Feminist Economics: The Conversation

The Conversation

Giandomenica Becchio, Response

Mikayla Novak, Response

Arnold Kling, Response

Jayme Lemke, Are there better ways to understand gender norms?

Giandomenica Becchio, Final Response: Do we need feminist economics?

Giandomenica Becchio's Response

Thanks so much to Jayme Lemke, Mikayla Novak, and Arnold Kling for their comments. We somehow agree in considering the introduction of feminist economics within economic theory as a necessary step to better understanding social and cultural phenomena that cannot be reduced to a mere effect of a neutral mechanism of maximization that leads to multiple states of equilibria as described by standard economics. Hence, it seems that we all share a general attitude to consider feminist economics a more proficient way to deal with gender issues and gender inequality than standard economics does.

Nonetheless, many additional points have been considered by my colleagues that deserve to be addressed further in order to discuss the place and the importance of feminist economics, especially among a classical liberal audience.

Standard economics and the classical liberal tradition have been too often overlapped by regarding them, respectively, as the only possible analytical tool of a particular cultural vision (free market). Classical liberalism is more than free market though; classical liberalism is grounded on values such as individual freedom, the absence of coercion, equality before the law, and rejection of social constraints that reduce individuals’ liberty and dignity. If standard economics does not consider gender stereotypes—social pressure based on gender and gender discrimination as possible sources of a specific form of inequality—that harm women’s (and other gender identities’) freedom, it must be corrected. And this was precisely what feminist economics tried to do when it emerged fifty years ago.

As Kling rightly points out, economics “is on the road to sociology” and “sociology itself, as currently practiced as an academic discipline, is characterized by stifling methodological and ideological rigidity.” Hence, economics must consider the crucial role of social norms in describing economic phenomena. The main problem with standard economics is that it refuses to bridge the gap between economics per se and sociology. Conversely, feminist economists, especially the first generation of feminist economists, insisted on the necessity of considering social norms as inescapably correlated with economic behavior. Think about the feminist economics’ critique to Becker’s marriage theory and the traditional division of labor between partners: feminist economists introduced social pressure, traditional habits, self-constraint mechanisms, legal frameworks, and tacit rules as determinants to help explain decisions within the households that overcome the simple bargaining theory as interpreted by standard economics.

As Novak writes, the notion of gender is a socio-cultural notion per se, which is entangled with other sociological categories that shape individual behavior and social dynamics. The fact that feminist economics introduced gender within economics represented a way to enrich economics as a social science. It is true that the specific and complex nature of gender is inevitably related to the notion of power, as Kling underlines, especially when gender relations are connected with phenomena such as gender discrimination and inequality. Nonetheless, I do not second Kling’s idea that feminist economics relies entirely on Marxist-style sociology whose “normative goal is to expose and reconfigure those power relations.” While many feminist economists—especially within the first generation—were Marxist-oriented scholars, classical liberal feminism always existed and it found some room within feminist economics as well, as Lemke points out.

More relevant is the fact that feminist economics and other heterodox economic approaches share the idea, well expressed by Kling, that social norms evolve. Against the crystalized paradigm of standard economics, which does not take into account the dynamic nature of social norms, feminist economics targets the specificity of social norms in different historical frameworks and geographic contexts and tries to explain gender inequality by considering those social norms as relevant elements for understanding gender issues. Power relations are part of this big picture: they may be ignored as standard economics did, as did Becker and his followers; they can be explained by addressing capitalism as the main and only source of patriarchy/discrimination, as feminist Marxists did/do (Beneria, Pujol, Folbre, and many more); they may be regarded as fundamental elements in describing gender issues and inequality without connoting them as effects of the capitalistic system, as non-Marxist feminist economists usually did/do (Bergmann, Boserup, Nelson, and many more).

