Women in Economics

Listener: 24 June, 1995

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;

Post-modernism is a term which has entered into intellectual discourse over the last quarter of a century. Initially it referred to architecture, went into the other arts and literature, and more recently sneaked into some of the social sciences. Because of its individualistic and anarchic nature there is no simple definition of post-modernism. Standard explanations drift between the incomprehensible and the illustrative. The most common thread is there is no absolute standard from which analysis and criticism can be made. There is no privileged frame of reference which provides a definitive account, independent of culture, race, class, era, or gender. Each commentator has an insight to offer, but no one account is inherently authoritative.

Consider the possibility of a post-modernist physics. It seems unlikely. Physicists may disagree on all sorts of issues, but they agree that there is a correct answer to the fundamental question of the universe. With persistence they will find the Theory of Everything. When they do all physicists will agree. In literature and the arts, even the notion of an absolute theory of everything seems a little odd today.

The social sciences are somewhere between. One can rank them on a scale of the degree to which they are influenced by post-modernism. On the soft left is social anthropology, near literature in recognizing that no culture is superior to another. On the hard right near physics, is economics.

For professional economics is built on the notion that there is a core of common theory on which everyone who is an economist agrees. Any disagreements there will eventually be resolved, as the empirical truth outs, and wrongheaded and faulty analysis is eliminated.

But are we sure that there is a central absolute truth in economics, rather than a variety of truths depending on where you stand? Many economists will be disturbed by Prue Hyman’s recently published Women and Economics. The book covers a number of policy areas – pay equity, housing, superannuation – but its key chapter is a survey of feminist critiques of orthodox economics. It should be read not because it is right, but because it challenges the notion that the existing orthodoxy is right, arguing that there may be a different but equally valid way of looking at the economy – from a feminist rather than orthodox (i.e. masculine) perspective. And if there are two different ways, there will be many different ways. Economics may be potentially post-modernist.

Such a conclusion will be resisted by many, perhaps the majority, of economists. Their preference will be to force the different perspectives into a single unified one – theirs. There was an extraordinary paper by a Treasury official, which determinedly demonstrated to the writer’s own satisfaction that the traditional Maori can be analysed using the economist’s notion of rational economic man. This is not an official Treasury position, and many of the writer’s colleagues would no doubt have blanched. But it well illustrates the resolve to root out heresy, to ensure everything can be explained by a narrow orthodoxy.

At some stage the economists’ theory needs to address why there are six times as many males as females in the economics profession. Let me in the interim offer a somewhat post-modernist explanation. Suppose there are a variety of ways at looking at an economy, but that the profession allows only one of these as acceptable. Anybody who comes from another perspective will find the orthodoxy uncomfortable, and is likely to turn to a discipline which is more congenial (or more tolerant of diversity). If women’s perspectives are ignored and demoted, women are not going to be attracted into economics to the same degree as males. It must be a terrible turnoff for the young woman student to have to study rational economic man, with nary a thought that he might be a she. Better go to sociology where there are more role models and where men earnestly grapple with feminist critiques.

Fortunately the academy is not totally bereft of woman economists. As well as Prue herself, an associate professor at Victoria, there are a handful who work in economics with an approach which is not bereft of a gender perspective. Some are publicly prominent: Susan St John, Toni Ashton, and Sholeh Maani at Auckland, Cath Wallace also at Victoria, Nancy Devlin at Otago. There are about as many who work quietly away. Last year’s unexpected death of Jan Whitwell was a lost both to macroeconomics and to women’s economics.

Insofar as the above explanation has a truth, the shortage of women in economics is both a criticism of the subject, and a weakness. It wont be remedied by appointing a few token women. Rather the subject has to be systematically reoriented, to be more tolerant to different perspectives, and more willing to incorporate diversity. A first step would be for every economist to read the chapter on feminist challenges to orthodoxy, and for Prue Hyman’s book to be compulsory reading in every graduate economics program.