Feminist Economics Research Paper

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During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, | in Western countries such as the United States and Britain, women’s economic situation was largely dictated by the legal framework within which economic activity took place. Some examples include the legal requirement, embedded within the common law of marriage, for wives to provide housework, childrearing, and sexual services to their husbands, in return for at least a minimal subsistence. Husbands were legally entitled to the wage earnings of working wives. Wives were, in effect, legal chattels. Women’s labor supply decisions were restricted by “protective legislation” with respect to total hours worked, which hours, and in which occupations. Sex discrimination was legal, and women’s wages were determined not by their productivity but by socially accepted norms, such as the widespread belief that women worked for “pin money” rather than for economic necessity, which allowed employers to pay them badly. Indeed, working-class women were frequently unable to support themselves, making marriage an attractive economic proposition. Furthermore, women had limited opportunities, if any, to attend university, and they could not own property in their own names. Despite the restrictions of marriage, then, most women married because their access to economic independence was so limited. Women were assumed to be actual or future wives, and the legal and economic environment ensured that this would be so. Even in the mid-twentieth century, women in certain occupations were terminated if they got married; if a wife had a bank account in her own name, her husband had access to it, and a married woman could not borrow money without her husband’s consent.

However, by the 1970s, most, if not all, of the legal restrictions on women’s economic activity mentioned above had been eliminated in modern Western countries.

Most countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. And now there are laws in place that make it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, hours, earnings, and lending. Indeed, the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama was the Lily Ledbetter Act, which widens the scope of women’s access to the courts upon discovering wage discrimination on the basis of sex. Wives own their own earnings. Women have become prime ministers and presidential candidates, and they have entered the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. And, in the United States, women make up nearly half the labor force. This environment, in which women appear to have the same ability as men to determine their own economic fates, sometimes makes young people question the relevance of feminist economics in today’s world. As this research paper shows, however, the economic system remains a gendered system, and most women’s economic outcomes are related to the fact that they are women. This is true both domestically in the United States and in other Western countries, as well as globally.

Feminist economics is the area of research and practice within which the gendered economic system is analyzed.1 Feminist economists argue that gender is central to understanding the allocation of economic opportunities, rewards, and punishments, and therefore gender is a key determinant of individual economic outcomes. They use a variety of feminist perspectives to understand and change the social and economic institutions and policies that reinforce the economic subordination of women. In common with other schools of heterodox economics, such as ecological economics, (old) institutionalism, and social economics, feminist economics is critical of the discipline’s mainstream, also known as neoclassical, orthodox, free-market, or neoliberal economics. Feminist economists, however, make the specific claim that orthodox economics naturalizes women’s economic subordination and have also been critical of some other heterodox schools of thought, such as traditional Marxism, for the same reason.

A brief overview of some of the facts of economic inequality is in order.2 In the United States, in 2007, full-time female workers earned 80 cents for every dollar earned by full-time male workers. In 2007, 12.5% of the U.S. population and 9.8% of all families lived in poverty. Single-parent households are more likely to be poor than two-parent households, and 85% of them are headed by women. Of those, 28.3% live in poverty. Of the 15% of single-parent households headed by males, only 13.6% live in poverty. Gender differentials in the global context are even more significant. Of the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty around the world, 70% are women. Globally, the average gender wage gap is 17%, but the range is from 3% to 51%. Two thirds of the world’s working hours are performed by women, including the production of half of the world’s food supply, but women receive only one tenth of the world’s income and own 1% of the world’s property.

However, globally and nationally, the differences between women can swamp the differences between men and women. For example, women in Botswana have a life expectancy of 33, but women in Hong Kong can expect to live until 86. When women work for pay in Georgia, they earn only 49 cents for every dollar earned by a Georgian man, while Maltese women earn 97 cents for every dollar earned by a Maltese man. In comparison to the earnings of full-time white male workers in the United States, full-time white female workers earn 79 cents for every dollar, fulltime black female workers earn 68 cents, and full-time Hispanic female workers earn just 60 cents. Thus, many feminist economists are as concerned with the differences between women as they are with differences between men and women.

Feminist economists view these facts as problematic and symptomatic of an oppressive economic system that distributes economic rewards on the basis of gender, race, and ethnicity. They argue that mainstream economics plays an important role in the maintenance of this oppressive gender system through its various absences or silences around women and femininity, as well as race, class, and other signifiers of difference. Feminist economic research is both theoretical and empirical, but a piece of work can-not be called feminist economics if it does not support the feminist contentions that women are economically subordinate to men and that this is unacceptable. With this proviso in mind, one may exclude such classic economic tracts as Gary Becker’s (1991) Treatise on the Family, which shows that, given a particular set of assumptions, it is efficient and hence, from a mainstream economic perspective, desirable for men to specialize in paid work and women in children and unpaid work. This understanding of the family is widespread among orthodox economists. Although there are many disagreements among feminist economists, all agree that Gary Becker’s reductionist account of the sexual division of labor should not be included in any definition of feminist economics. Other mainstream economic treatments of women’s economic status, even if sympathetic, also attribute most of the problem to women’s choices, especially their innate desire to bear and rear children (a desire absent from men), and downplay the role of constraints on women’s choices such as gender socialization and sex discrimination.

