Economic Woman

Econometrics, gender, equity and more.

The division of feminism and economics

with 6 comments

When economists see a division of labour, they are likely to assume that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement, unless there is evidence to the contrary. When it comes to the division of labour at home – who goes to work, who takes on childcare and housework – feminists are apt to assume that an egalitarian arrangement is preferable.

Most of us are also likely to say that feminism is about choice, including the right to reject or choose traditional gender roles, but that is often the second thought, and it is paired with theories about how women are forced into traditional roles because of the lack of affordable childcare, etc.

These are huge generalizations, obviously, but I think different starting points on the division of labour cause much of the friction between feminists and economists, at least when it comes to policy. If you associate the division of labour with oppression, it’s tough to communicate with someone who believes that it is humanity’s greatest innovation, the path to efficiency and wealth.

This Times article (also blogged here and here) rounding up some research on the mechanics and emotional health of gay vs. straight marriage, would seem to support the feminist side:

Notably, same-sex relationships, whether between men or women, were far more egalitarian than heterosexual ones. […] While the gay and lesbian couples had about the same rate of conflict as the heterosexual ones, they appeared to have more relationship satisfaction, suggesting that the inequality of opposite-sex relationships can take a toll.

The funny thing about egalitarian relationships is how elusive they are in real life. The other night, my partner and I were talking about the empowered, feminist women in our lives who have chosen to cook and clean for the men in their lives. We circled back, predictably, to choice: “She’s an emancipated, right-on woman, she knows what she’s doing.”

Earlier that afternoon, I read this section of Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist. (I know, I’m late to the bandwagon – my university library doesn’t buy popular economics books, and I have trouble convincing myself to buy hardcover books.) Cowen thinks we should try not to bring up economics too often within the family.

Silence that economist. Zip his mouth. Send him away to write his blog. Do not let him subject family decisions to ‘the optimal theory of principal-agent renegotiation-proof coalitions.’ […] The more our families feel we are violating our commitments to care, the harder the reception that economic advice will receive.

I know that Cowen isn’t really talking about feminist economics here – he means that we shouldn’t justify leaving the toilet seat up with economics. But are “emancipated, right-on women” taking this too far? Do they avoid talking about how much housework they do because they are honouring their “commitments to care”?

This is not my area of expertise – after all, I don’t live with any men – but it’s something I wonder about. Is asking your boyfriend to do more dishes an isolated, personal event, or does it help to reference social science? Feminists have gotten very good at making the political personal, but do we make the personal political enough?


Written by Allison

14 June 2008 at 10:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Good points. It’d be interesting to chart the effects of developing tech on “egalitarianization” of relationships. By reducing time requirements for household labor, and even by pulling us techie geeks into the mix. I know that once I got the roomba, I became the master of the floors around my house. But then again, I am a stay at home dad, not exactly representative to begin with.


    14 June 2008 at 11:19 pm

  2. Is asking your boyfriend to do more dishes an isolated, personal event, or does it help to reference social science?

    My policy is to keep it a personal event. ‘You are fucking with me’ is what’s relevant; ‘You are one of a group of people who is fucking with people who are like me’ would feel passive-aggressive and none too useful.


    15 June 2008 at 2:32 am

  3. […] a NYT article positing that gay unions “shed light” on gender and marriage,  Economic Woman wrote a provocative post, noting: When economists see a division of labour, they are likely to assume that it is a mutually […]

  4. I have always applied the simplest economics to egalitarian chore sharing. The object is to minmise the sum of both parties dissatisfactions; dissatisfactions with the standard to which the chore is done and dislike of doing it. In my experience this is easy when both parties have a high component of the others’ satisfactions in their personal welfare functions. In that situation comparative advantage theory applies. and chores get shared naturally. And joint investments in easing the burden go where they are likely to do most good.

    My impression is that it is people with strong “role models” – traditional, feminist, masculine, or sociological – who get in a twist about this. The lack of such models in homosexual pairings is probably an advantage, though i have no experience by which to judge.


    16 June 2008 at 3:24 pm

  5. That might depend on the branch of sociology that you want to assign your brand of feminism. Conflict theorists lean towards radical feminism and they see the society’s capitalism as the reason why egalitarianism cannot be achieved even at home. Other sociologists take different views on feminism in which different sections of society can be compartmentalized. You can have capitalism in the marketplace, yet maintain an egalitarian home. I think this is even evident in economics, in which the government (of a democratic society) involvement is sometimes necessary to correct market failures.

    A good economist should determine whether or not the resources have been divided most efficiently even when there is division of labor. A bad economist would just assume they have.


    16 June 2008 at 9:59 pm

  6. Another issue at hand is the differing value placed on having the chore done. In the home setting having the dishes done and the floor clean is a communal good, but the task of cleaning is a private cost. So as the cleanliness deteriorates the individuals in the household will engage in a game of chicken until they can not stand the level of slovenliness in order to avoid cleaning. For some reason, women have a tendency to have a different threshold for proffered levels of cleanliness, and will tend to give up and clean first. This would also explain why having the primary interest in the partners happiness is a huge factor in chore sharing. Is there any work on the source of gender discrepancies in proffered cleanliness?


    17 June 2008 at 11:45 am

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