Finally, the relevance of evolving social norms is crucial, as Kling writes, to understanding whether they enhance or restrict freedom. This is a point that is worthy of addressing in a separate discussion. Though in this context, can we agree that it depends on whose freedom we are talking about? Does any step toward gender equality imply a zero-sum game (men’s freedom is reduced when women’s freedom increases) or is it possible to consider an increment of gender equality as a way to increase liberty for all the parties involved (the emancipation of women makes society more free, therefore, men too)? Again, the tension between equality and liberty plays a crucial role in providing a possible answer to this question, especially when we place a new card on the table: fairness. Standard economics does not take care of fairness in the same way feminist economics does.

The relevance of the evolving nature of social norms in economic models aimed at describing gender issues leads me to Lemke’s comment. She rightly points out that there is a “false dichotomy between laissez-faire and social control [that] omits the great variety of alternative voluntarist strategies that people may wish to employ to improve their world.” Therefore, she rightly cites Ostrom’s behavioral rational choice model, which emphasizes the moral and epistemic limitations of human nature, as well as Hayek’s notion of the Great Society that “contains space for many views about where progress can come from and for a wide range of experiments in how that progress may come about.” Let me add a more recent contribution: Peter Boettke (2021), who accurately suggests how economics and political economy can be used in order to understand the society as a whole as well as to improve it in a more appropriate way. This is a task performed by feminist economics when it insists on explaining gender inequality as an effect of a traditional social coercion rather than of a rational division of labor.

I agree with Lemke when she writes that we need to get rid of the dichotomy between free market, intended as laissez-faire, and social control: many possible scenarios stand in the middle. Some feminist economics’ agendas are able to embed them in their model while standard economics considers human interactions, including those related to gender issues, either as perfect equilibria model or as market failures.

Every social phenomenon includes culture as a relevant element and the importance of culture cannot be put aside when social sciences deal with forms of inequality. The reductionism of standard economics was one of the major motivations of the emergence of feminist economics. As Novak rightly suggests, Austrians have always “demonstrate[d] that culture is a key element to that broader institutional environment which shapes the incentives and payoffs surrounding economic activities.” On this point, she quotes Horwitz, McCloskey, Lavoie, Storr, and Chamlee-Wright, among others. Novak also points out the differences between feminist and Austrian economists: for instance, Vaughn underlines that feminist economists do not usually consider the effects of free market on women’s economic welfare. What I want to add here is an underrated element: both Austrian and feminist economists are focused on the role of cooperation within institutions. The strict dichotomy between competition and cooperation is, in fact, rejected by some feminist economists (Longino 1990; Haack 1996) as well as by the Austrians’ concept of catallaxy as a way to relate individuals within a community embedded in a spontaneous and mutual order (Mises 1949; Hayek 1978).

A minor point aimed to conclude and maybe to open up a different discussion. Today’s standard economics is much more prone to considering social norms and endogenous preferences in explaining gender issues. Does this development within standard economics drastically reduce the importance of feminist economics per se


Boettke P. J., The Struggle for a Better World. Arlington: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, 2021.
Haack S. (1996) “Science as Social? Yes and No,” in Nelson L. and Nelson J. Feminism, Science, and Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 79- 94. 
Hayek F. (1978) New Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Longino H. (1990) Science as a Social Knowledge; Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mises L. (1949) Human Action. Yale: Yale University Press.

Mikayla Novak’s Response

The response essays offer a range of constructive responses to Giandomenica Becchio’s lead essay. This provides catalytical as well as, on my reading, catallactical moments for thinking with respect to classical liberal receptions toward feminist economics, and so I appreciate my involvement in this important discussion.

Arnold Kling provides an insightful, and thought provoking, essay airing concern that efforts seeking to reconcile mainstream and feminist economics are a potentially trepidatious process. As Kling convincingly outlines, this concern is not without foundation. Mainstream economics has its own deficiencies. The “just add and stir” approach to incorporating norms into a utility function raises questions over which (or, perhaps more accurately, whose?) norms—let alone beliefs, ethics, ideologies, moralities, and values—are to be intellectually recognized as salient. Such a maneuver, as adopted by the likes of neoclassicists such as Gary Becker, is considered unsatisfactory to feminist economists who see gender as a pervasive facet of the human condition with multipronged, including extra-economic, implications.

