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Economics 101

Group of womenFeminist Economics

Economics, like most academic disciplines, has traditionally been thought to be a neutral, non-biased zone of thought. Economists - who have until recently been primarily white, privileged men - have assumed that their description of life is true for everyone. But as more and more people from outside this small group have started to participate in the discipline of economics, the hidden assumptions of economics have come to light. Since the 1960s, feminist economics has been part of this movement pointing out the ways in which economics favours the experiences of men to the exclusion of women, and promoting opportunities for economic enquiry that improve women's economic status.

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Who are feminist economists and what do they do?
Feminist economics is not only for women - men can do feminist economics too - nor can it be assumed that every female economist is doing feminist economics. Doing economics as a feminist means looking out for biases that exclude women while making a point of engaging in work that seeks to address economic inequality that women face.

One of the major criticisms that feminist economists have made about the traditional discipline of economics is that it's too abstract, that it doesn't do anything for the lives of real people. Fortunately feminist economists have been creative in engaging in an economics that does make a positive difference in people's lives, especially women's. Feminist economists like Marilyn Waring ask why women's unpaid work is not part of traditional accounting systems. Vandana Shiva challenges the exclusion of both women and the earth from the label 'producer.' Other feminist economists analyze government policies like Employment Insurance and its implication on part-time workers (the majority of whom are women). Feminist economists also study the impact of Structural Adjustment Programs on women's household work or child care arrangements and their relationship to women's access to the paid work force. Ideally, feminist economists use the discipline of economics to bring positive change to the lives of women and girls. Feminist economics is necessary because in the past, much of traditional economics has ignored and excluded the experiences of women.

Economists' assumptions
The discipline of economics has relied on a number of critical assumptions about women and women's role. Here are a few of them:

1. Women are dependent
Traditionally economics has assumed that women are dependent - on fathers, husbands, male partners. Because of this, women's income from paid work is seen as secondary-income. After all, the men in their lives are taking care of their basic needs. Women today are still paid significantly less than men, even when they do the same kinds of work (see Women and Paid Work for more). The assumption that women are dependent has ignored the fact that many women are single - with or without children, and need their own wages. It also ignores the fact that for many two-parent families, women's 'secondary' income is essential to the economic well-being of the family.

Child coloring in book2. Families are the basic economic unit

Recognizing that not all people will work for pay and therefore must be economically dependent on others, economics has made the family the basic economic unit. The definition of family is very specific: a male earner, a dependent female caregiver, and dependent children. This assumption has enforced women's dependence on men. At the same time it ignores the fact that while this may describe some families, it certainly doesn't describe all of them. Same-sex couples, single parent families, and single people are excluded from this definition. Single parent families are especially at risk as the single parent must be both earner and caregiver, creating severe time and financial stress. But even families who do fit this definition are not always economically cared for. History has shown that not all men can be counted on to share their income. Economics must recognize that even those who are unable to do paid work have a right to their own income and, therefore, economic independence.

3. Women are 'unproductive'

Economics has divided life into two separate categories: the economic realm and the household realm. The economic realm focuses on the market: producers, buyers, and sellers, while the household realm includes all the range of unpaid work that is necessary for the functioning of life. Because economics only counts production that produces items that can be sold in the market, the household is seen as being outside of the economic realm and therefore 'unproductive.' In contrast, the buying and selling and trading that takes place in the economic realm, is 'productive.'

This assumption that households are not sites of production has meant that within the traditional household of male breadwinner, female caregiver, and children, only the male breadwinner is seen as being 'productive.' Women's work of bearing and raising children, maintaining a home, providing food, and providing emotional support for everyone, is simply assumed despite the fact that the economy is absolutely dependent on it. The contributions of children are also assumed to be without value. Feminist economist Helen Longino says that this grave omission has meant that, "The true costs of production are grossly underestimated."1

4. People are separate and rational
Another assumption within traditional economics is the idea that people are individual free agents within the market and that they will always make a rational choice based on their individual self-interest. In other words, people are individuals - separate from each other - and they can be counted on to choose what's best for themselves and not for anyone else. Because women often don't make decisions this way, they are assumed not to be rational. But feminist economist Diana Strassman points out that:

The assumption of individual autonomy…directs attention away from the connectedness of human life and the complexities of interdependent relationships. Further, the notion of people as independent agents and unique selves, responsible for only their own needs, reflects a disproportionately male, adult and privileged world view.2

Feminist economists argue that our relationships with other people are crucial in our decision-making. We are not independent - we are interdependent. At the same time, many decisions are made not of our own free-will but rather out of the limited 'choices' in our lives. An economics which ignores all the circumstances of people's lives, misses much of the story.

5. Economic growth benefits all
Economics also assumes that economic growth is good for everyone. As a result, there has been a huge emphasis on economic growth - basically an increase in the amount of money flowing through a country's economy. However, the amount of buying and selling going on in a country has little relationship to the health of the people within that country because not all economic growth is actually good for people. For example, producing missiles or sickness is not healthy for society. At the same time economic growth says nothing about the distribution of resources within a country. Feminist economists demand economic indicators that measure all well-being while insisting that economics is not the only nor the most important measure. (See Alternative Economic Measures for more.)

