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Women in Economics: Why it Matters – Part I

Carolina Alves & Gavin Hassall

Rebuilding Macroeconomics (RM) hosted its Women in Economics event at NIESR recently, as part of the ESRC’s ‘Festival of Social Science’. The event was organised around two sessions. First, Ozlem Onaran, RM’s first grant recipient, addressed gender and macroeconomics and, second, Laura Bear, a member of RM’s management group, discussed gender representation in important economic institutions.

Onaran made the case for ‘gendering’ macroeconomics by incorporating behavioural differences between the sexes. This is through emphasising the central role of social norms in reinforcing these differences in economic models. Her talk covered employment, gender gaps and inequalities and broadened the analysis beyond GDP. Onaran‘s framework includes gender socialisation and the asymmetry of power between men and women, e.g. unpaid and invisible domestic female labour.

Onran’s talk had two major highlights. The first is the how gender behavioural differences and the social norms lead to different policy outcomes and inter-generational consequences. The second emphasises the importance of social infrastructure – so-called “purple-investment”. This encourages us to consider gender-related norms, values and behaviour. Some public spending in education, childcare, health and social care should be viewed as infrastructure spending in the budget, which would imply redefining infrastructure and the fiscal rules.

Some economist have argued that the dividing line between “investment” and “current” spending is always blurred while others make the case for continued separation. This is particularly because spending is evaluated on its future return, which in the case of social infrastructure is challenging to measure. Sue Himmelweit sees no quick fix; for her, we need to rethink how we define concepts such as investment and productivity, as well as challenge the GDP measures and the national accounts that they are built on.

When faced with the difficulty of redefining infrastructure spending, Himmelweit argued that we need to think which kind of society we want to live in: “Spending on care should not be ‘just’ spending”. Laura Bear echoes Sue’s point stating that economic measures are built on normative principles, so let’s at least try to get them ‘right’!

In the second half of the event, Bear’s talk looked at the issue of gender representation in economics and economic institutions through an anthropological lens. She discussed the representation of women in the Treasury, the Bank of England, economics departments and business. Drawing on a discussion of “cultures of expertise”, which refers to “a social-cultural analysis of social hierarchies, ethos and knowledge practices”, Professor Bear argued that it is not enough to just increase the number of women and assumes this creates ‘diversity’. Increased representation could challenge the prevailing culture of expertise by breaking-down ‘group think’, and be a form of competitive advantage, benefiting these institutions.

Policies and incentives to ‘bring more women in the room’ become empty without reorienting culture and values of organisations and institutions. For example, more women in economics departments and on promotion committees are paths to success for gender equality. But the academic culture, with gendered institutional policies and implicit biases, ends up generating more male top candidates than female, given publications, fields and citations.

There are possible unintended consequences in some policies that do not address the culture of expertise, risk and masculinity, such as family-friendly employment policies. While such policies represent progress, “male economists typically approach parenthood with few concerns about possible professional consequences”. They can advance their careers using the parental benefit to publish their research. Not only is there no parallel rise in the output of female economists, but these “policies appear to have effectively raised the tenure bar for women”.

The Indian banking system was brought up as a rare case of having relatively high female representation in an economics-related profession. Historically, female participation was encouraged, which suggests that institutions with a social (developmental) purpose can address inequalities and alter them. Bear’s argument here relates to Claudia Goldin’s point that although stereotype threat, increased hostility and discrimination affects female representation, an important part of the cause is from a narrow identification of the discipline with finance, management, and testosterone-laden textbooks.

Overall, the festival event considered a range of perspectives on gender in economic modelling and in the profession. We are very grateful to all panellists and audience members who contributed to the discussions. The two overarching themes are used by us not only to blog about the event, but also to make a case that any event on gender and economics should be a concern of economists of all genders.

One of goals of the RM is to offer an opportunity for perhaps more disruptive thinking, and this event definitely lived up to its billing. What seems to be less clear is whether the profession thinks that economics needs a radical overhaul and what the scale and scope of these changes might be.

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