A proper reckoning
March 25, 2016 3:45 AM   Subscribe

Feminist economics deserves recognition - "In 2014 only 12% of American economics professors were female, and only one woman (Elinor Ostrom) has won the Nobel prize for economics.[1,2,3] But in terms of focus, economists have embraced some feminist causes. Papers abound on the 'pay gap' (American women earned 21% less than men for full-time work in 2014), and the extra growth that could be unlocked if only women worked and earned more. A recent paper, for instance, claimed that eliminating gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia could bring its GDP per person almost level with America's. (Feminists, of course, consider gender equality a worthy goal irrespective of its impact on GDP.) That raises a question. Does 'Feminist economics', which has its own journal, really bring anything distinctive?"
Defining it as a look at the economy from a female perspective provides one straightforward answer. Feminist analyses of public policy note, for example, that men gain most from income-tax cuts, whereas women are most likely to plug the gap left by the state as care for the elderly is cut. Even if such a combination spurs economic growth, if it worsens inequality between sexes, then perhaps policymakers should think twice...

Economics as commonly practised often misses out another important element of inequality between the sexes: unpaid work. The main measure of economic activity, GDP, counts housework when it is paid, but excludes it when it is done free of charge. This is an arbitrary distinction, and leads to perverse outcomes. As Paul Samuelson, an economist, pointed out, a country’s GDP falls when a man marries his maid.

The usual defence is that measuring unpaid work is hard. But Norway, for one, used to do it; it only stopped so that its figures could be compared with other, less progressive countries. Diane Coyle, an economist and author of “GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History”, asks whether statistical agencies have not bothered to collect data on unpaid housework precisely because women do most of it. Marilyn Waring, a feminist economist, has suggested that the system of measuring GDP was designed by men to keep women “in their place”.
More Smiles? More Money - "What would happen if, at long last, women and especially mothers were paid the market rate for their services? ... Capital accumulation depended on unwaged household work: giving birth to the future workforce, yes, but also feeding husbands, children, and parents, cleaning up after them, placating them when the world frustrated their ambitions, and so on... Economists have known for a long time that women do a lot of work for free in times of social need. Remarkably, they have used this fact against women as part of the rationale behind massive neoliberal retrenchment: Why fund state services when you know that women will supply them for free?" (via triggerfinger) Home economics - "This meant that for decades, the American Wife gave American businesses a big, fat bonus. Her time at home made possible the American Worker's time at work. This unspoken yet well-understood business contract is now broken. Moreover, it doesn't look like we're going back to it anytime soon. Nor should we. American families look different today. Wives—and women more generally—work outside the home because they need to and because they want to."

Economics doesn't need a feminist revolution - "The Economist has called for greater recognition by forming a distinct branch of economics, feminist economics, devoted to women's role in the economy. A separate field for women undermines the problem it's trying to address. If properly accounted for, women would contribute more than 50% to the economy. Why should their contribution be relegated to a sub-discipline? It should be the norm to account for all areas of economics. Each existing sub-discipline, would be richer if it was smarter in how it captured women... Perhaps the issue isn't the economics profession, it's that policy makers, on both political sides, are reluctant to embrace economic research and craft policy that can achieve true parity."

I am no longer accommodating men - "For whatever reason, all of a sudden I actually didn't want more of my own kids. And that changed my relationship with the world, and specifically with men. I'm just being honest here – after all, it's a blog – but there was something in my head that I didn't even recognize until it was gone, something that made me size up every man I met as a potential baby daddy. Hey there, you look goooood. And because of that response, I would find myself accommodating men, especially young, healthy, charming men. They honestly could get away with saying dumb or even offensive things around me and I'd instantly forgive them. I didn't even notice doing it. It's like I was drunk on their youth. It seems ludicrous to me now."
posted by kliuless (17 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just finished a basics to economics course and so much of it assumed that humans were all rational actors and everyone had the same social context. There was some discussion about fairness and equity, but not enough, and I had major arguments with some of my classmates over things like the minimum wage.

