes and now as more of them become national finance ministers," she said. "In most of the world, their social role as caretakers has forced them to know how to make a lot out of a little, especially as their countries cut back on education and healthcare in the name of military spending. They've had to be the ones to deal with those cutbacks while ensuring that goods and food are produced, even when they don't see the funds that result."

In the women's studies field, there is plenty of academic literature about female roles in the political economy. Momaya said that one of the goals in opening the exhibit was making women's perspectives on economic development more accessible. Visibility for these discussions is important, she said, because they are not frequently discussed among non-expert audiences. It's easy to see why: the topic of economic woes and successes can be dry and difficult to visualize for even the most disciplined news follower.

The IMOW team members say that the Web allows their work to be presented in a more didactic format and increases engagement more than a physical exhibit could. In laying out a few main themes (property and wealth, family and fertility, and business leadership among them), they say they've tried to combine both personal and systemic observations of women's work and financial experiences in the online educational content.

If an economics student study guide were to be created and cover the key ideas represented by the participating writers and photographers, Momaya's takeaways would be a good place to start. Because while hearing that only 25 percent of women in the Arab world are part of the paid work force compared with more than 65 percent in the rest of world is striking, understanding the impact such a statistic could have on our economic future is far more pressing. Her observations include:

  • Globalization and the economic crisis have different impacts on men and women;
  • Even though women don't have an equal share of resources, they "historically have and are creating innovative solutions for scarcity and have always contributed to growth;"
  • While investing in women is important, we should recognize the importance of improving traditional economic systems and challenging discriminatory cultural practices if we expect returns on those investments;
  • And, most importantly: "The current crisis provides an opportunity to ask what kind of economy we really want -- and create it."

Economica manages to humanize the impact of policymakers' and institutional decisions in graphic and intriguing ways. It uses the most sensible technique to do so: inviting women to tell their stories themselves.