Given that feminist economists are united in their understanding of the current national and global distribution of economic rewards and punishments as gendered and as problematic, their primary aim is to improve the lives of women. But their research agendas can be very different, depending on the feminist perspective they take and their theoretical or empirical orientation. This plurality of approaches within feminist economics can, for convenience, be aggregated into two broad foci: research that uses gender as a theoretical variable and research that uses gender as an empirical variable. Those using gender as a theoretical variable are interested in the ways in which economic concepts and categories become gendered and in developing new theoretical perspectives on economic processes. Those feminist economists who undertake research in which gender is an empirical variable tend to be more practically minded, being interested in statistical analyses in which gender is a descriptive category and developing new statistical models to generate insights into the economic behavior of men and women.

Gender as Theory and Practice

When a feminist economist uses gender as a theoretical variable or a category of analysis, she or he is taking a critical stance in relation to the power of the discipline to shape the way we see the world. Typically, she or he sees mainstream economics as a discourse, or a set of practices and institutions that do not merely describe or reflect a given reality but rather have an important role in creating and naturalizing the categories through which we interpret the world. Thus, mainstream economics is viewed as deeply implicated in the creation and reproduction of the hierarchies across gender, race, ethnicity, and other classifications of difference that privilege white heterosexual Western men at the expense of others. This kind of research problematizes and reconstructs orthodox and heterodox economic concepts and categories of analysis. It is crucial to the feminist economic project: After all, if feminist economics was an empirical endeavor alone, it would simply consist of economists who work on gender, with no critical feminist insight into the discipline’s gendered foundations (see Barker, 2005; Hewitson, 1999).

As well as revealing the ways in which economic theories, frameworks of analysis, concepts, and categories are gendered, feminist economists undertake empirical analyses that measure the real effects of theory, challenge existing empirical analyses justifying women’s economic subordination, and offer new ways of examining theoretical issues. In these feminist economic works, gender is necessarily a descriptive rather than a theoretical variable— the aim of the work is to analyze and quantify the economic activities of actual men and women. Consider the following example of the two approaches. In the United States, women undertake most child care. Feminist economists using gender as a descriptive variable are interested in the impact of child care subsidies aimed at giving mothers access to the labor market on the same terms as those workers without child care responsibilities. Empirical analysis can provide estimates of the effects of the subsidy on mothers’ labor supply behavior. A feminist economist might also develop an empirical model that includes variables not normally considered, such as state licensing requirements as a measure of quality. Furthermore, empirical feminist economists might advocate alternative ways of providing child care, such as mandated provision by employers (see Bergmann, 2005). In each case, the researcher is examining the economic activity of actual women, making gender an empirical category.

On the other hand, a researcher focusing on gender as a theoretical category might deconstruct the whole framework of analysis by examining the gendered meanings of the concepts of “mother” and “worker.” The concept of mother has been historically and culturally constructed as someone who devotes herself to the well-being of her children. The concept of worker has been historically and culturally constructed as someone who devotes himself to a full-time job and a lifelong career, a breadwinner without domestic responsibilities that would reduce his work commitment. That is, mothers are women who care for children and do not work, while workers are male heads of households who undertake market work and not unpaid child care. This is not to say that men do not care for children or that mothers do not work for pay—it is an analysis of the concepts used in a debate about child care subsidies, and it would broaden that debate by questioning the institutions that reinforce the need for the “real worker” to be free of domestic responsibilities and therefore require that parenting be fitted into the workplace, rather than work fitted into parenting (see J. Williams, 2000). Both studies are vital: Empirical work provides essential information for policy decisions and brings theoretical work into the realm of economic practice, and theoretical work points to new ways of thinking about change and to new policies.

The following five sections review the key areas of theoretical and empirical research in feminist economics. Methodological concerns, reviewed in the first section, are crucial, as the methodology of a discipline dictates the authorized ways in which its practitioners go about producing the discipline’s accepted knowledge. The second section deals with the rational economic agent, which is the foundational concept of mainstream economics, the concept upon which all its theories rely. Unpaid and paid work, those activities that structure most people’s days, weeks, and years, are the subject of the third and fourth sections. In the final section, gender is examined within a global economic context.


Methodology refers to the way in which knowledge is generated and justified—the methods used by economists to establish what they know. Orthodox economists typically assert that economics is a science and that economic knowledge is produced using the scientific method. The scientific method refers to the process of statistically testing hypotheses against the facts in ways that can be replicated by any practitioner in the discipline. Knowledge develops when the facts support the hypothesis. Neoclassical economists view facts as independent of the hypotheses: They believe, therefore, that facts, or reality, can be perceived by anyone, whatever their social situation or value system. If this is so, it follows that the knowledge produced using the facts as the arbiter of truth must necessarily be objective. This is the basis of the claim that neoclassical economics is a “positive science” or knowledge from which normative statements or values have been excluded.

