A Vatican councillor and advisor on the social and economic recovery post-COVID-19 has lamented that “modern economic science has been shaped entirely from a male point of view”.

– Economics lacks a “founding mother”

Sister Alessandra Smerilli, a Salesian religious, councillor of the Vatican City State since 2019 and coordinator of the economics task force of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission set up by Pope Francis in March 2020 made the observation in an article, “What if the economy was female?”, posted November 9 on the website of CIDSE, the European and North American Catholic development organisation.

In her article, Smerilli pointed out that although modern economics as a scholarly discipline has a “founding father” – Adam Smith – it could not be said to have a “founding mother”.

– “Traps” to avoid when talking about “a female role” in society, economy

Despite that lack in the history, the nun argued that it is important that women think about economics and also for the world as a whole “to talk about a female role in the social and economic dimension”, with the aim of determining “if there is a specific role for women in these spheres”.

However, Smerilli – who is also a professor of political economics at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences ‘Auxilium’ in Rome – warned against falling into two “traps” when considering the perspectives and contributions of women to the social and economic spheres.

The first trap, Smerilli said, consists in thinking “that equal dignity corresponds to perfect equality, so it makes no sense to speak about woman’s role, since it is no different than the man’s role”.

That confusion “has gradually led us to assume the masculine as a prototype to which to relate everything”, the nun alerted.

The second trap Smerilli pointed to is that of exaggerating “the specificities of women, making them even more sources of discrimination”.

That exaggeration leads to nothing more than stereotypes of the “masculine” and the “feminine”, the religious cautioned.

Still, she said that despite those pitfalls it is important to lay bare the fact that modern economics – in its assumptions, axioms, methodology, tools and data collection – has been entirely shaped by a traditionally masculine way of looking at the world.

– Common Home “seen differently” by men and women, but “until now, the perspective has been mainly male”

What then would a women-informed economic science look like? What kinds of things would it measure, and how, and what kinds of contributions could an economy grounded in women’s perspectives make to our world today?

Before answering those questions, Smerilli celebrated that in contrast to the past more and more women are working in economics today and are opening up ever-larger audiences for their ideas – thanks, in part, to the COVID-19-induced thirst for new and different solutions to old social problems.

In short, the nun suggested that women’s contributions to the economy could be at least four-fold: a serious concern for the common good, a renewed focus on care over and against wage labor, “a new way of assigning value to things” in which “use value determines the price of goods and not viceversa” and lastly a donut-shaped sustainable understanding of growth, in contrast to that of the traditional upward line on a graph.

“These are just a few samples, this list could be longer”, Smerilli pointed out with regard to women’s contributions to the economy.

But she said that the important thing to grasp is that while our society and Common Home are “seen differently” by men and women, “until now, the perspective… [has been] mainly male”.

“Men are more focused on labor, on material and institutional aspects: all of this is very important, but if this becomes the dominant perspective, it can distort reality”, the nun alerted.

She explained that in contrast to those traditionally masculine priorities “women’s perspectives may be more centered around relationships and care”.

Not that those women’s perspectives, however, are enough by themselves, according to Smerilli, who explained that the “focused and unique perspective” of women on the economy needs to be complemented by other views, even if women’s insights have traditionally been “missing in the larger context” of politics and institutional decision-making.

“We need to start or keep looking at this [Common Home] from a woman’s perspective”, Smerilli concluded.

She added that “above all, we must start to look at our home together, both men and women. We need to imagine the future together”.

More on Novena on Sister Smerilli:

Vatican official denounces companies, countries that plunder global South “like madmen, leaving behind a disaster”

Female Vatican official urges Catholic women to put hands up for Church leadership “without being shy or feeling inferior”

Vatican proposes on COVID-19 recovery: “What if instead of an arms race we ‘race’ towards food, health and work security?”

War, poverty, climate change… you could be complicit, warns Vatican economy expert


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.