DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)–With the world economy in a fragile state at the end of the longest-running boom in recent history and most nations convulsed by terrorism or the battles against it, many leading female economists believe that now is the time for women like them to be heard on issues of international trade and development.
“It’s not only a matter of getting women economists–if you get women who think like males, you haven’t done much,” says Jane Bayes, professor of political science at California State University, Northridge, and director of the Institute of Gender, Globalization and Democracy in its women’s studies department.
It is important to get into policy-making positions women economists who are feminists and think in terms of these forgotten or ignored or invisible parts of economic activity which generally keep society together,” she said.
Bayes and other women economists addressed a session on Nov. 3 at the Fifth North Texas U.N. Conference on Women at the University of Texas at Dallas. The conference theme: “Saving Women’s Lives.” The economics session theme: “Global Trade: A Women’s Issue.”
There is a good reason that women are scarce in this field of global economics, which Diana Strassmann, founding editor of Feminist Economics, describes as the last of the social sciences to be subjected to a feminist critique.
Many Women Turned Off by Traditional Economic Theory of Individuals
“The content of economic theory inherently doesn’t ring true to women,” she says. Mainstream economists use models that depict individuals who have no connection to other people. Any outcome is based on individual choice.
“So here you take a woman or someone from a different culture, people whose experience of life is not facing an abundance of choices,” she says. “Think about what happens to these economics students. They come into a classroom and hear these theories–that women get paid less because it’s their choice … that if people are poor, it’s their own fault.”
And many of the would-be women economists who hear this turn away from the dismal science, and instead decide to be sociologists or lawyers, entering fields where they think they can make a social difference.
Strassmann, also senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Cultures at Rice University in Houston, says she ignored the unfriendly signals when she was in graduate school.
When her advisor at Harvard University endorsed the marriage tax to encourage women to stay home, she thought he was an aberration and switched advisors.
“I really believed that economists have solutions to social problems and I really do believe that it’s important to think about material life, especially in a world where so many people are suffering,” she says.
Math and Rigid Models Cannot Explain All Economic Phenomena
Instead, she found a discipline seeking to be an exact science, explaining economic phenomena through mathematical calculations and rigid models. When a situation did not fit the model, students were not taught the critical theory necessary to find new models.
Women who questioned this approach have had trouble making good grades and finding jobs, Strassmann said.
“The most important responsibility for people who are in the discipline, like myself–with some power–is to open the door to people whose experiences give them insight we lack,” she said.
The door opened a crack in 1990, when a session on feminism in economics at the American Economic Association Conference in Washington, D.C., attracted a crowd. The International Association for Feminist Economics was organized with 52 founding members two years later. The organization now has more than 500 members, about half from the United States.
“One of the things that IAFFE is doing is trying to unpack concepts, dismantle them, show where (traditional economic theories) are biased and create new ideas to deal with these subjects that are not spoken about,” Bayes says. She cites subjects like reproduction, child care, care for the elderly, housework and farm work.
She believes that women would be more likely than men to question economic decisions that would be harmful for families, such as policies in Somalia that encouraged export while destroying subsistence agriculture, or the expansion of Mexican agribusiness that pushed local farmers off their land and into the cities.
More Profitable Agriculture Can Mean Starving People
“Economists don’t think about what it means to families when they do this,” Bayes says. “They try to make agriculture more profitable for the country, but meanwhile they upset the balance in the community and people starve.”
Wariana Mbugua of Kenya, chief of the gender issues branch of the United Nations Population Fund, told the global trade session that women must shift their focus from “soft areas,” like health and education to “hard areas” like world trade.
She would like to see agencies like the World Trade Organization, which met this week in Doha, Qatar, be more open to women.
“Until the WTO becomes a real open forum, it will not change–and that’s why women should take it over,” Mbugua said.
Although trade is a vehicle for development that affects women, the World Trade Organization does not frame its agenda in terms of gender equality, the conference participants said.
“We cannot continue to deal with it from the outside, holding our placards and shouting,” she said. “Representation is very key and very, very critical.”
Strassmann says there may be more opportunities for women to be heard as the economy becomes more global and more diverse students challenge the work that is done.
“If one looks at intellectual history, how ideas change, often you find you don’t change ideas of people who have been doing work a certain way a long time. You influence their students,” she says.
Pennie Boyett is a free-lance writer in Arlington, Tex.
For more information:
International Association for Feminist Economics:
Feminist Economics, journal of the IAFFE:
United Nations Population Fund: