In 2013, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama introduced her “Infinity Mirrored Rooms” art installation in New York’s Modern Museum of Art.
People stood in lines for 7 and 8 hours just to experience 45 seconds of a calm, serene experience. Somehow it made people feel infinitely connected to the world and each other, and social media comments said “everything just seemed to work beautifully together”.
Kusama has spent most of her eighty plus years on this planet questioning our relationship to the world. Her exhibits are provocative and arrestingly beautiful, leading Time magazine to call her one of 2016’s Top 100 Most Influential People. So how is it that her small rooms of beautifully arranged mirrors and lights provide insight into re-framing the fundamental building blocks of womenomics?
The Economics of Kusama’s Art
In overly simplified terms, countries and their citizens are connected through economies that revolve around goods and services. These are transferred through production, consumption and wealth creation. Within borders and across the globe, we are part of a global chain of trade and interconnected economy much like the lights in Kusama’s exhibit.
If you dive deeper into this complex chain, the economics of women’s wealth creation should be as bright or in balance with the economics of their male counterparts. Statistics praising the progress made by women in the workforce are everywhere and might suggest we have entered a golden age of economics.
We know women are more educated, they participate in greater numbers in the workforce, and they are gaining greater responsibility in the corporate world as leaders in many professions across America 1. This suggests we are thriving and reaping the benefits of an improved status; aka the lights are on as we have more money to spend, feel better about the possibilities for advancement, and realize greater power in the work force. So are all the lights shining bright and energies balanced?
Japan as a model for Kusama’s Infinity Room
Generally speaking, the gains for women are only marginally true and present a kind of smoke and mirror vision of Kasuma’s art. Kathy Matsui, Chief Japan Strategist and Vice Chair at Goldman Sachs, turned on the lights when she introduced the term “womenomics” in 1999. Her influential studies about the economics of women influenced Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2013 Abenomic reforms; these focused on improving the economic balance for women in the workplace as a key driver to closing Japan’s economic growth.
Admittedly, Japan’s economy and workforce is somewhat unique (restrictive immigration policies and declining birth rates), but Abe’s economic plan to capitalize on the power of women provides a real economic plan for gender equality. While his plan is yet to be realized, Abe predicts he can raise growth by 2% in real (inflation adjusted) GDP and 3% growth in nominal GDP by targeting expanded daycare, nursing care, flexible work arrangements and other incentives that recognize women as a vital component in Japan’s economic output 2.
The global impact of these goals is significant, given Japan’s $4+ trillion (US$) GDP and its control of over 6% of the global economy 3. Certainly a more indepth discussion is needed to explain the confluence of economic indicators needed to bring Japan’s economic health and prosperity. However, the important point to hammer home is clear: Abe’s plan recognizes the need to change old institutions and outdated thinking about women’s critical value and their role in mobilizing economic growth. It lights up Japan and is actually focusing new light on ways to build a shared economy for everyone.
Is America Missing Kusama’s Big Picture?
Our vision in America and other countries around the world is somewhat filtered when we talk about inclusiveness and connectivity for everyone. In North America, we’re focused on persistent wage gaps and women making 80 cents to the dollar earned by men. I don’t know that we are moving the needle without policy changes and a national movement across businesses. There’s a persistent imbalance that prevents harmony even though women like Gloria Steinem woke up America more than 50 years ago.
Disappointing trends continue to keep us in the dark 4. Did you know:
- The higher we climb, the greater the wage gap for women;
- By age 65, the average working woman will have lost more than $430,000 in lost wages because of this wage gap; and,
- Women are bringing home more of the bacon with 40% of American moms as the sole or primary breadwinners, but because we earn less and hold a greater share of the part-time employment market we can’t fully participate in employer pension plans. Therefore, we are likely to have smaller retirement nest eggs and smaller 401(k) balances.
You could say women are footing the bill for what amounts to limited progress. We are paying a larger share of rising health care costs (caring for aging parents and kids) and we are less prepared for retirement in an environment of economic uncertainty. Finding the light has never been more important as we move further the twenty-first century.
Kusama’s Bright Spots: Unlocking the Power of Women in the World
According to the United Nations Gender Index, the brightest spots for women to work are actually in Europe. The disparity in “reproductive health, empowerment, political participation and labor market participation” is less pronounced, our dollar goes farther, and women take home more money.
There are ways to be smarter about the money we are making (I’ll tackle the immediate issue of women maximizing their retirement investments in a separate article), but reaction from Abe’s initiatives suggests the world is listening. Articles debating the success of his policies are drawing attention, and Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House has also made women’s economics a national dialogue in the U.S.
While Abe is leading the charge with revised corporate governance codes and stewardship reforms, these will take time but they are already changing the discussion. The creation of the first UN Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment this past January 2016 will help to educate businesses, global leaders, and countries about the fundamental barriers to women’s progress. (See www.empowerwomen.org)
The key factors for building sustainable economic growth, as cited by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, are a global imperative: “There remains an urgent need to address structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment and full inclusion in economic activity. If the world is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we need a quantum leap in women’s economic empowerment.”5
When I heard that Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms” will be traveling through North America in 2017, from Washington to Seattle to Los Angeles and Toronto, I jumped for joy. I hope citizens and leaders around the world are energized to create brighter economic foundations that take the lessons from Kusama’s vision into infinity, bringing Kusama’s heaven to life.