Gender and Economics

By Nam, Young-Sook | International Labour Review, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Gender and Economics


Nam, Young-Sook, International Labour Review


Humphries, Jane (ed.). Gender and economics. The International Library of Critical Writings in Economics No. 45. Aldershot (Hants, UK), Edward Elgar, 1995. xxxix + 544 pp. Tables, figures, name index. ISBN 1-85278-843-7.

What can economists possibly have to say about gender? What can feminists have to say about economics? The last two decades have witnessed the emergence of a rapidly evolving feminist scholarship in economics now commonly referred to as "feminist economics". As in many other disciplines, proponents of feminist economics have challenged deeply entrenched genderbiases both in the range of subjects economists have chosen to study and in their methods of analysis. In this collection of articles, Jane Humphries has brought together provocative feminist criticism of mainstream economics and a large number of neo-classical economic analyses of gender-related issues, with a special focus on the family, household production, and paid work. The result is an important and challenging, though somewhat narrowly selected, compilation of essential readings in this field.

It is the 45th in the series of the International Library of Critical Writings in Economics, but is the first one devoted to gender issues. It comprises the editor's introduction and 27 previously published articles which are organized in three parts. Humphries' introduction is both thorough and illuminating, setting forth the issues at hand and reviewing orthodox economic models which treat gender-related issues and some unorthodox - institutional/structuralist as well as feminist - responses. Humphries agrees with her fellow feminist economists' argument that conventional economics could be improved by freeing itself from masculine biases and admitting as legitimate "feminine" ways of knowing and reasoning, i.e. by analogy or pattern recognition, for example. In the body of the book, the editor conducts the reader through the feminist critique of the methodology of economics, the historical development of gender-biased economic concepts, and theoretical and empirical analyses of specific subjects. Although Humphries shows she is aware that such unorthodox approaches introduce a degree of indeterminacy and relative openness into conventional economic analysis, she does not fully explore this critical issue, and readers are left to decide for themselves whether or not it improves economic theory.

Part I is entitled "Gender and methodology" and comprises three recently published articles which demonstrate the heterogeneity of the methodological challenges posed by feminist economics. Representing a "feminist empiricist" position, the lead-off essay by Frances Woolley calls for a three-point agenda: to document differences in the respective well-being of men and women; to advocate policies which will promote equity; and to conduct research free from androcentric bias. Most of the articles reproduced in this book follow a strategy such as this, i.e. one still operating within the framework of mainstream economics. The other two articles in Part I raise more fundamental and probably more controversial challenges to neo-classical economics. In her contribution, Julie Nelson argues that economics, which has been constructed as hard, logical, scientific and precise, will become more flexible, intuitive, humanistic and rich by freeing itself from positivism and formalism and by admitting feminine ways of knowing. The article by Paula England is essentially a sociologist's critique of rational choice theory applied to economics. Writing from a post-modern feminist perspective, England calls for the deconstruction within economics of hierarchical dualisms such as mind vs. nature, reason vs. emotion, rationality vs. tastes, and objectivity vs. subjectivity. Readers hoping to see what these alternative economic models look like will unfortunately be disappointed, as none of the articles in this book provide any concrete example of this sort.

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