There should be feminist economics, and just because it's a separate stream doesn't mean it can't be or shouldn't also be integrated with general economics. You need the people who are dedicated to it to work on it without being bogged down by dudebro types crowing about "the markets!!!" - and then these people can bring it together with the myriad of other economics streams to build something more integrated.
posted by divabat at 5:33 AM on March 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


Sort of related. I read this fine article by Arna Vardardottir about financial stress and pregnancy in the context of Iceland's meltdown: The Hidden Health Costs of the Global Financial Crisis. One wonders how long it would take for a male-dominated economics profession to get around to investigating this important issue.
posted by CincyBlues at 6:05 AM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I didn't read every part of every link, so in case she's not mentioned there, I would add the work done by economist Nancy Folbre on this issue.

Blogger and statistician Echidne of the Snakes has been working the feminist economics beat for a very long time now, which can make finding particular articles on her site a pain, but you can Google/search and find long-form posts on pay gaps, unpaid women's work, and sexism in economics in general. Here is a recent post on the Times story about average pay in a given field dropping when women become a majority.
posted by emjaybee at 6:41 AM on March 25, 2016


Is anyone working on quantifying the value and effects of what's been called "emotional labor"? We've seen a lot of discussion of inequities in providing emotional labor, but a complete case really needs to make the effects of such labor vivid -- and to make the effects of the loss of emotional labor somehow measurable in some immediate way.
posted by amtho at 6:54 AM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I just finished a basics to economics course and so much of it assumed that humans were all rational actors and everyone had the same social context.

You should try Physics - it's even worse. They think the whole UNIVERSE is rational and is pretty much the same everywhere!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:09 AM on March 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


If you combine the two, you get econophysics, tho, where they actually will admit people are not rational, tho (along with behavioral economics), cuz they have the math to do nonlinear dynamics. How does that work?
posted by hleehowon at 7:29 AM on March 25, 2016


I'm a grad student at a "mainstream" department, where it is very true that women are horribly underrepresented. There is a tremendous boys club problem in the profession. My department, which has roughly 40 non-emeritus faculty, has two women with tenure, one woman who is tenure track, and one woman who is a semi-permanent adjunct (as in, she is full time employed by the university and has a multi-year contract but her duties are mostly teaching rather than a mix of teaching and research). It is weird and fucked up. My cohort roughly has gender parity and the two top students in the first year were both women, and I think those two facts probably kept us from replicating a gross over-valuing of men's expertise that I've had friends in other phd programs (much higher ranked than mine) have told me about. Sort of irrespective if economics needs a distinct "feminist economics," it certainly could use feminism (what couldn't?). See for example, the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Columbia's Business School this week (NYT link)

I think, at least in the past few decades, there has been a lot of research on measuring the extent to which women's economic lives are different from men in a number of dimensions (the pay gap, educational choices and attainment, time use...). I think much of this has happened in labor and development economics in particular, the latter of which has a number of highly influential, highly visible women (Esther Duflo for example) who have really been dominant. But development econ has also been a field that was, I think, undervalued for a long time and is less influential in US policy. In my own field (macroeconomics and monetary policy) there are many fewer women and the ones that I do see are superstars, which makes me think that there are plenty of women who are just "very good" missing from macroeconomics. This is a shame. (It also reminds me of Ralph Nader's extremely tone-deaf suggestion to Janet Yellen that she ask her Nobel-prize winning husband about interest rate policy, despite the fact that she's definitely more the expert on monetary policy in that particular couple. I spoke to a woman who was a grad student at the LSE when Akerlof and Yellen were visiting faculty there and said that Yellen's expertise and contributions were not really valued at the time, so frankly it wouldn't suprise me if Yellen has just built up an enormous reserve of self control when confronted by this kind of bullshit).

