Feminist Economics: A Deeper Look into Gender and Economics

Janet Kimani
Feminist Economics: A Deeper Look into Gender and Economics
Source: The New York Times

Over the years questions have arisen over the adequacy of economics today. This is largely due to the fact that economics has proved to be biased when it comes to gender, leading to a one-sided view of things and thus an inaccurate description and analysis of the interaction of society with economics.

Feminist economist Julie A. Nelson argues that currently, economics is socially constructed based on gender, and the assumptions and stereotypes held about certain genders. She posits that economics is male-centric, in that it reflects societal beliefs about masculinity such as rigidity or ‘hardness’. Moreover, more often than not hard economics is preferred to soft economics because hardness is associated with strength and masculinity, and softness with femininity. Implicitly therefore, masculinity is generally viewed as being superior to femininity thus preferred in economics.

Another factor that betrays the gender bias of economics is that the methods, models, topics and pedagogy are often only in relation to male oriented activities. When it comes to pedagogy, for example, it is often the case that economics is taught in a way that reinforces the same gender biased values and, additionally, it is disproportionately seen as a discipline more suitably taught by men (and often even to men).

Feminist Economics: A Deeper Look into Gender and Economics
Source: Belfast Feminist Network

Nelson challenges these assumptions and proposes that perhaps if we changed our perspective, hardness is not necessarily a good thing as it may imply rigidity just as softness may imply desirable traits such as  flexibility and adaptability. It is therefore necessary that economics as a discipline is shifted, not into a female-centric subject but into one that is free of gender bias so as to make it more accurate and ultimately more reliable (see also Financial Control & Gender Equality – A Conversation with Anna-Sophie Hartvigsen).

GENDER & MICROECONOMICS

The gender bias of economics is seen even more clearly when we narrow down our focus on to the specific fields of microeconomics and macroeconomics. A key microeconomics assumption is that the market will always dominate social relations, an idea which leads to wrong inferences about the real world. The idea of “Pareto Optimality” for example assumes that in every situation, my win is equal to your loss. However, this holds inaccurate especially in the case of intimate relationships between individuals or even in families where one person’s win will likely benefits other(s). Another equally inaccurate assumption is that individual preferences come from the market alone. This ignores the role of emotional motivations or relationships that may influence one’s preference; for example, it is not uncommon for one to purchase an item solely because of its sentimental value, for instance if a certain item reminds them of a loved one, or a cherished moment.  

These assumptions thus reveal the biased perspective of economics when it comes to values. Economics tends to emphasize values such as individuality and independence, and promotes them as strong values. On the other hand, values such as emotional connection, sympathy and relationships tend to be ignored or to be presented as weak values despite their undeniable importance in assessing consumer behaviour and the market in general. Such bias leads to the presentation of only half the picture, and an unrealistic depiction of our society. Renowned feminist philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum supports this claim by emphasizing the importance of freedom of choice, individuality and the diversity of individuals in the market. These are proponents of flexibility and adaptability which are contrary to the traditionally rigid nature of economics. Microeconomics ignores the diversity of human nature by assuming that all individuals share a uniform trait of being inherently selfish, always prioritising self-satisfaction over the benefit of others. However, this is hugely inaccurate with a key example being mothers who often sacrifice the opportunity to earn money and advance their careers for their children and families, putting the needs of their families before their own, disproving the assumption of universal self-centeredness. 

Feminist Economics: A Deeper Look into Gender and Economics
Source: FeminisminIndia.com

The example of the family unit also disproves another assumption made in microeconomics which is that competition always trumps cooperation. Although firms and producers in the market are often in competition, this is definitely not the case in relationships such as the family setting. Moreover, a constant state of competition among consumers suggests that all goods are scarce, which is a key assumption of microeconomics. This assumption can however be challenged when we shift our focus to the more intangible things of our world such as love and empathy which are key drivers of motivation and preference in society. These are definitely not scarce; their supply is infinite and thus competition would make no sense when it comes to these factors.

Another rigid assumption of microeconomics is that values like efficiency will always be first in the list of priorities compared to values like creativity. Again, this shows the bias to promote rigid values over flexible ones. Although efficiency is often among the highly prioritized values, depending on the specific field, creativity may be of higher priority in fields such as writing, design, and many others.

GENDER AND MACROECONOMICS

When it comes to the field of macroeconomics, its relationship with gender highlights its equally biased nature.

To begin with, economics usually focuses on stereotypically male activities while assessing ‘work’. To measure the Gross Domestic Product, only those activities that are viewed as ‘contributing to the market’ are taken into consideration, and often the work done by women at home is excluded: for example, the exclusion of homecare and childcare shows bias in neglecting a historically female role, simply because the work is done in the home. Ironically, when these same activities: childcare, care of the aged and sick, are provided by the government, they are counted as contributing to the economy but not so when carried out at home. This in turn has a negative impact of undermining the work done by women and reinforces the stereotype that it is part of their inherent duties. 

The economy can also be seen to favour men in the distribution of resources. Disproportionately, property owners especially in parts of the developing world are men. In many African countries for instance, land ownership which is the main form of wealth, is seen as a man’s enterprise making it difficult for women to secure this form of financial stability. Moreover, in some societies some traditional cultural and religious laws exclude women and girls from land inheritance – such laws and societal norms take away from the ability of women to participate as full stakeholders in the economy. 

Feminist Economics: A Deeper Look into Gender and Economics
Source: Feminist Economies window drawing at Swap Market by Rae-Yen Song, photographed by Najma Abukar

Perhaps one of the biggest prevailing indicators of gender inequality in macroeconomics is the gender pay gap: women everywhere earn less than men. In the United States, women are said to earn seventy-nine cents for every dollar made by men. This gap is caused by a variety of factors, such as gender discrimination in the workplace, the motherhood penalty, and prevailing gender norms and socialization of women which assume that women are usually not the breadwinners and therefore should earn less than men. All these factors uncover the prevailing gender bias and its negative effects on women.

It is therefore evident beyond a shadow of a doubt that economics, as it is currently, is gender biased. It is thus time to lay “Homo Economicus” to rest and move towards a more gender inclusive and progressive economic paradigm. 

  • What policy changes could make economies more gender inclusive?
  • To what extent is the traditional framing of economics inadvertently contributing to the feminization of poverty?

Suggested Further Reading

The Guardian, Feminist economics: the obstacles US women face under capitalism

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