No gospel – but a basis for a wider dialogue, Brian Easton

Women and Economics
Prue Hyman
Bridget Williams Books, $34.95

Economics is unique among the subjects for which there is a Nobel Prize, in that one has never been awarded to a woman. Joan Robinson should have been a prize winner, but was deemed politically unacceptable – showing, I suppose that the international economics scene is as petty as the local one. But suppose she had been given the one (or two) her work deserved. The number awarded to women would still be out of line with the subject matter, for economics purports to cover all aspects of human economic activity.

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, there are few women economists. Prue Hyman, associate professor of economics at Victoria University of Wellington, mentions this explicitly, but the copious list of references underlines the conclusion for they refer to only five other New Zealand women who are professional economists (two, incidentally, were Treasury officials). In contrast there are 12 local male economists.

A more introspective profession might worry about its inability to attract women, but economists are so busy running [note to typesetter, make sure it is spelt with 2 ns and 1 i, not the other way around] the country, that the problem hardly worries them. This book worries for them.

Its longest essay is a feminist critique of economics, an extended version of a paper recently published in June 1994 issue of the New Zealand Economic Papers. Instructively it was the last article, behind two others of much less significance ‑ a trivial exercise on the economic costs of carbon emissions, and a study of the Australian manufacturing sector.

Balance and priority do matter. A survey of the local profession, which the book quotes, found 40% of economists agreed (including with reservations) that the “free market underpays women”, while 45% disagreed. However 50% of the males disagreed but only 20% of the females. A gender‑balanced profession would support the proposition by around 51%‑35%. What are we to make of a profession whose collective judgments are influenced by the composition of its membership? What claim have economists to objectivity?

This, after all, is a profession which gives considerable standing to Chicago economist Gary Becker, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his ruthless application of economic rationality to marriage, the family and other social phenomena. The detached observer may find his theory a little odd. Faced with the apparent contradiction to rationality of drug addicts who say they want to give up and don’t, he explained this as paralleled by single people who say they would like to get married but can’t find the right partner. (The book quotes a wonderful parody ‑ funny and sad ‑ of a portfolio theory of marriage. It would be so easy, and cruel, to extend it to explain body image problems as issues of portfolio assessment, while beauty shops would be female equivalents of sharebrokers.)

The book does not provide a lot of quantitative material on the place of women in the economy. Rather, the last two-thirds looks at particular issues.

There are four chapters on equal pay and pay equity. Personally ‑ and very objectively of course ‑ the equal pay issue is straightforward, but I find pay equity very perplexing. Hyman’s work on pay equity has been most helpful in clarifying some of the issues. The book is worth reading just for its material on the labour market.

The chapter on income maintenance is much more disappointing. There are but a few pages in the entire book on poverty and it is not the best material we have on the subject. There is an overseas literature on “the feminisation of poverty” ‑ that women (and their children) are much more likely to be in hardship than men ‑ which has hardly reached New Zealand. This is not a criticism of Hyman’s work. There are far too many women’s issues topics for one woman ‑ or even the handful ‑ to cover. So we suffer from such appalling lacunae in a critical field.

On the other hand Hyman has been asked to do work on older women and women and housing policy, which each form the basis of useful chapters, although each is basically very orthodox. In the end there is a much more powerful economic case to be made on the issues of women in the welfare state than the writer has yet been able to do and one which will reinforce the general message of the book.

This raises the problem of how far men should be involved in such issues. Some years ago a number of women ostentatiously walked out when I gave a paper at a women’s studies conference. (The paper was about women in the income distribution, part of a wider study, which I was anxious to present to women before I published.) They said that men should not be involved in women’s studies, while more moderate women were concerned about men muscling in and taking over the subject. My response was to drop a couple of projects I was involved in (including a general approach to incorporating non‑market activity into economic analysis). There were plenty of other topics to research.

Although not a separatist herself, Hyman writes about women needing to have their own space, and it was respect for this that led to my retreat. But I have wondered whether I should have hung in there, rather than just supporting, as best one could from the sideline. It is extraordinary what can be overlooked. For instance the important fiscal incidence study published in 1990, gave information by age and by two ethnicities, but none by gender. The omission is so bizarre, I keep going back through the publication looking for the table that ought to be there.

This personal note would be out of place in a “proper” economic journal article. But Hyman provokes it in her introduction by a brief personal history including the statement she is a “white, middle‑class, Jewish, lesbian, feminist”. She is challenging a lot of standard notions of the nature of economics. The next time you see the headline “economists [the journalist means a couple of financial analysts] say interest rate rises [or unemployment, or low top income tax rates, or whatever] are necessary”, add the adjectives white, rich, MCP, capitalist, macho”. The message will lose its impact and appear for what it really is, the account of a special‑interest group uncritically relayed by the media.