Implications for women
The assumptions of traditional economics have had devastating consequences for women. Women's secondary status within the paid work force has meant that women experience poverty much more frequently than men. The idea that women's work within the household is 'unproductive' and not part of the economy has meant that much of women's essential work of caring for life is also excluded from the economy. As a result, many women live in poverty because their work doesn't count. Economists' assumption that women are not rational has meant that people are penalized for considering other options in their decision-making and has justified women's exclusion from much of economic decision-making.

Other gaps
As they've seen themselves and their work excluded, women have noticed other omissions within the way economics has usually been done. It's not only women who are excluded from the economy. People of colour, Aboriginal peoples, people living with disabilities, and many others who do not fit the separate and self-interested model of human behaviour described by economists are also vulnerable. Many feminist economists have worked hard to demand an economics that fits the experience of all people. Feminist economist Diana Strassman believes that, "In challenging the merits of narrowly situated economic theories, feminist economists have begun to construct an economics that serves the interests of a broader and more representative group of people."3

Feminist economists have also noted another huge omission within traditional economics. Not only is women's work considered to be 'unproductive' and without value, so also is the contribution of the earth. Our economic system is entirely dependent on the natural resources that the earth provides yet the earth is excluded from the economic equation. As Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva explains,
'Productive' man, producing commodities, using some of nature's wealth and women's work as raw material and dispensing with the rest as waste, becomes the only legitimate category of work, wealth and production. Nature and women working to produce and reproduce life are declared 'unproductive.'4

Just as women find themselves vulnerable and unprotected, so too is the earth. Because this contribution is assumed, there is little incentive to work towards the care and protection of the limited resources that earth provides, ensuring that the earth will continue to provide.

Woman speakingHow can we be involved?
By pointing out the biases within mainstream economics, feminist economists have helped demystify economics. They have exploded the myth that economics can explain all of life, that life can be reduced to its monetary aspects. Instead they have shown that economics is simply the part of our life that deals with how we share the resources the planet has to offer, that it has no place dictating other aspects of our lives, that it is not any sort of be all and end all. And they have said that economics is not only for a small group of academics, it's for everybody. And because it's for everybody, it needs to be relevant to everybody. As Diana Strassman explains, "Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of contemporary feminist economics is its contesting of the purpose of economic enquiry: to whom is economic thought accountable and how can it help human lives?"5 Feminist economists have led the demand that economists deal not with abstract concepts but with real life situations like how to provide fully for all peoples on the planet as well as the earth.

While we may not all have access to the academic field of economics, we can all learn from feminist economists that economics is for all people, that we all have a right to understand what's going on and contribute our own ideas. It is our right to ask questions about economic activities that do not benefit us, and our right to demand that economics benefit all peoples, especially those most vulnerable. Remember, Economics is for everyone!

Further reading
Out of the Margin: Feminist Perspectives on Economics
Edited by Edith Kuiper and Jolande Sap
London: Routledge, 1995.

The Elgar Companion to Feminist Economics
Edited by Janice Peterson and Margaret Lewis
Northampton, Maine: Edward Elgar, 1999.

Beyond Economic Man
Edited by Marianne A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Staying Alive
Vandana Shiva
London: Zed Books, 1999.

The Subjection of Women
John Stuart Mill

Photos are from a discussion on women and the economy at the Brandon Women's Centre, April 2002.

1 Helen Longino. "Economics for Whom?" Beyond Economic Man. Eds. Marianne A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
2 Diana Strassman. "Feminist Economics" The Elgar Companion to Feminist Economics. Eds. Janice Peterson and Margaret Lewis. Northampton, Maine: Edward Elgar, 1999.
3 Diana Strassman. "Feminist Economics" The Elgar Companion to Feminist Economics. Eds. Janice Peterson and Margaret Lewis. Northampton, Maine: Edward Elgar, 1999.
4 Vandana Shiva. Staying Alive. London: Zed Books, 1999.
5 Diana Strassman. "Feminist Economics" The Elgar Companion to Feminist Economics. Eds. Janice Peterson and Margaret Lewis. Northampton, Maine: Edward Elgar, 1999.
  • Economics Glossary

    "Economists' claim to value neutrality does not guarantee objectivity since implicit in their practices is a set of (gender-laden) values, including freedom to choose, the importance of detachment, the omnipresence of scarcity and the absence of connection. These ideals seem so obvious and natural to most economists that they are not considered values."

    - Edith Kuiper and Jolande Sap

    "It never occurred to me, even in graduate school, that the [economic] model was meant to be more than a partial picture of reality…Thus, I continue to be somewhat amused and somewhat appalled when I meet those true-believer economists who think that they really understand human behaviour because they understand the economic model of human behaviour."

    - Rebecca M. Blank

    "The assumption that the economic agent is a self-contained individual making choices is central to the self-understanding of economics."

    - Helen Longino

    "In challenging the merits of narrowly situated economic theories, feminist economists have begun to construct an economics that serves the interests of a broader and more representative group of people."

    - Diana Strassman

    "A feminist perspective means inserting an additional level of understanding: that women stand at the crossroads between production and reproduction, between economic activity and the care of human beings."

    - Isabella Bakker

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