The project of "feminist economics" as I understand it, does not necessarily overlap with the the research on women that I was talking about above. It appears to be more radical (I'm not trying to be pejorative with that) and explicitly linked to feminist critique than papers that are applying orthodox economics methods to measure and account for differences in the economic lives and outcomes of women. I think the latter is firmly in the mainstream, but the former is not necessarily. Glancing through the TOC of the last few issues of Feminist Economics, I would say that a solid majority of the titles are considering research questions that would fit in "mainstream" journals, but it looks like the angles these authors take are more related to understanding role role of women's agency and patriarchal social norms than mainstream economics journals typically tackle (again, perhaps with the exception of development economics, and with the caveat that I'm just glancing at titles and abstracts in a field outside of mine). But that seems like a good and useful project and I think deserves attention. I think a "distinct" feminist economics is good because it lets that sort of thing flourish, but the downside is if that distinctness makes it difficult to get noticed and cited (and thus, for it to be influential in economics more broadly, harder for people to use that research in their case for tenure and promotion).

Anyway this comment is overlong at this point. Nice post, kliuless.
posted by dismas at 8:18 AM on March 25, 2016 [10 favorites]


I just finished a basics to economics course and so much of it assumed that humans were all rational actors and everyone had the same social context.

Still arguing that the sun goes around the earth, eh? Nothing does better at stripping humans of their ability to act rationally than Privileged Status (which, ironically, Male Economists almost universally have plenty of).
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:52 AM on March 25, 2016


I just finished a basics to economics course and so much of it assumed that humans were all rational actors and everyone had the same social context.

I see this attitude constantly, and it boggles my mind. It implies that economics is easy enough you can start learning complex concepts on day one.

When you begin learning *anything*, you begin with the most pared down model and then build it up. You begin with a homogenous group of actors with obvious motivations, and understand how the markets react in a sterilized environment.

You need to understand the mechanisms before you add back in the complexity of both individual and community behavior. Not because you think the world is black and white, but because that's how people learn.
posted by politikitty at 11:59 AM on March 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


politikitty: That would be all fine and good if the course actually went into the complexity of human behavior, rather than brushing it off at the end with "oh but apparently things are different IRL but whatever". And whenever I'd try to spark discussion with my classmates about how things are more complex, just about everyone was all BUT NO BASIC ECONOMICS NO THIS GOES AGAINST OUR CLASS NOOOOOOO
posted by divabat at 8:01 PM on March 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


That would be all fine and good if the course actually went into the complexity of human behavior,

Like politikitty, said, it's a basics course. You're there to learn the mechanics. When you take physics in high school or introductory course in college, the equations are simple. You don't take into account friction or air resistance because those make things too complex to learn the mechanics. I did not major in economics so I'm not sure but I would think (or hope) that as you learn more, more complexity is introduced.

I love your posts kliuless. They are so full of information that I am extremely curious about and I learn so much. I am disappointed that the comments don't seem to be as in depth and numerous as would a post just about the pay gap, for instance. (Not a complaint about the posts, just acknowledging my disappointment at the lack of discussion because I love hearing from all the smart insightful people here) keep up the awesome work!
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:24 PM on March 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's Economics for Managers provided by Harvard Business School's online division, there isn't really a Econ part 2 unless you take up the MBA. It keeps saying "this is how markets work!" as though it's somehow sacrosant, and then makes conclusions about particular things that don't exactly reflect reality. If this is the sort of stuff that passes as basics, and if my classmates' reactions - all mostly professionals - are any indication, there isn't enough that goes beyond "well here's why just looking at plain markets doesn't quite work", including thinking about feminist economics, the minimum wage, exploitation, consent, and so on.
posted by divabat at 2:14 AM on March 26, 2016


Longer reply to divabat deleted, but: your experience is a pretty normal experience in an intro micro course but is also one of the more frustrating reactions because a lot of what you're wishing for is in the normal curriculum for an undergraduate major.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:22 AM on March 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Great post, kliuless!