Yet, I worry whether there really is a feminist critique. Here is a slightly edited version of Hyman’s account of the standard economics approach and the objections:

‑-a framework of economically rational agents maximising individual or household satisfaction, ignoring or inadequately analysing interdependence and conflict, reinforcing the public‑private split

‑-a methodology which claims value‑free, positive analyses and scientific status, disguising the underlying normative structure and values involved

‑‑definitions of economic activity which omit unpaid work from standard measures and deal inadequately with activity detrimental to the environment

‑-analyses of discrimination which involve circular explanations, reinforcing the status quo and justifying inequality (Joan Robinson was very good ‑ and pungent ‑ on this)

‑‑analyses of outcomes which involve inadequate frameworks for analysing differential impacts on economic systems, circumstances, and policies.

What strikes one about that list is there is nothing peculiarly feminist in it. Men who, for any of a number of reasons, would be unwilling to describe themselves as “feminists”, could readily subscribe to the critique. Political economics (an approach which the book touches on in various places) might even argue that the critique plagiarises theirs. Feminists would reply they have made a long and distinctive contribution of their own to political economics.

Perhaps the greatest power of the feminist perspective is its provision of a different view of the economics profession. Instead of the formidably impressive view from (right) front on, any other view ‑ from the centre, left, side, or back ‑ shows the profession to be shallow, uniform, unidirectional, unidimensional, unimaginative, and colourless. It does not surprise one that economists fail to recruit and retain many women. The subject is presented as offering a comprehensive world vision which those from other than a particular narrow social position (or who want to join it), find uncomfortable and inconsistent with their reality.

This is not a peculiarity of New Zealand economics which is a pale imitation of the international paradigm. When I taught at a British university ‑ which, even before the second wave of feminism, was concerned to support women’s aspirations ‑ we had to work really hard to present an economics to which the women students could respond. No wonder a less sensitive academy has trouble with its gender balance.

What is to be done? The patronising response is for economists to agree that Hyman has something to say, “although of course she exaggerates”, and that the book may be used for a specialist course in women’s studies which (women) economists can attend when they have got through their priority economics training. (A training which will have little explicit methodology in it ‑ perhaps a ludicrously naive paper by Milton Friedman if the student is lucky.)

Alternatively, Hyman’s book (or something like it) needs to be incorporated into the core of the training of a professional economist. That is not to say it should be taught uncritically. Economists have a more coherent response to the above critique than the crudity offered to today’s typical student. (The most important defence is that the alternatives are not very coherent, although partly this is because they try to be more comprehensive.)

Because this is unlikely to happen, the book needs to be read widely in the community. Fortunately it is a handsome presentation, and reads well. Those who have been put off economics by its normal turgidity and its narrowness of perspective may well find this a more compatible introduction. However, they should not take it as a gospel account of economics. Rather it is the basis for a dialogue.

Hyman does not think that dialogue is happening yet. Which raises the question of how a profession unwilling to reform within can be reformed without. Perhaps economics is too important to be left to economists ‑ especially those who are white, rich, MCP, capitalist jocks, or with aspirations in that direction (including some women). Certainly there is a need to support women ‑ and men ‑ who are willing to think about economic issues from perspectives other than the right official front. This should not involve abandoning the powerful techniques and insights which economics possess: the devil should not have all the good tunes. The existing methods are not the property of one class of the community, nor need they result in policies which favour that class.

The book’s final chapter seeks to suggest new directions, offering both a liberal and radical agenda. However the book omits any substantial discussion from Hyman’s discipline as to why we have the particular political economy we do. Feminists often use shorthand phrases like the “power of patriarchy”, but somewhere in there is a more complex story of a hierarchy of political priority in which non‑market activities are given lesser significance than market ones, and within the market certain activities ‑ currently financial transactions ‑ are given more significance. That women tend to inhabit the lower strata is clear enough. What this economist would like more about is women’s perspectives on why the hierarchy is like it is. Until we have a comprehensive account ‑ which is certainly not a Beckerian one ‑ of the whole of economic activity and not just market activity, such crucial puzzles are going to remain.

There are various defensive asides in the book where Hyman seems to worry about whether she is a bit obsessive, apparently as the result of comments from her colleagues. I don’t think she is. That her profession’s journal ranked her contribution last suggests they are the ones who should be worrying.

Brian Easton is a research economist and social statistician.

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