Feminist economists have been highly critical of these methodological claims. Along with other heterodox schools of thought, feminist economists reject the idea that neoclassical economics is value free and deny its claims to scientific status. Critics of neoclassical economics argue that it is underpinned by a conservative set of values based on a belief in individualism, the efficiency of free markets, and a merit-based system of economic rewards. This value system is built into the very fiber of the neoclassical paradigm: its methods, categories, and analyses. Feminist economists are unique in focusing on gender: They argue further that the value system underpinning neoclassical economics reflects the needs and preferences of masculinity as they have been constructed within the history of science.

Modern scientific methods emerged during the Enlightenment, when philosophers constructed a series of dualisms in their quest to understand how knowledge is produced. Rene Descartes, for example, with the dictum that “I think, therefore I am,” constructed a mind-body split in which the thinker could be conceptually separated from any particular embodiment: This is the “view from nowhere” that defines the objective stance of the scientific inquirer. To see this, consider the meaning of an alternative, such as “I feel, therefore I am”—the thinker in this case is necessarily embodied, and embodiment is necessarily sexually and racially specific, which means that the “view” or perspective of the “feeling thinker” is from somewhere and hence not objective. Francis Bacon wrote about the necessity of conquering and penetrating nature, thereby constructing a subject, the researcher, in opposition to the object of research, and in this can be seen the object-subject, mind-matter, and culture-nature distinctions. These distinctions were also gendered: The detached, objective observer with the “view from nowhere,” the penetrator of passive matter, and the producer of scientific knowledge were associated with masculinity. Subjectivity, passivity, nature, the body, emotions, and materiality were associated, on the other hand, with femininity (see Nelson, 1993). These connections persist into the present day—one need only construct a list of contemporary stereotypical masculine and feminine characteristics.

The scientific method reflects a specifically Western as well as andocentric perspective. It was the European man, not just any man, who had the capacities of autonomy, independence, and objectivity that were necessary for scientific knowledge production. The scientific approach was becoming dominant over the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, just when the West (or Europe) was discovering, conquering, and claiming as European territory the lands occupied by dark-skinned native peoples. Like nature, and women, these native peoples existed to be ruled by European men. They and their cultures were seen as passive, exploitable, primitive, and inferior, and science was used to justify their domination. The scientific method was used to establish the superiority of the colonizers and hence the unchallengeable supremacy of their perspective on the world. The power relations established by the use of the scientific method in economics continue to reverberate within economics. For example, in development economics, Western modernization via the extension of market relations is viewed as the solution to the lack of “progress” within the so-called less-developed world (see Olsen, 1994; R. M. Williams, 1993).

The dualisms and their gendered and racial associations created within this history of philosophical thinking define the way in which orthodox economists have understood the discipline’s methodology—as scientific or positivist— from the late nineteenth century until today. Developments within the philosophy of science, particularly the rejection of the positivism espoused in every first-year economics textbook, have not undermined this self-perception. Feminist economists have drawn on feminist philosophy of science to argue that mainstream economists constitute a community of practitioners with a jointly held perspective and value system that underpins and structures the processes of knowledge production. Specifically, the perspective and value system is that of the middle-class, Western, white male who has historically dominated the discipline and who has been positioned by the scientific method as the source of unbiased knowledge. This value system is invisible within the mainstream, which is therefore incapable of recognizing its own gender and racial biases, and hence incapable of producing objective, or value-free, knowledge. But these biases powerfully shape, among the myriad of choices that are made by researchers in any discipline, the identification of research issues, the questions asked, the facts viewed as relevant, the methods deemed appropriate, the choice between taking as given and questioning the various assumptions that necessarily underlie the analysis of a problem, the interpretation of empirical results, and the choice of statistical methods to decide between hypothesis verification or falsification. The methodological argument, then, is not simply that the mainstream is dominated by men but that its method imposes a symbolically masculine perspective of the world on its practitioners, whether they are men or women (see the introduction and reprinted essays in Volume 4 of Barker & Kuiper, 2009; Strassmann & Polanyi, 1995).

For example, mainstream economists explain the gender wage gap as a function of human capital variables. That is, they assume that individuals’ wages are the result of utility-maximizing choices with respect to their skills and qualifications. Competition ensures that labor markets equilibrate where the wage is equal to the marginal productivity of labor. Therefore, if women earn lower wages than men, mainstream economists’ first response is that women must have lower productivity as the result of their utility-maximizing choices. The unquestioned assumptions underlying this analysis are numerous: that the individual is the appropriate unit of analysis, that productivity is an individual characteristic and not a function of the requirements of the job, that productivity is a choice variable, that preferences and technology are exogenous, that competitive market forces determine wages, that the marginal product of labor is observable independently of wages, that women expect to have and make decisions on the basis of a marginal connection to the labor market, that the problem must be amenable to mathematical modeling and statistical analysis, and so on.

