Feminist economics can promote gender equity

By Jillian Correira


Economics has long been considered to be a gender neutral field of study. When thinking about and studying topics such as labor, income, production, taxes and investments, economic theories are formulated, supposedly, by inherently unbiased people in inherently unbiased settings.

Like many aspects of the world today, the field of economics is dominated by white men. According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, “the gender gap in economics gets larger at each stage of the profession,” indicating that the higher that women attempt to climb the ladder, the more they seem to be pushed off the steps. The increasing gender gap at each stage of this profession is referred to as the “leaky pipeline.”

The gender disparity can be explained in part by a woman’s choice to have children or to turn to education rather than research. However, there is still a rather large 16 percentage point gap in the likelihood that a woman will be promoted to a full professor of economics, even when controlling those factors.

The lack of female representation and focus on issues that women face in economics does a great disservice to society’s perception of the study and how the study is used to shape government policies that will apply to all genders. The experiences of men that are subsequently translated into economic theories do not necessarily apply or relate to the experiences of women.

Globally, women have long been fighting – and still are – for equal representation in all areas of life, and since the 1970s, feminist economics has been working to highlight the ways in which the field of economics is not as gender-neutral as it could be. You do not have to be a woman to be a feminist economist, but you must pay special attention to the economic inequalities that women are up against, and have the ability to recognize gender bias against women in the economy.

Promoting the feminist economic vision is vital to economic gender equity. A large part of feminist economics looks at the importance of childcare and domestic work in relation to economic development, two labor aspects normally excluded from traditional economic theories. Feminist economists rightfully place value on this type of unpaid labor – largely performed by women – in an effort to balance out the gender disparity in economic theories and policies.

In an email interview with feminist economist and UMass professor emerita of economics Nancy Folbre, she says there is, “still a tendency to take unpaid work – especially the care of dependents – for granted and not consider it ‘real’ work.” Dismissing the value of caring for dependents, specifically children, is common in neoclassical theories of economics.

This is unfortunate because, according to a blog piece authored by Folbre for the New York Times, while parents pay lower income taxes than non-parents, they end up contributing more by raising a generation of future taxpayers, or more endearingly, “little human capital units.” When the future net taxes of these human capital units are added in, parents might eventually pay over $200,000 more in net taxes than non-parents.

And the unpaid labor market is large; if this work was accounted for when measuring the United States’ gross domestic product, there would have been a 26 percent GDP boost in 2010 and a 30 percent increase in personal income for individual families. These are by no means small numbers, proving that giving value to this work is not only the right thing to do by society, but also the right thing to do by the economy as well.

However, the importance of legitimizing unpaid labor is not to take away from the advances that women have made in the workforce and the ways in which these advances has benefitted our economy. Increased GDP, increased purchasing power for women and better business performance are all results of the influx of women who have entered the workforce over the last several decades.

Still, women are in an uphill battle against society’s perceptions of how they should or shouldn’t participate in the economy. Folbre says, “Prevailing constructs of femininity in our culture are associated with care for others, while masculinity is associated with vigorous pursuit of individual self interest. Feminist theory suggests the need to rethink these constructs and find more balance for both women and men.”

Though this concept can be applied to various areas of society, it is particularly resonant to an economy where innovation and new ideas are the cornerstone of its continued success. If we are able to break down these traditional constructs, economic theorists may find a whole new world of ways to improve the state of our economy for men and women alike.

Jillian Correira is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]