Let’s Get Real. Economists Have a Sex Problem

Economist and feminist Victoria Bateman reveals some naked truths about the failings of economics.

Didn’t know that March 8th was International Women’s Day? You’re not alone. In some places, like Germany or China, the day recognizing women’s rights and equality is a public holiday. In others, like the United States, it hardly makes a ripple.

You may not see economists making a fuss over it, either. Possibly because the self-professed “king of social sciences” has a blind spot so huge that it habitually blots out half the world’s population. On top of that, it blurs the most significant forces that shape our lives – our social ties, our family life, our very bodies, particularly if those bodies happen to be female.

In The Sex Factor: How Women Make the West Rich, British economist Victoria Bateman, a fellow at Cambridge University, brings things back into focus. As a feminist, she often gets asked what feminism and economics have in common. Her answer? “Not nearly enough!”

Bateman has made headlines – and irked some feminists —by doing something rather dramatic to highlight the failings of economics and the practices and beliefs that hamper gender equality and women’s bodily autonomy: she often professes her views naked. That might seem a bit extreme, but she is tired of waiting. While academic disciplines have been moving beyond male-centric biases for decades, economists have hardly budged. Some practitioners might give passing notice to sex and gender in discussions of labor markets and wages, but these topics are pretty much absent in theories of economic growth, boom and bust, and inequality.

Meanwhile, the standard assumptions, measures and methods used by economists are touted as gender neutral. News flash: they aren’t.

Part history tour, part manifesto, Bateman’s lively book makes it clear that if economists want to understand things as important as poverty and prosperity, they’ve got to adjust their lenses and see the fundamental role women play in the economy. This is not just a story of women’s oppression, though there’s plenty of that. In her narrative, women emerge as active agents who have been central to economic success from the very beginning. Yet economies have thanked them by taking a free ride on their backs.

Bateman traces a history in which Europeans, especially those in the north and west, made economic leaps past more established civilizations in the Middle East and elsewhere partly because they featured circumstances that tended to increase women’s freedom. The Black Death, for example, which obliterated half of Europe’s population in the 14th century, left a shortage of male labor and thus opened markets to women in ways that in turn shaped family structures, leading to nuclear families which gave women more independence and choices — such as marrying later and having fewer children — than they tended to have in traditional extended kinship networks. These new family structures also helped to nudge everybody to rely on cooperation with non-relatives and influenced the emergence of democratic states in Europe. Trust in non-family members was good for the development of markets, too, and when markets flourished, women’s participation gave them economic power which enabled them to stand up to social norms and family pressure, which again influenced the state. And so on.

This expansion of women’s freedom meant that by time of the Industrial Revolution, women in northern and western Europe typically engaged more freely with markets compared to those in other parts of Europe and much of rest of world (or in much of the world today), forming a third of the labor force in Britain by the 19th century. Women’s freedom then, does not appear as byproduct of Western economic growth, as many historians and economists would have it, but a precondition. Which means that the standard story of how the West grew rich, a tale of male inventors and industrialists, is far from complete.

Bateman emphasizes that while women’s freedom is essential to growth, it doesn’t just naturally increase over time, but gets knocked backwards almost as frequently as it moves forwards. She notes that over the course of the Industrial Revolution, female employment fell as disparities between men and women increased. Unfortunately, this was the time when economics as a discipline was developing. Economic theory prioritized what economists considered the “rational,” “masculine” realms of life opposed to the “soft,” “feminine” side, casting men as economic actors and women as unproductive dependents. In the 20th century, such distorted divisions manifested in the male breadwinner/female caregiver model which has by no means disappeared.

Basically, economists set up an artificial wall between public and private spheres that is “long overdue a wrecking ball,” as Bateman puts it, noting that the market and the state are by no means the only centers of human action. Many feminists argue that a third sphere must be included in the discussion – the realm of home, family, and society. Consider the famous “homo economicus,” the rational, self-interested agent beloved by economists, who knows nothing of care labor or activities performed for purposes other than financial reward. Economists using the rational agent model tend to think of people making free choices and weighing every decision carefully, but this discounts the experience of women whose freedom and choices are restricted, driven into early marriages or facing unintended pregnancies, which make up nearly half the pregnancies in the world.

Bateman embraces libertarian feminism, a strain which emphasizes the rights of women to control their bodies, including their fertility and the right to engage in sex work. Her version of libertarianism is less antagonistic towards the state than what Americans might associate with the term. When asked if she views macroeconomies as inherently stable, Bateman gives a cautious nod to Keynesianism. She also acknowledges that the state can work for women by providing public sector jobs and welfare systems that prevent them from becoming destitute. In her view, the state should intervene in care work, such as the provision of care for children and the elderly. But she also points out the way markets can provide advantages to women, such as allowing them to escape repressive families and heavily gendered social expectations. Markets and states, she believes, are not necessarily adversaries but can be designed to bring out the best in each other. Thinking about social norms and family life is crucial because gender inequalities there are reflected and reinforced in the other two realms.

Bateman’s perspective brings a fresh focus to conversations about inequality in the West as a global problem linked to women having too little control over their bodies. Lack of freedom for women in poorer countries, she observes, has spillover effects in richer economies in terms of wages, inequality and economic growth. Her observations are also relevant to environmental debates in which issues like population and women’s fertility often go unmentioned. Economists prefer to talk about clean technology, but for Bateman, women’s ability to control their fertility is as important – if not more – to a sustainable future. She notes that Project Drawdown – a coalition of scientists, scholars and others concerned about the environmental crisis – ranks 80 solutions to the climate crisis, with family planning and the education of girls listed in the top ten, ahead of solar farms and wind turbines. Bateman points out that economists worried that low fertility hurts the economy are ignoring the fact that that population growth is often built on women’s unpaid care and lack of freedom.

Are economists ready for these observations? If they want to contribute to solving the world’s most pressing problems, such as growing economic inequality and the destruction of the planet, let’s hope the answer is yes.

Share your perspective