A feminist economic analysis of the gender wage gap rejects the neoclassical view that wage setting is a rational and efficient process undertaken by individuals within competitive markets. Instead of viewing wage setting as an application of the mainstream’s timeless and universally applied economic laws, wage setting is situated with a historically and culturally specific analysis where constructions of gender are central to understanding how work and workers are valued. Waged work emerged in the nineteenth century, unions formed, and men fought for a family wage, or a wage sufficient to sustain a family. It was in this era that the low values attributed to the service and caring occupations, within which women were crowded, were established, a function not of some allegedly objective standard like the marginal product of labor but of dominant social views on what women should be doing and how they should be doing it. In fact, men’s demands for a family wage spells out these social views: Women should be in the home, economically dependent on a breadwinner. Tracing the impact of this history on contemporary valuations of women’s work exposes the mainstream’s value system—in ignoring gender constructions, in assuming the primacy of the individual, in confining the analysis to the narrow limits of mathematical modeling, in viewing individuals as prior to society, and in assuming that preferences and technology are not shaped in relation to gender, among others. Mainstream economists can always justify sex wage differences as objectively determined differences in productivity, which are functions of individual preferences, because of what they carve off as irrelevant (see Figart, Mutari, & Power, 2002). An empirical feminist economic analysis challenges the neoclassical explanation within the data itself. The neoclassical story says that women expect to move in and out of the labor market because of their roles in the home and child rearing. It is therefore rational for them to choose to acquire human capital that retains its value during periods of absence from the labor market. It happens that these skills are also low-productivity ones, and hence, women earn less than men. Thus, we should expect to see different rates of depreciation of the education and skills required in male-dominated and female-dominated occupations. In fact, this hypothesis is not supported by the facts, but despite this, it remains a key plank in the neoclassical theory of wage differentials. Thus, the empirical approach, which adopts many of the methodological assumptions made by neoclassical economists, reveals the way in which the perspective of privileged white men shapes research agendas (see Blau, Ferber, & Winkler, 2010).

The mainstream’s reliance on individual choices to explain social outcomes, such as the gender wage gap, occupational segregation, and women’s poverty, is called methodological individualism. This method dictates that all analyses must be built on a foundation of the isolated individual, homo economicus. If society as a whole is simply the sum of isolated individuals, then the individual pre-exists that society, joining with other isolated individuals with a universal human nature and a fully formed set of preferences. Society has no role in creating individuals— as gendered and as raced—in this view; rather, society is a reflection of the universal human nature. In the next section, this human nature is discussed.

The Rational Economic Agent

An important focus of feminist economists who use gender as a category of analysis has been the model of the individual at the center of all neoclassical theorizing. Several assumptions construct this model. The economic agent is assumed to embody a timeless human nature consisting of a number of critical characteristics: Individuals maximize their utility; they are instrumentally rational, always choosing the least-cost means to meet their objectives; they are self-interested and uninterested in the well-being of others; and they are independent or entirely separate from others. Socially significant categories such as race or ethnicity, class, gender, nationality, or sexuality are irrelevant to this definition of the economic agent. The characteristics attributed to the economic agent are critical because, without them, the neoclassical edifice of the modeling of individual choices within a constrained environment becomes hopelessly entangled. For example, in neoclassical consumer theory, rational, self-interested, and independent consumers maximize their individual well-being by spending their incomes such that the marginal utility of the last dollar spent on each good or service is equal. The solution to each consumer’s maximization problem can be found diagrammatically as a point of tangency between the budget constraint and the indifference curve or mathematically by setting the derivatives of the utility function equal to zero. Now imagine the impact of a different theory of the economic agent: What if consumers care about others, live within complex social arrangements and relationships, and use ethics, rather than self-interest, to determine their shopping cart contents? This interrelatedness of individuals means that the solution to the consumer’s utility-maximizing problem is a function of many other people’s utility, potentially billions (e.g., when shopping fair trade). No neat diagrammatic or mathematical solutions are available: The predictions of individual behavior, as well as the whole policy framework of free markets that is built on those predictions, collapse.

Feminist economists have developed numerous critical analyses of the assumptions supporting the neoclassical theory of human nature (see England, 1993). As mentioned, neoclassical economics claims that this human nature is universal and preexists any social arrangements. This is the basis of the mainstream use of the literary figure of Robinson Crusoe as the representative economic agent. Crusoe was a British slave trader who was shipwrecked on a deserted island, on which he lived alone for more than two decades, and who then rescued a native, whom he called Friday, from cannibals. To neoclassical economists, the facts of Crusoe’s race, sex, and class; his socialization in seventeenth-century London; the importance of the slave trade to the story; his unusual living conditions, including the absence of women, children, and a family; and his assertion of ownership of the island and virtual enslavement of Friday to his will are irrelevant to the capacity of the figure of Robinson Crusoe, a white Western colonizing man, to function as an exemplar of the economic agent. It need hardly be said that economic agents begin life as helpless babies and often end life as helpless elders. Economic agents then can, in reality, exist only within particular social and familial relations, relations that entail a fundamental dependence on others and are completely absent from the paradigmatic neoclassical story of the individual. Neoclassical economics excludes all these aspects of Crusoe’s story, leaving only the fantasy of the autonomous agent, independent of all others, seeking only his own self-interest within competitive market conditions, naturalizing and legitimizing the failure of the mainstream to consider gender, race, history, culture, power relations, and connections to others as absolutely essential to an understanding of the sexual, national, and global distribution of economic well-being (see Grapard & Hewitson, 2010).

Unpaid Work

Unpaid work, including child care, shopping, subsistence crop production, food preparation, cleaning, laundry, and collecting water and firewood, is essential for the functioning of the market economy, by creating workers and consumers on a daily basis. Unpaid work absorbs as many hours of work as paid work, and the majority is performed by women. Several groups of feminist economists work in this area. Those who used gender as a theoretical category include Marxist feminist economists, who, in the 1970s, pointed out that the home was a site of production as well as consumption. How to integrate the idea that domestic labor was economic production into the existing concepts of the Marxist framework was the subject of the so-called domestic labor debate. Others sought to understand how unpaid work had come to be excluded from mainstream definitions of economic activity and the implications of this exclusion. Unpaid work as productive economic activity is also vital to the research agendas of empirical feminist economists working in areas such as national accounting, development, and labor markets (see the introduction and reprinted essays in Volume 2 of Barker & Kuiper, 2009).

Although unpaid work is an important aspect of the neoclassical economics of the family and its explanations for women’s inferior economic outcomes, it really plays a minor role within the discipline as a whole, being almost or completely ignored in most research fields. This is a function of the way in which unpaid work evolved as a feminine-gendered concept and as an activity that takes place outside the realm of the economy per se. The foundational constrained optimization problem of labor economics, for example, is the utility-maximizing choice between paid work and leisure. And recent macroeconomic policy and performance debates are completely silent on unpaid work, despite the fact that the value of the output of home production rivals the value of market sector output (see Ironmonger, 1996). Outside of first-year economics classrooms, gross domestic product (GDP), which is the annual value of the market sector’s output, is treated as a direct measure of the health and well-being of a nation. Although these exclusions seem natural to many economists, they rely not on some inevitable way of organizing economic activity but on a particular historically and culturally specific set of theoretical creations.

Before the Industrial Revolution (1770-1830), which heralded the widespread development of capitalism in Europe, the wage labor system did not exist. The economic unit was the family, and family members as well as any servants worked together to produce food, clothing, and perhaps some cash to buy things they could not make, such as tools. The family economy divided tasks by sex and age. For example, women might have been responsible for food preparation, milking, feeding livestock, and growing vegetables for home consumption; men for planting and harvesting grains (perhaps as a serf); and younger people for spinning and sewing. Task allocation varied by region, rather than being a set of male and female jobs common to all humanity. But the fact that people’s work varied by sex and age did not imply a hierarchy of value. In the family economy, husbands and wives were equally essential for the survival of the family.

The spread of the capitalist mode of production, within which individuals sell their labor to employers and “go to work” at a central location, broke down the family economy and was the basis of the development of a hierarchical valuation of different types of work. A lot of the work undertaken by men left the house and attracted wage payments, while a lot of women’s work did not. Work undertaken outside the home was often viewed as skilled work, while women’s work was not—in fact, during the nineteenth century, women’s work in the home lost its definition as work and became something that women did naturally and out of love for their families.

We see this transformation of unpaid work and the unpaid worker in the evolution of census categories during the nineteenth century. The censuses documented and categorized the population and its activities—in Britain, every 10 years from 1800. The categories used for this documentation were products of generally held views on gender, and men’s and women’s proper places, as well as the writings of economists. Early in the century, economists understood labor as the most important source of the wealth of nations; hence, the work that was undertaken by the population was of key significance. In the early decades of the census, those who worked in the home on domestic tasks were deemed to be economically occupied. Later in the century, however, economists excluded all nonmarket activities from their definition of economic activity, and by the end of the century, the census categories also reflected this new theoretical boundary of economic behavior. Thus, by the end of the century, women’s work in British, Australian, and North American homes had no place within the census; rather, those undertaking domestic labor were categorized as economic dependents, or economically unoccupied (see Deacon, 1985; Folbre, 1991).

This particular history is responsible for many of the seemingly natural categories that are used to define and understand today’s economies. For example, the labor force categories of employed, unemployed, and not in the labor force, as well as the national accounting system and GDP, are based on nineteenth-century census categories. Until 1993, the System of National Accounts (SNA), which generates estimates of the annual value of the productive activity in an economy, GDP, excluded unpaid work (see Waring, 1990). The production boundary, or the division between productive and unproductive activities, enclosed the market and excluded nonmarket activities. In 1993, the SNA was revised, and the production boundary was extended to all goods for household consumption, whether or not those goods had been acquired through markets (United Nations Development Fund for Women [UNIFEM], n.d.). Where possible, the value of unpaid work is published in a satellite account. This means that macroeconomics, which is the study of GDP (its definition, how it changes, how its changes affect inflation and unemployment, and how the government can manage it), continues to exclude about half the economic activity actually being undertaken.

