When Ann Markusen, an economist and a professor of planning and public policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, talked with her dean about why women at the Institute had to struggle longer than men to get to the same level, he told her it was because women have children.
His argument faded when she pointed out that more of the men had kids than the women.
Economics as a field isn’t much concerned with women, whether in textbooks, in policy or as practitioners, according to Markusen.
Some say it’s a vicious cycle: a dearth of female economists leads to a blind spot in public policy and a skewed perspective in textbooks. Women have a hard time recognizing themselves, their lives or a career they’d want in their college economics courses, so few enter the field.
Having more women in the field won’t change anything, say others: a traditional, male-centered perspective is entrenched in economics, and women economists typically adapt themselves to the field rather than try to reform it.
Where are the women economists?
“Crudely speaking, there are almost no senior women in the top economics departments in the country,” said Markusen. A 1999 report put the number of female tenured economics professors at 6 percent. Markusen believes that the reason for this begins in Economics 101, where much of women’s work and effort is effectively invisible.
“[In] most economic theory, we teach that people get compensated in the marketplace on the basis of their productivity,” she explained. “There’s so many things that women do that [they] are not compensated for.”
Most women have jobs that are a measurable part of the economy, but the work they do in other parts of their lives is given no economic value—in fact, according to most economic models, that kind of work (running the household, taking care of children and parents, volunteering) doesn’t exist. “Economics just atomizes people so completely,” said Markusen. “You’re not really permitted to have altruistic feelings or behavior. Most women are very relational, help take care of their friends and family and so on.”
As a result, women studying economics don’t find many theories that resonate with their life experiences, Markusen said. Classic economic theory was created with a perspective skewed to one gender, she said. “It’s embedded in the very structure of economics,” she said. “[Economics] fits women less well than men.”
Textbooks aren’t the only place where this imbalance is overt, Markusen said. She uses the phrase “gender blindness” when talking about economic policies. “In workforce development there’s a huge bias in favor of men,” she said. “Women’s issues are apt to get dismissed, from social security to child care—even poverty programs.”
Would women shape a different economy?
The scarcity of women economists “accounts for the fact that there isn’t a focus on the specificity of women’s issues,” said Markusen.
Barbara Bergmann, a retired economics professor, former president of the International Association for Feminist Economics (www.iaffe.org) and co-author of America’s Child Care Problem: The Way Out, said it’s not that simple. Women economists today don’t all focus on women’s issues, she said, and those who do don’t present a united front. “The field is still male dominated, so if people want to get ahead, they have to do what will get them ahead,” she said. “The women economists there are need to do a better job of setting the agenda and trying to further it.”
For instance, said Bergmann, child care is one of the most critical issues for women today—and few are pushing for it. “The two things that would help [low income women] the most are universal health care and some help with child care,” she said. “The latter is nowhere. It’s not even on the back burner.”
Having more women economists might help, said Bergmann, but in the short term, she’s pinning her hopes on the Democrats. “If people are fed up with Republicans, and Democrats get in,” she said, “I would expect that they would do better on taxes, they wouldn’t waste so much money on defense, and so there would be money for the things that low income mothers need.”