Over recent years economic historians, methodologists, and philosophers have identified a host of changes in economic research methods, empirical approaches, and inquiry topics. Not all researchers who study these trends would refer to it as such, but I would tend to agree with Kling’s identification of economics transcending down a sociological road, so to speak. A part of this “sociological turn” in economics and its intellectual first cousin, political economy, was much the subject of my initial response to Becchio. An Austrian economics with a capacity to be intellectually receptive to gender concerns I argue not only opens ontological and methodological windows of scholarly perception, but invites new analytical and empirical approaches to the economic study of humankind.

In his response essay, Kling communicates a warning about economics traversing down the road of sociology. This is because mainstream sociology is, too, deficient. It has been observed that sociology is dominated by researchers with progressive-left (including, but not limited to, Marxist) ideologies and commitments. This has implications for the types of conceptual approaches pursued in the discipline, for example an almost overriding concern with power relations as described by Kling. Power relations are said to inhere within the tapestry of structures that reproduce gendered (and other) social relations, and it is these structures that dominate the social world more generally.

If there is an Achilles heel of mainstream sociology it is encapsulated in one word: agency. The contributions of human agency in norms and other societal patterns tend to be undersold by mainstream sociologists. This is significant because the contributions of markets in helping to resolve gender inequality by making discrimination more costly tends to be ignored, but so too do other measures of progress in the economic status of women. Female entrepreneurship and, similarly, the growth in business startups by women has become an important economic feature, and changes in production structure with less reliance upon manual exertion—and more on cognitive skill—tends to be favorable to women. Something else that tends to be overlooked by mainstream sociology is that market-based economic development provides greater opportunities for women to strategically dedicate resources to press for political rights claims, as well as social projects aimed at tackling the unequal treatment of women and men.

Mainstream economics is not the only economic approach to better understanding gender issues, and mainstream sociology is not the only sociological approach. It is possible to embrace the economics of Mises and Hayek (Austrian school), Elinor and Vincent Ostrom (Bloomington school), and James Buchanan (Virginia school), and it is possible to combine these with the non-Marxist sociological contributions of Weber, Schütz, Berger, Boettke, and Storr. Again, I see the expression of gender concerns with a framework of mainline political economy as addressing some of Becchio’s concerns.

Jayme Lemke presents a quite sublime intellectual excursion into the precepts of mainline political economy, with special reference to how the contributions of Elinor Ostrom may assist in discovering a liberalism robustly grounded in feminism. The Ostromian study of human affairs beyond the organizational structures of firms and governments also opens new investigative windows; in this regard, helping to understand how gender institutionally shapes behavior as well as facilitates choices. Furthermore, as Lemke rightly notes, the value of understanding the gendered world about us contrasts a serious defect in the shape of transformational activism posture, which is increasingly prevalent within mainstream sociology. Ostrom invites us to be “students,” rather than “engineers” or “transformers,” of society.

We human mortals interpret everything in our world—including our perceptions of gender behavior, expression, and identity—from within our institutional environments. On this point, Lemke speaks truly. Humans are also endowed with imaginative capabilities coupled with organizational prowess to actively test whether we “would,” “could,” or “should” generate institutional change along various margins. I referred to voluntaristic group actions, where people can come together, discuss, and mobilize in an effort to redress any perceived gender inequalities or injustices. What readily springs to mind here are feminist social movements, which have sought to expand economic opportunities, political rights, and social esteem for women.

