Economics is one of the most influential disciplines. By changing the way the world is understood, economics has indeed changed the world. The principles of economics have charted out the course of policies, impacting countless lives in myriad ways. However, these principles are based on highly reductionist and sexist assumptions.
One way in which economics can be sexist is by not counting unpaid work, much of which is carried out by women in the household, such as cooking, cleaning, and care work. These activities may be purchased as services in the market, but remain difficult to impute value to. Another way in which economics can be sexist is by conceiving the household is an altruistic joint utility maximiser, that is, as an entity which works towards the best interests of all its members. What remains invisible in such a conception of the household is the various negotiations between members with conflicting interests and differential decision-making powers.
Economics generally assumes that all individuals are equal, in terms of the choices that they can make, and ascribes rationality to individual utility maximisation. This assumption fails to take into account the differential social positions of individuals, which may constrain their choices or give them power over others. These are but a few of the dilemmas in mainstream/textbook economic thought. Sexism in economics does not end here. Even at the professional level, economics can be extremely sexist, by devaluing the contributions of women.
The principles of economics are based on highly reductionist and sexist assumptions.
Feminist economics is committed to addressing these dilemmas by working through gender issues. It entails a reworking of the principles of economics, and the dismantling of various assumptions. Some of the methodological legacies of feminist economics includes the disaggregation of macroeconomic data by sex, the recognition and incorporation of gender roles (including productive and reproductive activities) resulting in gender-aware policy and planning and gender budgeting, and the formulation of indices such as the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), and the Gender-related Development Index (GDI).
Eighty years ago, Sadie Alexander raised questions that mainstream economics continues to struggle with, such as the devaluation of household work. In 1970, Ester Boserup was writing about the role of women in economic development. Her writings paved the way for the UN decade for women between 1975 and 1985. In her groundbreaking 1988 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics, Marilyn Waring criticises the exclusion of housework and care work from the realm of productive economic activity, and the devaluing of nature. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen too has widely written on gender, family and feminist economics.
Feminist economics makes visible, in the realm of policy, issues which had remained invisible for decades.
Here are five feminist economists and their contributions.
1. Bina Agarwal: Land Rights And Empowerment
Bina Agarwal works on the rural economy creatively using quantitative and qualitative approaches. In her 1994 book A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, she argues that the most important factor which affects gender gap is command over property. She shows how women’s well-being, bargaining power within the household, and overall empowerment is enhanced through the ownership and control of land. She was instrumental in the 2005 campaign to amend the Hindu Succession Act, thereby allowing Hindu women to inherit property. Her paper titled “Bargaining” and Gender Relations: Within and Beyond the Household is the most downloaded paper in the journal Feminist Economics. She is a recipient of many awards including the Padma Shri.
2. Lourdes Benería: Globalisation, Gender And Labour
Lourdes Benería has worked on labour markets, women’s work and globalisation, and development issues in Latin America. Beneria notes that the differential impact of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) on women was indeed acute. Moreover, there is also class differentiation in the impact of SAPs. In Latin America, they have led to the intensification of women’s work. Contrary to expectations, the informal sector has actually widened, and a larger section of people face precarious employment prospects.
3. Nata Duvvury: The Cost Of Violence Against Women
Nata Duvvury has researched on gender based violence, women’s property rights, and HIV AIDS in conflict and post-conflict settings. She is at present leading the global research effort towards estimating the social and economic costs of violence against women. She has also written on gendered impacts of recession and recovery, and the health impacts of extended working life policies.
4. Nancy Folbre: Care As Work And Education As Investment
Nancy Folbre works on family economics, non-market work, and the economics of care. She criticises the exclusion of care from mainstream economics as it contributes to the marginalisation of women and children and leads to the devaluing of women’s contributions to the home and the economy at large.
Folbre finds the popular notion of work as being something one gets paid for limiting, as it is evident that many people gain satisfaction from their work, and many aren’t paid, for activities such as care work. She focuses on the importance of childcare to the economy, and notes that while economists often speak about human capital investment, they would not often consider expenditure on education as investment in the aggregate economy. Folbre believes that economics can pave the way for alternate social imaginations and advocates a heterodox economics which takes into account, not only gender, but also diversity perspectives.
5. Naila Kabeer: Bridging Policy And Academia Through Gender Training
Naila Kabeer is a social economist, who has written widely on inequality, within the household, labor market, and wider economy. She is interested in the relationship between individual empowerment and social justice.
In her book Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought, Kabeer shows how ways of seeing are inextricably tied to ways of doing. Kabeer criticises the equation of means with ends in neoclassical economics. She also works actively in gender training, bridging the gap between academia and policy by conducting workshops for governments, international agencies and NGOs.
Feminist economics acknowledges and addresses the differential impact of gender on individual lives and the on the society at large. It makes visible, in the realm of policy, issues which had remained invisible for decades. The deep end social inequalities dictate that we cannot operate on generalised assumptions, as has been customary in economics. Feminist economics demands much more heterogeneity and inclusivity in approaches. It acts “as if all people mattered”.
This is by no means an exhaustive or representative list. Suggestions to add to this list are welcome in the comments section.