This is significant for many reasons. Without knowing anything about the household sector, economists cannot make claims about the efficiency of resource allocation. They are also blind to the full impact of economic policy (see Sharp, 1999). Cutting the federal budget, for example, may simply generate additional, invisible, unpaid work to be shouldered by women. Structural adjustment policies within the development context have been especially problematic in this regard. A full understanding of the amount and distribution of unpaid work is also vital to a full understanding of equity and welfare issues. It might not seem equitable, for example, that people working the same number of hours over a lifetime receive very different economic rewards, because in men’s case, two thirds of their work is for pay, while in women’s case, only one third of their work is paid. Furthermore, unpaid workers in the household sector, although imperative to the market economy, do not attract the benefits of paid work, such as social security. Nor are they covered by legislation that protects paid workers, such as occupational health and safety. Finally, without a full accounting of economic activity, all manner of distortions can persist. For example, income produced in the home in the form of goods and services is tax free, while income deriving from market activities is taxed.

Research into the value of unpaid work has taken two approaches. The first applies market wages to the hours of work in the home, while the second uses the value of the output produced in the home. The market wage method of valuing unpaid work can use three different market wages. Specialist wages can be used to value time spent on specialist tasks. For example, the time cooking a meal would attract a chef’s hourly rate, and the time counseling children would receive a psychologist’s hourly rate. Alternatively, a generalist wage can be used to value all the time spent in domestic labor, whatever the particular tasks. Here the value of unpaid work is the number of hours times the hourly wage of a housekeeper. Finally, the opportunity cost wage, or the wage that is given up to free the time for unpaid work, can be used to value unpaid work. These market wage applications normally generate an estimate of approximately half the value of GDP. Feminist economists have pointed out, however, that comparing the value of labor time in the home to GDP is like comparing apples to oranges. GDP is the sum of all incomes, not simply wages, and in particular, it includes the return to capital used up in the production process. Given the equality between GDP measured by incomes and GDP measured by the value of current production, comparing oranges to oranges requires that the value of the household sector be measured as the value of its output, or value added. When the economic activity of households is measured in this way, the value of the household sector is at least equal to the value of the market sector (see Beneria, 2003; Goldschmidt-Clermont, 1992; Ironmonger, 1996).

As noted, women undertake the majority of unpaid work. Feminist economists argue that the mainstream theory of this sexual division of labor personifies an ideal of the family and femininity that developed in post-World War II United States. With the growth of suburbia and the industrial war machine now manufacturing consumer goods, the 1950s saw the development of a powerful ideal of the modern suburban family with all the latest mod-cons, in which men had careers and women devoted their energies to keeping up with the Jones’s, cleanliness, and helping their husbands’ careers. It is this view of the family, reflected in television programs of the era such as Leave It to Beaver, which has been personified within the neoclassical theory of the family, primarily through the work of Gary Becker (1991). Becker’s new home economics (NHE) modeled the household as a single unit, within which the wage earner is a benevolent dictator who seeks to maximize the household’s well-being subject to constraints of time, wages, and prices. He can ensure, via distribution decisions, that each family member will concur with his wishes (maximize his utility). Benevolence guarantees that the household as a whole is as well off as it can be. Spouses exploit their comparative advantages, and hence husbands, rather than wives, will typically take on the role of benevolent dictator because men typically earn more than women. This is efficient because women can take advantage of economies of scale in childbearing and rearing—they can be pregnant while also caring for children.

Because NHE has been so influential and is the most widely used model of the household within the mainstream, feminist economists have attacked it vigorously (see Ferber, 2003). They have pointed out that the model relies on circular reasoning: Recall that husbands specialize in the labor market because they earn more, while wives specialize in domestic work because they earn less. But women earn less because they specialize in domestic work. To explain women’s specialization in the home, look at women’s lower wages. To explain women’s lower wages, look at women’s specialization in the home. This circular reasoning naturalizes women’s role in the home and their lower labor market earnings by leaving out the possibility of labor market discrimination against women and the role of gender ideologies and gendered institutions in shaping and forming value assessments of women’s work and skills.

Another major problem with NHE’s vision of the family is its silence on power relations. But empirical evidence suggests that power relations exist—in particular, that the person earning the most money wages has the most bargaining power. For example, the more equal are the wages of a husband and wife, the more equal is the division of unpaid labor. Those women who specialize in the home are likely to experience declines in their bargaining power over time as their labor market skills decline. Once considerations of power differentials enter the analysis, the notion that the sexual division of labor is efficient becomes extremely questionable (see Ferber, 2003). Instead of NHE, some feminist economists have used bargaining models to explicitly incorporate the power relations within families as well as including a longer term perspective than what is possible in the static NHE model (see the introduction and reprinted essays in Volume 2 of Barker & Kuiper, 2009).