Whilst not necessarily motivated by liberal principles on all occasions, and not always succeeding with their objectives, such movements are one example of Ostrom’s expanded purview of agentic involvements beyond non-market and non-state domains. Although feminist movements are known to contentiously entangle with participants of both commercial and political enterprises, there are others (such as anarchist feminists, and feminist “new social movements”) that primarily seek cultural and social changes rather than political concessions. These types of voluntary collective actions—and more such as feminist commoning, mutual aid associations, community organizations, and so on—could prove a useful starting point for a liberal feminist scholarship.

Arnold Kling’s Response

Reading the initial essays of the other three participants, I came away with the impression that feminist economics is implicitly defined as the study of institutions and social norms that adversely affect the outcomes of women. That strikes me as a very narrow focus. I want to suggest some ways to broaden the focus.

Let me stipulate that it is incorrect to assume that all of the differences between the roles of men and women in market labor result from differences in preferences and temperament. I would suggest that it is equally incorrect to assume that none of the differences in market work result from differences in preferences and temperament. If standard economics insists on the former, then it will go wrong. If feminist economics insists on the latter, then it will go wrong.

It is worth pointing out that saying that, “On average, men have a greater preference for jobs involving X than do women” is not a statement about all men and all women. Just as saying that, on average, men are taller than women is not to say that all men are taller than all women.

Psychological temperament is more difficult to measure than height. There is more room for controversy concerning claims about average temperamental differences than claims about average height differences. 

Also, differences in psychological temperament can be affected by culture as well as by genetic differences. In fact, one of the ways to broaden feminist economics would be to explore cultural and genetic factors.

The study of our closest relatives among primates shows that female apes will adopt dolls, stroking them and nurturing them. Male apes will not do this.

Preschool children show different preferences in toys. Presented with identical options, boys are relatively more likely to play with toy trucks and girls are relatively more likely to play with dolls. Girls can be happy playing with toy trucks, but boys tend to show very little interest in dolls, except as projectiles to throw.

As adults, men tend to move into occupations that involve working with things, and women tend to move into occupations that involve working with people. Not all of the jobs working with things are high status. Consider farm labor, automobile repair, sanitation workers, or plumbers. Not all of the jobs that primarily involve working with people are low status. High-level management and executive positions often are very people-oriented.

Economists interested in gender differences might want to study why close to 60 percent of college students today are female. This is an interesting phenomenon, even if it does not contribute to understanding how social institutions harm women.

A number of issues related to gender and family are of interest to students of our society. These include trends in mating strategies and fertility. Unfortunately, the narrow focus of feminist economics seems to ignore such issues.

If feminist economics wants to focus narrowly on how men are treated more fairly than women, then that would be unfortunate, in my view. Other relevant topics beckon to be addressed.

Jayme Lemke’s Response: Are there better ways to understand gender norms?

In the thoughtful essays shared by fellow contributors Arnold Kling and Mikayla Novak, I see an important commonality around the question of social norms. Both Kling and Novak see the importance of finding a better way to incorporate social norms into our conversations around feminism and gender. They also share a dissatisfaction with static conceptions that treat social norms as fixed constraints to be dealt with rather than complex—and in the case of Novak’s essay, emergent—phenomena that can be adapted in order to better fit a changing social environment.

Kling raises the question of how to understand social norms without falling into either the economists’ or the sociologists’ blind spots. In his view, the economists’ pitfall is to shove social norms into the utility function without inquiring how they get there: “If we are going to examine norms, we want to know how these particular norms got into the utility function, as opposed to some other norms.” On the other end of the spectrum, he views contemporary sociology as coming “dangerously close to simply treating social norms as analogous to government policies, as part of the incentive structure,” not recognizing the myriad other functions that norms may serve. Both blind spots lead to overlooking the role individuals play in creating and changing social norms.

