Sat, 26 Apr 2003

Women and economics, why don't they like it?

Ari A. Perdana, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta,

Open any textbook on the history of economic thoughts and look inside the pages at the names of great economists -- none of them are female. And if you think of all the Nobel laureates in economics -- Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman and Robert Solow just to name a few -- they are also all men.

Does this suggest that economics is a male-dominated discipline? Statistically speaking, yes. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education shows that each year the number of males receiving a Bachelor of Arts in economics is twice as high as females, while at the PhD level, the ratio is three to one. The gender composition is similar to that in the field of physical sciences, and lower than mathematics and engineering. Comparatively, there are more females holding BAs and PhDs in other social sciences.

A study conducted at Harvard University tried to elaborate on more of the reasons behind the decisions of male and female students to choose economics as a major. Econometric testing for about 700 first-year students revealed that there were still unexplained portions of the lower probability of female students majoring in economics. This may arise from a structural difference in preference or knowledge about the nature of the economics discipline between genders.

Another possible explanation for the low representation of females in economics is the existence of significant entry barriers for women in the discipline. These barriers could be the masculine nature of economics. The issue of gender bias in economics has been a growing concern for some economists, mainly female, as well as scientists from other disciplines.

In 1995, the American Economic Review and Journal of Economic Perspectives published a series of articles on feminists' thoughts in economics. The authors criticized the masculine biases in four aspects of economics: theory, methods, topics and data.

The critics of theory were mainly concerned about the choice of the economic agent: a rationalistic individual who maximizes his or her utility with a preference that is independent of others. Feminist thinking argues that one's preference is not drawn into a vacuum. Rather, it is socially constructed. That means the utility to maximize is basically a set of the individual's and the values applied in society.

Economic theory tends to assume that a woman's decision regarding her career or education is an independent one. But values such as the socially expected role of a female in the family also influences the decision.

Conventional economists are also criticized for being heavily fanatic about quantitative methods and tend to consider the qualitative and deep observation as "soft and not unsophisticated" methods.

While qualitative methods offer more objectivity and strength in drawing generalization and logic consistency, an over-reliance on the methods has put up a barrier between economics and its social science nature. Quantitative research has also sometimes overlooked many unique but important facts due to the "law of great numbers". An example is the analysis on intra-household power relations and discrimination against females in the labor market.

A masculine bias also appears in the choice of topics. Conventional economics defines economic activity as transactions done in public domains, and could be valued in the market. Thus, most female domestic activities, such as caring for the household or raising children, are considered non-economic activities. However, these activities contribute to a higher quality of human capital, hence they should have market value.

Gary Becker's pioneering study on the transaction and the individual decision-making process in the non-market sector was a breakthrough in this area. He won the 1992 Nobel prize. His study also paved the way for other valuable research in the intra- household resource and power distribution, or gender aspects in the formal labor market. But the development of non-masculine biased studies is still constrained by data availability. Since domestic activities are not market activities, statistics do not include its value. Even if they were available, the techniques used to collect data still contain masculine biases.

For example, the measurement of the value of female domestic activities is still based on the input replacement cost. It is the price of similar activities provided by the market, like wage rates for housemaids or babysitters. This technique implicitly assumes that non-market and market activities are substitutes, while they are supposedly complements.

A more gender-neutral way of measurement is the output equivalent approach. As it considers raising children as an investment in human capital, the output is an increase of children's productivity in their adult years. Then the value of the mother's activity is equivalent to the market value of the increased productivity.

The above-mentioned critics are not exclusively feminist critics; They have been raised by academicians from other disciplines as well as by economists. By calling for the accommodation of values that are less gender-biased, they aim to make economics a better discipline.

At the University of Indonesia, where I work as a lecturer, only one female has recently become a professor of economics. Professor Mayling Oey-Gardiner was awarded the professorship just recently in more than 50 years of campus history. The professor, by the way, is a sociologist.

The writer also lectures at the School of Economics at the University of Indonesia.