A third important critique of NHE is its heteronormativity, or its assumption that natural family relations are heterosexual and reproductive. Indeed, Becker (1991) defines anyone who does not fit into such a family as “deviant.” According to NHE, deviants are inefficient because they do not take advantage of the complementarity of men and women in reproduction and production. Such deviants include homosexual people, “career women,” “house-husbands,” people who do not want children, people who cannot have children, and people who prefer to remain single. This critique is also one internal to feminist economics because the category of the family is mostly taken by feminist economists themselves to be self-evidently made up of a heterosexual couple. The naturalization of the conjugal family contributes tremendously to economists’ and policy makers’ inability to imagine economic activity being organized and work, income, and wealth being distributed differently (see Badgett, 1995; Danby, 2007; Hewitson, 2003).

Paid Work

Feminist economists argue that the gendered institutional structures that frame and reproduce the current organization of unpaid work also support women’s economic subordination in the realm of paid work. Women’s paid work often replicates their unpaid work, reflecting a gender ideology that maps femininity onto service work and work involving the support of men. Thus, women dominate in occupations such as maids and housekeeping cleaners, child care workers, elementary and primary school teachers, secretaries and administrative assistants, nurses, and receptionists. These jobs are both derivative of unpaid labor and often badly remunerated. Thus, the gender wage gap can also be traced to the sexual division of labor in paid work. NHE justifies this pattern of economic rewards but does not explain why, when women make up nearly half the labor force, they continue to be responsible for the majority of domestic labor and child care.

Interest in the interrelatedness of women’s domestic role and their occupational distribution within the labor market has led to the development of a new category of analysis called caring labor. Caring labor refers to both paid and unpaid caring work, such as child care for pay and unpaid emotional support within the family. Feminist economists have found that caring occupations dominated by women tend to attract a “caring penalty,” which can be linked to the lack of value attributed to unpaid work and the lack of esteem with which this work is generally viewed (see the introduction and reprinted essays in Volume 2 of Barker & Kuiper, 2009; Folbre, 1995).

Mainstream economists agree that there is a sexual division of labor in paid work and that there is a gender wage gap. However, as has been noted, they believe that these phenomena result from rational, utility-maximizing, individual choices. Early labor market studies within the orthodox school did not consider women at all. It was only in the 1960s, during an unprecedented movement of white wives into the formal labor market, that a female labor supply function was delineated, and because it referred to wives, it necessarily included the opportunity cost of women’s time at work—not leisure but home-produced goods and services. Later, race and sex discrimination moved onto the mainstream agenda, though it was and continues to be argued that discrimination is an individual phenomenon (“I don’t like black people or women”), analytically having nothing to do with larger social institutions such as the organization of unpaid work, gender ideologies, or the history of colonization, slavery, and associated racism. In the mainstream model, racists and sexists are punished by the market with lower profit than their competitors and hence go out of business.

There is an extensive empirical literature, which will not be reviewed in detail here, examining gender issues in the labor market from a feminist perspective (see Bergmann, 2005; Blau et al., 2010). Some key results will suffice. Feminist economists have found that sex discrimination plays a role in the gender wage gap. Women often earn less than men who are doing the same job and are promoted more slowly than equally or lesser qualified men. Women also hit a glass ceiling, so that in many occupations, the senior positions are largely taken by men, while women’s careers have stopped progressing once they have reached some midway point up the ladder. Feminist economists also insist on the importance of “indirect discrimination,” or the discriminatory impact of the gender system that shapes women’s choices. When women choose to enter traditionally male occupations, they encounter the revolving door: Women enter, find the working environment hostile to women, and leave. Most occupations are dominated by either women or men, and this occupational segregation also accounts for some of the gender wage gap. But as already discussed, the evidence for women’s low productivity is lacking, and in any case, women can earn less even with the same human capital investments. Experiments have shown that application letters from male (or white) applicants are evaluated more positively and lead to more invitations to an interview than application letters that are the same in every relevant respect but are presented as being from female (or black) applicants.

Because of women’s work in the home, feminist economists are very interested in the ways in which these responsibilities fit with the institutional requirements of the labor market, for full-time attendance at a workplace, a 40-hour week, 6 p.m. meetings, and so on. Because the categories of work and the worker are gendered masculine, as the complement of the feminine gendered unpaid work and the housewife (discussed above), the worker is someone without domestic responsibilities. (This is a theoretical point about the concept of the worker rather than being a point about empirical men and women.) This way of viewing the worker—that is, as a gendered category—leads to a different perspective on the labor market. Such mechanisms as the mommy track, family-friendly policies, and unpaid maternity and paternity leave are ways in which mothers are added to or fitted into the labor market, leaving mothers, rather than work, as the problem. Fathers, because the notion of worker is already intrinsically dependent on the idea of male breadwinner, have been hesitant to make use of these mechanisms for fear that their commitment to work will be questioned. Indeed, holding other factors constant, men with children earn more than those without, while the opposite is true of mothers, revealing the assumptions regarding the work commitment of breadwinners versus mothers. In other words, anyone not fitting the identity of worker in the same way as unencumbered men is problematic. This points once again to the extent to which gendered institutions naturalize and reproduce an organization of work that is detrimental to women (see Barker, 2005; J. Williams, 2000).

Gender in a Global Perspective

In the early 1970s, Western feminists began to consider the role of women within Third World development. This literature came to be known as “women in development” (WID). It examined the ways in which Western modernization affected women’s work, a topic neglected by earlier development specialists. Although the WID perspective added a much-needed voice to the development literature, which had thus far ignored the gendered impacts of development policies, it did so problematically. WID theorists viewed the women, men, and economies of “less-developed” countries (the global South) through Western concepts and categories. For example, they accepted that development meant the extension of markets and commodification but did not recognize that equality in labor market participation, being a goal of Western feminists, did not necessarily improve women’s status or well-being in non-Western countries (see the introduction and reprinted essays in Volume 3 of Barker & Kuiper, 2009).

The fact that women of the South are not the same as Western women seems fairly obvious. But at a theoretical level, this insight is very powerful. It means that the category of woman is a construct of theory. In particular, it emerges from the privileging of the perspective of the West, discussed above. Western feminists are positioned within the history of European theorizing of knowledge production as colonizers, as superior, civilized, and modern, compared to women of the South. A stay-at-home white mother married to a wealthy man living in the United States, for example, has very different experiences of womanhood than a poor woman working in an Asian export processing zone, and an analysis of the desires, opportunities, and constraints facing the stay-at-home mother cannot be assumed to apply equally to the Asian woman. This is not simply because the Asian woman’s situation is so different but because the very meaning of woman is different in each case. One is not just a woman, but a woman with a race. Feminist economists who generalize from the experiences of white Western women are performing an act of violence, in that it enacts an imperial power relation of colonizer and colonized and therefore silences non-Western women with different histories and cultures (see R. M. Williams, 1993).

The inability of the category of woman to be universally applied is part of the postcolonial critique that has developed within feminist economics. Feminist economists have also problematized, as gender and race specific, such seemingly natural entities and concepts as the national economy as an object of economic control, development, progress, and less-developed or underdeveloped countries. The concept of the national economy as it has been integrated into mainstream economics is a gendered and racial concept that developed during the mid-twentieth century at the time macroeconomics and the national accounting framework emerged from the Keynesian revolution and just as former colonies became independent. The new national economies, no longer subject to the needs of their colonizers, were understood to be in need of Western-style modernization, which marginalized the unpaid subsistence work of women (see Bergeron, 2004). The concepts of development and progress are situated firmly within the European theories of race and human evolution, which justified the creation of European empires and colonized peoples by positioning European societies as the endpoint of civilization (see Bergeron, 2004; Olsen, 1994; Zein-Elabdin & Charusheela, 2004).

There are also many important empirical issues in the area of gender in the global context. For example, the economies of the South have been the object of surveillance and control by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and many have been subjected to structural adjustment policies, which reorient the economy to the repayment of debt by minimizing the size of government and maximizing exports. But the full effects of structural adjustment programs were unknown because the subsistence and reproductive work mainly performed by women was not quantified or accounted for or integrated into the policies. In fact, however, increases in this work were critical for mediating the social costs of the policies, such as the loss of the safety net as governments cut their expenditures (see the introduction and reprinted essays in Volume 3 of Barker & Kuiper, 2009; Beneria, 2003).

The international sexual division of labor is another important area of research. Women make up the majority of workers in the factories of global corporations located in the South. They are paid poverty-level wages and lack basic protections such as occupational health and safety regulations and union membership. Global corporations will simply relocate should worker demands raise labor costs. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of women from the South work as poorly paid domestics, maids, and nannies for wealthy women in the West and in wealthy Arab countries. Again we see the importance of the postcolonial critique and the emptiness of the assumption of some kind of global sisterhood (see Olsen, 1994).


This research paper has established that the field of feminist economics is necessary, that feminist economic researchers use two main approaches, each with its own important role to play in meeting the goal of ending the economic subordination of women, and reviewed five of the most important areas within which these researchers are working. Needless to say, many other important areas of theory and empirical work could not be covered for reasons of space (see Peterson & Lewis, 1999). Examples include the history of economic thought (where Pujol [1992] uses gender as a theoretical variable, while Dimand Dimand & Forget [2001] take an empirical approach); feminist perspectives on other heterodox schools of thought, such as post-Keynesian economics and institutionalism; integrating feminist thinking into the teaching of economics (see Bartlett, 1997); engendering government budgets and macroeconomic policy (see Sharp, 1999); and gender in emerging market economies. The five topics discussed above, however, capture the essence of feminist economics: They cover the main ways in which the economic experiences of men and women are shaped by gender, and they address the most central and problematic of the concepts and categories of the mainstream.

See also:


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