In scientific and political debates, contradictory views have been put forward on the gender effects of basic income. The debate has bifurcated into two basic questions: whether basic income is a good or bad policy option for women. Advocates of basic income emphasise various positive effects of basic income. First, basic income has been considered to improve women's social security. Whereas the traditional social insurance programmes linked to employment and income have been seen to favour men, universal basic income is seen to benefit women. In many countries women, because of their lower labour market participation, have had to satisfy to last-resort, means-tested forms of social security more often than what men do. Such last-resort systems not only provide benefits at a lower level, but are also stigmatising.
Secondly, basic income has been considered to strengthen women's labour market positions by improving possibilities to reconcile work and family life and enabling part-time work. These two lines of discussion have been featured above all in the Anglo-American basic income debate.
The third motivation for basic income is the emancipation and empowerment of women, i.e., the strengthening of their position in families and wider society and increasing their control of their own lives. This point of view, according to which basic income would specifically improve the position of women, has received support, especially from the experiences of basic income experiments in developing economies (e.g. in India). In these interpretations, basic income is seen to enhance women’s agency.
Opponents of basic income, on the other hand, consider basic income, like various forms of cash-for-care schemes, to create serious incentive traps. According to this line of reasoning, above all, low-income women would tend to choose basic income instead of employment. This would leave their income level and social security, including their old-age pension, incomplete. The negative income tax experiments of the United States and Canada in the 1970s and 1980s showed that in the treatment groups getting the benefit, employment rates indeed did decrease. The decrease was significant among young females. However, this was related to the fact that there were no parental leave schemes in those countries, which meant that the basic income scheme offered mothers the opportunity to be at home with their babies instead of quickly returning to work. Of course, evidence against basic income can be found - for example, in cash-for-care systems that seem to create “traps for women”, like the Finnish home care allowance. The available data indicate that 90% of the users of the home care allowance are women.
Despite the gendered disincentive effects created by the home care allowance, Finland ranks very high on various gender equality indices. Therefore, it is interesting to take a closer look at the possible gendered effects of basic income in such a gender-equal society. The Finnish basic income experiment that was implemented 2017-2018 offers possibilities for taking a stand on the discussion presented above (see Kangas et al. 2021).
According to the results of the experiment, the employment rates in the treatment group, i.e., those getting basic income, were somewhat higher than in the identical control group. However, the differences were not statistically significant (Hämäläinen & Verho 2022). Furthermore, there were no differences between women and men.
When assessing the results from the experiment, various well-being effects were investigated using a phone-based survey. According to the survey, although there was no statistically significant relationship between receiving basic income and employment, those receiving basic income had a stronger belief that they would find work than respondents in the control group who did not receive basic income. But even in this respect, there were no significant differences between men and women among those respondents who received a basic income. The possible employment effects of the basic income scheme were therefore gender-neutral.
Emancipation and respondents’ feelings about their own agency were measured in the survey by three questions on the respondents’ confidence in their possibilities to control their own lives. There were three separate questions: 1) to what extent the respondents believe in their financial possibilities, 2) to what extent they are confident about their own future and 3) to what extent they think that they can cope difficult situations in their lives.
In all these questions, there were significant differences (measured by χ² –statistics) between those receiving basic income and the control group respondents (Table 1). The respondents in the basic income group believed in their own possibilities and abilities significantly more strongly than the respondents in the control group. However, there were no significant gender differences in this regard for the recipients of basic income. Instead of gender, health and age were the most important explanatory factors.
Table 1. Confidence in the economic situation, future, and coping in difficult life situations among women and men in the treatment and control groups. Share of those respondents with high or very high confidence (%).
Based on our results, it can be concluded that if basic income has emancipatory and agency-enhancing effects, in an egalitarian welfare state like Finland, they are directed equally at women and men. However, this does not mean that basic income cannot play a significant role in promoting gender equality in developing countries or in countries where the realization of equality lies further away than in Finland.
On the other hand, the history of social policy shows that the potential of one single social security benefit to promote gender equality is limited. In order to promote equality, both income security and comprehensive high-quality public services such as daycare are needed. The achievement of a more equal society requires multiple measures in social policy and in the labour market. A decent level of money provided by basic income or comprehensive minimum income guarantees is necessary but insufficient for empowering people and increasing their potential agency. When we want people to change their behaviour toward equality, we need different policies that are sufficiently effective to change the institutions and practices that produce gender inequality.
Hämäläinen, K. & Verho, J. (2022), ‘Design and Evaluation of the Finnish Basic Income Experiment’, CESifo Working Paper Series 9875, CESifo.
Kangas, O., Jauhiainen, S., Simanainen, M. & Ylikännö, M. (eds. 2021): Experimenting with Unconditional Basic Income Lessons from the Finnish BI Experiment 2017-2018. Cheltenhamn: Edward Elgar.
Kangas, O. & Ylikännö, M. (2023) ’Basic Income and the Status of Women in an Established Gender-Equal Welfare State: Results from the Finnish Basic Income Experiment’, Int. J. Environmental Research and Public Health 2023, 20(3), 1733.
 Parents can be paid the child home care allowance if their children under 3 years of age do not attend municipal early childhood education.
This piece is based on the article Kangas, O. & Ylikännö, M. (2023) ’Basic Income and the Status of Women in an Established Gender-Equal Welfare State: Results from the Finnish Basic Income Experiment’, Int. J. Environmental Research and Public Health 2023, 20(3), 1733; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20031733.