In Ann Mumford’s chapter for the Fabian pamphlet Tax for our Times, she makes a strong case for interrogating the implicit gender bias of the tax system and discarding the idea that tax policy can be gender neutral. “Every aspect of a tax system has the potential to affect women”, she writes, including through supporting a market economy that undervalues unpaid labour, mostly undertaken by women in the home. However, as she notes, the inequalities women suffer through tax are still largely invisible.
Tax plays a crucial role in raising revenues for public spending, and in redistributing wealth, income and ultimately power. The link between inequality and tax isn’t coincidental or tangential – it is a crucial factor in determining socio-economic disparities. The world is becoming increasingly aware of this fact thanks to tax justice campaigns, which have been steadily building steam in recent years. Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and global campaigns like Oxfam’s Even It Up have also captured and further catalysed outrage about growing economic inequality.
However, these campaigners have, by and large, focused on the impact of tax on income inequality and poverty. There is now a growing global movement of researchers, advocates and activists highlighting the ways in which tax policy can obstruct women’s equality and human rights, too. Thanks to pioneering work by organizations like the UK’s Women’s Budget Group and the human rights movement, feminists are engaging with fiscal policy and how it can help or hinder gender equality.
Tax is a significant constraint on progress towards gender equality. In most countries, including the UK, women are overrepresented among the poor, and there is a solid body of research showing that the weakening of the fiscal state over the last 30 years has in turn unfairly disadvantaged lower income groups. Tax also affects women in gender-specific ways. Women tend to rely more on public services, which in the UK are depleted and underfunded after years of fiscal austerity. Those services focused almost uniquely on women’s needs, such as domestic violence services, have had their funding slashed beyond breaking point, while cuts to legal aid mean domestic violence survivors increasingly face representing themselves in court.
In many cases, these cuts could be avoided altogether were the UK government to take strong measures to tackle tax abuse by corporations and commit to taxing the wealthiest at higher rates instead of giving them tax breaks.
Rising VAT rates – such as those undertaken by the coalition government – also have a disproportionate impact on women’s incomes, as they tend to be the ones buying food, clothes and other basic goods for the household, due to entrenched gendered assumptions about unpaid care work.
Countries with joint taxation for spouses or partners tend to disadvantage the lowest earners (in the case of heterosexual couples, usually the woman) and disincentivise women’s work, while reinforcing stereotypes about a woman’s income being secondary to that of the male breadwinner, and to her domestic and childcare work. Thankfully, UK taxpayers do have the choice of individual filing for married couples, but the single breadwinner model is reinforced elsewhere in social and economic policy – in the decision that Universal Credit will be paid only to one recipient within a household, for example.
Meanwhile, wealth is still taxed at a relatively low level and the incomes of multi-national corporations and high-net worth individuals are allowed to escape overseas to tax havens. Men are overwhelmingly more likely to accumulate wealth, own property, and be corporate CEOs and shareholders, so preferential treatment for shareholders and the financial industry ends up disproportionately benefiting men. And this is (more or less) a zero sum game – that lost revenue has to be raised from elsewhere, with VAT often the go-to target, and as such women are again prejudiced by a broken and biased system.
It is crucial to ensure we better understand and reflect the ways in which women (and other specific populations) are impacted by tax. As Mumford suggests, policy-makers could start by asking a simple, single question about every tax policy: will it exacerbate women’s poverty? In the human rights and social justice community, we know all too well that inequalities intersect and compound in myriad ways. Income inequality – at both a global and national scale – may be the most obvious outcome of fiscal policy, but to overlook gender is to do women’s human rights a disservice.
As Daisy-Rose Srblin writes in her introduction, “The left needs to fight for a tax system that treats the poorest more fairly, and fight to re-establish the principle of redistribution.” In doing so, they also need to acknowledge and interrogate the gendered effects of tax policy; this is a feminist issue as well as a struggle for economic justice for all.
Kate Donald is the co-founder and blog editor of Women for Tax Justice.
Read the Fabian pamphlet Tax for our Times: how the left can reinvent taxation, here.
Join Alison McGovern MP (shadow City minister), Zoe Williams (columnist, the Guardian), Daisy-Rose Srblin (editor, ‘Tax for our times’) and Tony Travers (director, LSE London) on Wednesday to discuss the pamphlet. Sign up here.