Does gendered economics gender the economy?15.01.2018
The newspaper ‘The Economist’ every year publishes a double Christmas issue. This year a detailed article about women in economics is included. Women are underrepresented in academic economics, with only 15 percent of professors in the United States, for example. This seems to correspond to the general situation in the MINT disciplines, but the situation is much more awkward: Across those disciplines, economics stands out in women feeling much more dissatisfied with their academic career prospects that men! Other facts include: Although the share of women in the general undergraduate population is now bigger than men, in economics it is falling, or, the maths performance before application only explains a minor share of the data. There are deeply embarrassing observations such as that papers submitted to top journals by women are processed significantly slower in the review procedure. Finally, women seem to prefer research topics that are more people-oriented and more empirical, and which rarely find a way into the top journals, which in turn affects their career prospects.
In sum, economics is the most gendered discipline in the social sciences, and there are strong reasons to believe that this is the result of discrimination against women. Now, add another observation: Women still represent a tiny share in top management of large corporations, and vanishingly small in areas such as finance. In most countries of the world, increasing the share of women in company boards is perceived to be an urgent issue in public policy.
The conjunction of these facts suggests an intriguing perspective, if we adopt the perspective of performativity theory that I champion for many years now. In which sense does the way how we think about the economy change the way how it operates, apparently confirming our thinking about it? There are many examples how economics works in a performative way, such as when thinking about incentive systems motivates the design of systems that also change the type of actor that is targeted: Thus, an incentive system that presumes individualistic and opportunistic actors would also change actors’ attitudes in this direction (on this, see my 2016 paper cited below). Accordingly, could we imagine that gendered economics genders the economy?
The Economist paper suggests that there could be an impact of ways of thinking on the selection and self-selection processes operating in women’s careers. One intriguing example is the rise of the economic theory of the family following Gary Becker’s theory-imperialist onslaught on other social sciences, which was accompanied with the decline of home economics as a recognized discipline within in economics, which was mostly studied by women. Becker’s theory is highly abstract, mathematical and ‘smart’, home economics is empirical, applied and meaningful for lives. With ‘smart’, I refer to the tendency of male economists, also mentioned in the Economist paper, to treat social and human issues in theoretically aggressive way (‘combative’, as The Economist calls it), always aiming at producing surprising twists of thinking that eventually show that economists get it right, always (think of the ‘Freakonomics’ bestseller). This creates an aura of intellectual hegemony over other social sciences. This kind of intellectual climate does not exist in other disciplines that deal with similar topics, also including the sciences (such as neuroscientists dealing with addiction, another target of Becker’s theory imperialism).
If this is the intellectual condition in economics, we easily understand how it may also shape the economy as a battle place where aggressive entrepreneurs struggle to win ground against competitors, impose rigid disciplines on workers whom the employ, and where they amaze the public with ideas never heard of. This description fits well the tycoons of the digital age, Elon Musk and the likes. And indeed, the IT industry is another embarrassing and well-publicised example of under-representation of women, and even widespread sexist discrimination. And the business models and algorithms that shape our modern lifestyle have been designed by economists collaborating with engineers. This entire system is permeated with the hidden values and attitudes of a male subculture in our modern times, that, I would suggest, is not representative for society.
This is a serious issue. Economics deeply influences modern economies, especially in areas such as finance. The intellectual culture and theories it nurtures affect everybody. Economists must adopt an ethics based view on their own discipline and its social organization that takes unintended consequences of gender bias into consideration.
The Economist, December 23, 2017, pp. 98ff: ‘Inefficient equilibrium: The profession’s problem with women could be a problem with economics itself’, https://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21732699-professions-problem-women-could-be-problem-economics-itself-women-and
Herrmann-Pillath, Carsten (2016), Performative Mechanisms, in: Enacting Dismal Science: New Perspectives on the Performativity of Economics, edited by Ivan Boldyrev and Ekaterina Svetlova, New York: Palgrave McMillan, 53-86.