Gender and the Economics Curriculum

Despite a privileged position in academia and policy making (or perhaps because of it), Economics has many detractors of its treatment of gender. Critics identify problems not just with the questions Economists raise but the method employed in answering them as well as the way it is taught in undergraduate classes, particularly the introductory classes.


Standard (neo-classical) economics, the dominant strand taught in leading undergraduate programs emphasizes understanding the economy (and recently, the society) by summing up individual choices. This poses the possibility of choice, even if under tragic circumstances, and the notion that the whole is a simple sum of its parts. In the post-world war era, a politically significant conclusion of this theorizing was that individuals in a competitive economy, each maximizing their own happiness, would generate an ‘equilibrium’ where no one could be made better-off without hurting another. Such is the momentum of this basic model, that it continues to be taught as an introduction to Economics despite many of its assumptions having been thoroughly discredited.

Incorporating gender into this traditional analysis was trivially easy in the first instance. A generic she replaced a generic he! At an abstract level, it really didn’t matter if the agent was male or female. The core message – that a free functioning market can resolve the tensions of a complex society amicably – remained intact. But the details were a tad devilish, particularly when applied to the labor market. The standard model predicted an equal wage for men and women of equal productivity, which appeared to be untrue. Given how sparsely the models are constructed, this `puzzle’ could be explained by only two possibilities – by ‘imperfections’ in the market and/or by peculiarities in women’s choices. ‘Imperfections’ arose in the labor market because women were not as mobile as men – they couldn’t leave a job and move to the next city at a better offer. But this wasn’t really the market’s fault, for women’s immobility arose, strictly speaking, from social and cultural restrictions and not from the market – so there were no implications for economic policy. The other possibility was that women ‘chose’ occupations that offered the flexibility of looking after a family and simultaneously (and unsurprisingly) paid less than occupations chosen by men. This was ingenious, as it made women ultimately responsible for their own predicament! The third possibility – men, as a group, discriminated against women as a group couldn’t really be sustained because (i) it implied behavior that was not profit maximizing and (ii) men simply did not exist in the models ‘as a group’. Ontological and behavioral assumptions simply did not allow for substantial discrimination.

These modeling assumptions have led economists to be regularly puzzled by common occurrences. In the 1950s, when household incomes were rising, economists were quite puzzled by the concomitant rise in women’s labor supply. This was also the same decade in which Betty Friedan wrote Feminine Mystique, describing in detail the multi-faceted costs of staying at home for women. Even so, the best economics could do, grafting gender onto a standard model, was to highlight economic opportunity cost, eventually convincing themselves that the rise in women’s labor was the substitution effect (rising wages increased the opportunity cost of women’s time thereby raising the cost of staying at home). Details were unimportant if economists’ models predicted well.

The desire for mathematically rigorous but acontextual models also has implications for how Economics is taught and the kind of student an Economics major attracts. To begin with, introductory economics is generally taught as if everyone in the class has the same learning style. The climate tends to be competitive, objective and individualistic. There is often very little interaction between student and teacher. There is even less interaction between and among students. Secondly, Economics is often taught in a way that is conducive for people who take in information through abstract conceptualization and process it through observation and reflection. But not everyone learns like this! Other students tend to take in information from concrete experiences and process the information through active experimentation. As it happens, research shows that American-European males and Asians show a tendency to learn through abstraction and American-European women and African American students tend to learn through concrete experiences.

Hierarchical dualisms, such as reason over nature and separation over connection are fundamentally tied to a hierarchy that ranks men above women.

Prominent feminist economists have argued that the staying power of this narrow approach as well as its associated pedagogy has much to do with systematic sexism – the systematic devaluation of women and ‘feminine’ ways of knowing. They have also drawn attention to the intellectual roots of Economics in fundamental categories of Western thought:Hierarchical dualisms, such as reason over nature and separation over connection are fundamentally tied to a hierarchy that ranks men above women. Can a discipline that prides itself in atomistic utility maximizing agents incorporate gender in ways that underscore the relationships of power that characterize gender? Can a discipline that prides itself in being a hard science by virtue of its mathematical rigor imagine other softer ways of knowing? Probably not.

But the criticisms of the mainstream models allow us to construct an inclusive Economics that doesn’t get readily puzzled, and Feminist economists have been doing just this for a several decades now. Where mainstream models ignore non-market activities, they break the dualism of market/ non-market by drawing attention to unpaid work in and out of the home. Where mainstream models struggle with self-interested/ altruistic preferences, they recognize that context helps decide which is relevant. In and out of the market, they draw attention not just to independence of choice but also to the human need for connection, not just to unbridled accumulation but to the fulfillment of the needs of a human family, not just to claims of ‘rigor’ but to a richer, inclusive and pluralistic way of doing Economics.

Dr. Rashid Memon is an Assistant Professor of Economics at LUMS. His work focuses on the role of social identity in economic interaction using survey and experimental data. He may be reached at

Rashid Memon