Liberty Matters


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.