HAD he lived to see it, Alfred Marshall, a 19th-century giant of economics, probably would not have celebrated International Women’s Day, which takes place on March 8th. “If you compete with us, we shan’t marry you,” he once gallantly warned the fairer sex. In his book, Principles of Economics, he described the field as “the study of men as they live and move and think in the ordinary business of life”.
Economics still has its problems with women. In 2014 only 12% of American economics professors were female, and only one woman (Elinor Ostrom) has won the Nobel prize for economics. 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.
Some feminists argue, moreover, that the very framework of economics is imbued with subtler forms of sexism. They point, for instance, to many economists’ blindness towards social norms that are unfair to women. Textbook models of the labour market, for example, assume that people choose between work and leisure based on how much spare time they have, how much they might earn and fixed personal preferences. By that logic, a woman’s decision about whether or not to take a break from work to have children is a function of how much she earns and how highly she values mothering.
But as Sheryl Sandberg, a senior executive at Facebook, notes in a recent book, when men announce they are about to have a child, they are simply congratulated; when women do, they are congratulated and then asked what they plan to do about work. Given the strength and persistence of societal expectations about women’s role in parenting, presenting their choices in that regard as purely personal preferences is misleading at best, and a sop to sexism at worst.
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”.
Women in the OECD, a club of rich countries, spend roughly 5% more time working than men. But they spend roughly twice as much time on unpaid work, and only two-thirds the time men do in paid work. By leaving unpaid work out of the national accounts, the feminist argument goes, economists not only diminish women’s contribution, but also gloss over the staggering inequality in who does it.
Ignoring unpaid work also misrepresents the significance of particular kinds of economic activity. Ms Waring thinks that raising well-cared-for children is just as important to society as making buildings or cars. Yet as long as the former is excluded from official measures of output, investing resources in it seems like less of a priority. Of course, in a perfectly equal world, men would do much more child-rearing than they do now. In the meantime, it is women who are disadvantaged by economists’ failure to measure the value of parenting properly.
How much of the sky?
The impact of measuring things differently can be very significant. A recent paper from the Bureau of Economic Analysis attempted to calculate an augmented version of GDP that included unpaid work. Doing so boosted GDP overall, but lowered the growth rate: as women have moved into paid work, they have been doing less unpaid work at home, so total production has not been rising quite as quickly as official figures suggest. By their estimates, including unpaid work boosted GDP in 1965 by 39%, but by only 26% in 2010. Over the 45 years between those two dates, they put the average annual nominal growth rate at 6.7% if unpaid work is included, lower than the official 6.9%.
Ignoring the feminist perspective is bad economics. The discipline aims to explain the allocation of scarce resources; it is bound to go wrong if it ignores the role that deep imbalances between men and women play in this allocation. As long as this inequality exists, there is space for feminist economics.