Gender as More Than a Dummy Variable: Feminist Approaches to Discrimination

Article excerpt

To avow that gender is more than an independent--or dummy variable is to posit the centrality of gender (as well as race and class) in economic analysis. Conventional economic methods tend to neglect the process by which gender interacts with and shapes other social forces and institutions. The basis for a feminist alternative is the assertion that the social construction of gender permeates men's and women's labor market experiences. A feminist definition of discrimination is proposed in this 1997 article that emphasizes process as well as outcomes; measurable as well as unquantifiable repercussions. Labor market discrimination is a multidimensional interaction of economic, social, political, and cultural forces in both the workplace and the family, resulting in differential outcomes involving pay, employment, and status. Several propositions toward developing feminist approaches to labor market discrimination are illustrated with examples of feminist research.

Keywords: gender, labor market, wages, feminist economics, economic methodology

When economists acknowledge gender in analysis, they do so by using simple, binary indicator functions, so-called dummy variables, to alter intercept and/or slope coefficients in regression ... though they are poor analytical substitutes for more complete models of the role gender plays in market and non-market transactions (Esther Redmount 1995: 216).

Variables interacting with other variables are only constructs with no agency to do anything. Although most theories assume some sort of process lying behind the relations between variables, those processes are rarely directly studied (Joan Acker 1991: 391).

INTRODUCTION

From the domestic labor debate to bargaining models of the household, much of the theoretical analysis of the political economy of gender has focused on understanding the sphere of reproduction. In some sense this is understandable. By asserting the social and economic significance of reproduction, feminists have demonstrated both women's economic contributions and a major site of power inequity. In contrast, when analyzing women's labor market experiences, feminist economists have tended to respond to existing theoretical frameworks or rely on existing analytical categories. (1) While exposing the limits of neoclassical approaches, segmentation theory, and other constructs for understanding women's experiences has made an enormous contribution to the literature, there is little consensus on an alternative framework.

The basis for a feminist alternative is the assertion that the social construction of gender permeates men's and women's labor market experiences. To avow that gender is more than an independent--or dummy--variable is to posit the centrality of gender (as well as race and class) in economic analysis. Conventional economic methods tend to neglect the process by which gender interacts with and shapes other social forces and institutions. Using gender as an isolated slope coefficient or measuring discrimination as an unexplained residual adds little to our understanding of the causes and nature of discrimination. While these quantitative approaches have provided important tools for feminist advocacy, they treat gender as something to be "controlled" and discrimination as "other."

Often gender and race are added as dummies in a single equation to "control for" demographic differences, ceteris paribus. The influence of human capital, industry, occupation, and union status are also incorporated as independent variables which are hypothesized to affect a dependent variable such as wages. As Joyce Jacobsen and Andrew Newman (1995) demonstrated in their survey of articles published in the top labor journals from 1947-1995, there is a rising trend of incorporating a dummy variable to model gender differences, while use of gender interactions with other variables such as race has decreased. Jacobsen and Newman view this as an attempt to "control" for the effects of gender. …