I see the beginnings of a response to this important set of questions in Novak’s essay. Novak inquires whether an Austrian perspective, focused on entrepreneurship and the complexities of social change, may be useful in helping understand the causes of changing attitudes and practices around gender equality. She suggests that “… a culturally attuned Austrian economics recognizes voluntary collaborations as one way to shift gender attitudes.” For example, a voluntary association, such as a women’s professional association, can be a way for members to “… share information about employment opportunities, discuss intelligence about suitable (and unsuitable) workplaces, and collaborate in skills formation and honing capabilities, all of which can help close gender disparities in the economy.” Of course, norm entrepreneurship can take many forms. Even the simple process of individuals negotiating different practices in their familial and professional relationships can be an important input into a process of experimentation, learning, and—maybe, eventually—more widespread change.

In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek writes about social rule-systems developing over time, with unconscious habits serving as a kind of starting point for the eventual development of large-scale governing institutions: “…rules tend to develop from unconscious habits into explicit and articulated statements and at the same time to become more abstract and general. Our familiarity with the institutions of law prevents us from seeing how subtle and complex a device the delimitation of individual spheres by abstract rules is” (Hayek 1960: 216). There is much change, experimentation, and learning that takes place throughout this process, largely due to entrepreneurs who are willing to challenge the status quo rather than assuming that what came before should be everlasting: “… the main point of liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not stand still… There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions” (Hayek 1960: 521).

In the area of gender norms, I believe there is much room for political economists to use their constitutional imagination to support norm entrepreneurs in finding voluntaristic, non-coercive ways to remove barriers to women’s advancement around the world. I look forward to exploring the question of the relationship between social norms and liberalizing institutional change as this discussion continues.

Giandomenica Becchio, Final Response: Do we need feminist economics?

As Lemke and Novak pointed out, mainstream economics as well as mainstream sociology are missing some fundamental elements in describing gender inequality: the role of agency, the nature of social norms, the relevance of extra-economic factors cannot belong to the ceteris paribus assumption, as standard economics usually places them. As Novak underlines, the “add and stir'' approach is no longer acceptable, and feminist economics realized its beginning. Like any other heterodox approach, feminist economics was a critical response to standard economics’ way of explaining gender issues, which was grounded on the idea that the traditional division of labor between men and women in the private sphere, as well as in the public sphere, was rational and efficient as it is based on biological differences, reinforced by diversified investments on human capital. In 1992 when Becker was awarded the Nobel prize "for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including nonmarket behavior," economists who used to criticize Becker’s approach founded IAFFE (the International Association for Feminist Economics). Much later, in 2006, feminist economics was officially recognized by the American Economic Association as a heterodox research field: in fact, AEA assigned JEL code B54 to feminist economics. As economists know, JEL code B includes all the heterodox approaches that either criticize or reject standard economics. For instance, the JEL code of Austrian economics is B53[1].

As Kling rightly wrote, a narrow focus does not lead to any significant result in describing social phenomena related to gender. Nonetheless, to claim that feminist economics is all about power relations is reductive: the intent of feminist economists was precisely to enlarge the narrow focus of standard economics on gender inequality by including power dynamics, gender stereotypes, social pressure, and other cultural elements that cannot be classified as a matter of preferences. Feminist economics does not deny tastes and preferences, rather it reveals the complexity of the decision-making process related to gender issues such as the division of labor between genders. To be fair, even standard economics revised its own methodological assumptions lately by going beyond “tastes and preferences” in order to explain gender inequality.

The interpretation of feminist economics as an analysis of gender issues based only on the dynamic of power might be applied to Marxian feminist economics, which is grounded on a structural critique to the capitalist system and the consideration of capitalism and patriarchy as two sides of the same coin. Nevertheless, this vision is far away from classical liberal feminist economics, grounded on the fundamental principle of individual freedom regardless of gender. The combination of classical liberalism and “the woman question” (the first wave of feminism) started in the late eighteenth century; it still exists and should not be forgotten.


[1] JEL classification is listed here: https://www.aeaweb.org/econlit/jelCodes.php?view=jel