I wanted to add another pioneer of this type of work: Canadian scholar Meg Luxton. Her 1980 book, More Than A Labour of Love, is available almost in full on Google books and is well worth a read. There is an updated version from 2009 available too from Women's Press:
Based on participant observation and in-depth interviews, this book describes the work women do in their homes, caring for children and partners, and maintaining the house. It shows how their lives are shaped by domestic responsibilities and challenges the ways in which their work is neither recognized nor valued. Arguing that the work they do is socially necessary and central to the economy, it calls for a transformation of current social and economic relations.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:07 AM on March 26, 2016


I was trying to wrap my brain around why I found that 12% statistic so surprising--then I went to the website of the economics department that I work closely with and counted their faculty. 42% are women. Not all are tenure track (there are some full-time instructional faculty) but the non-tenure track positions are held somewhat equally between men and women. There is a concentration of women focusing on development and labor economics but here again things diverge: several of the newer hires are pretty number-oriented (econometrics especially).

I wish I knew how my institution came so much closer to parity than others. Economics may not need a feminist journal for one reason or another--and it is true that the concerns of feminism should be pretty front and center for economists--but I do think it needs a more female perspective.
posted by librarylis at 9:27 PM on March 26, 2016


The project of "feminist economics" as I understand it, does not necessarily overlap with the the research on women that I was talking about above. It appears to be more radical (I'm not trying to be pejorative with that) and explicitly linked to feminist critique than papers that are applying orthodox economics methods to measure and account for differences in the economic lives and outcomes of women. I think the latter is firmly in the mainstream, but the former is not necessarily.

yea, like it seems 'mainstream' economics' descriptive and normative views on women (using 'orthodox' methods) are coming around to where prescriptive marxist feminists were for decades? i'm guessing because most econ dept's* skew (neo)liberal? (because that's where the money is...)

why is that? maybe it's because if women were paid wages for housework, or like kindergarten teachers were paid the 'value' they created, then they would have more economic power than men :P

so the first step to fixing the missing staircase in this abusive arrangement -- the 'greatest systemic crime against women' so to speak -- is to pay women more (perhaps even framed as reparations for the 'debt' that men have built up over centuries?) for the value 'women's work' provides society, either in kind with time and support for child/elderly care services, etc. or in cash, recognizing that to not do so is to keep women in their place low-status 'caste'.

i'm guessing this could either reek of socialism or carry the heady perfume of liberation depending on your (gendered) perspective? like it might seem wildly impractical if not for the utter ridiculousness of current arrangements that would be considered absurd except patriarchal inertia.

I think much of this has happened in labor and development economics in particular, the latter of which has a number of highly influential, highly visible women (Esther Duflo for example) who have really been dominant. But development econ has also been a field that was, I think, undervalued for a long time and is less influential in US policy.

Nobel laureate Michael Spence with Hoover fellow David Brady: "When a developing country gets stuck in a no-growth equilibrium, building a consensus on a forward-looking vision for inclusive growth is always the critical first step toward achieving better economic performance and the policies that support it. That is what the most effective leaders have done. The principle is the same for developed countries. Our best hope is that today's leaders understand it and will adhere to it, thereby putting their creative energies to work on a new vision that places their countries on a path to greater prosperity and equity. "

---
*except for amherst, UMKC,* and the new school of course! (altho i'd say places like berkeley and umich's econ dept's are maybe coming around too?)
posted by kliuless at 5:27 PM on March 31, 2016


Diane Coyle: Economics is turning into Men's Studies and what to do about it - "Above all that there is something wrong with the (mainly male) insiders' definition of what makes for 'good' economics... I recounted this to a highly sympathetic and non-sexist male colleague. 'Well', he replied, 'It's not clear to me that there's anything to be done about this'. That's the problem." (via)
posted by kliuless at 3:56 PM on April 17, 2016


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