Looking for a feminist perspective in the economics curriculum

Date Posted: Wednesday 15th September 2021

EducationFeminist Economics

By Ellie Martin (BSc Business, Finance And Economics at University of East Anglia)

A memory that has and will always stand out from attending my first lecture at the UEA is being congratulated by the Head of Economics for joining a degree that is so heavily male dominated. At the time as a naïve fresher, I was proud to defy the norm and do my part as a young feminist who can prove women can succeed in the field of Economics and Finance. It was not until the third year, in the process of choosing my modules, that I gained interest into how gender plays into the world of economics. Previously, I had never thought about this or even questioned the underrepresentation of women in economic modelling itself.

As I have joined ‘The Feminist Economics Project‘, it has given me a new perspective on economic theory and teaching. At first, I was unaware of whether any feminist teaching approaches were incorporated into my degree at all. In fact, group work, discussions with peers and collaborative learning were encouraged throughout my studies - and these are all in line with a feminist pedagogy. However, upon learning more about feminist economic theory, I began to question whether there needs to be greater coverage within the economics curriculum. As my experience grew, the list of topics that I believe could have incorporated feminist perspectives grew. I realised a core component was sometimes missing, opening up potential to change economics benchmarking to widen its appeal. Yet, a true reflection of the diversity of economic agents and outcomes was not something that I had personally come across. Perhaps this experience is made more likely by an underrepresentation of women and focus on conventional neoclassical economic analysis?

Eager to know if my peers shared the same opinion, I created a survey and held discussions about students’ understanding and experience of feminist economic perspectives. Initially, a small number of peers were selected, setting the ground for a future study to be extended to a larger representative group of students. This blog shall present some of the noteworthy results from this initial survey, as well as my own reflection on the topic, with the aim is to highlight how we believe that feminist theory and pedagogy can be further incorporated into mainstream economics teaching.

Initial student survey findings

A core component of feminist pedagogy is to restructure the teaching of economic theory to ensure inclusivity across all races, classes, ethnicities, sexual orientations, nationalities, gender and geographic locations (Aerni et al., 1999). In presenting respondents with the dimensions of inclusivity, almost everyone disagreed that the content taught in economics necessarily adopts this approach. One response stated: “Even from the start we are taught to think about ‘the rational economic man’. Conventional theory fails to acknowledge the differences between groups”. Additionally, all of the students questioned thus far believe that further development of feminist perspectives within the economics curriculum would be valuable. Perhaps most strikingly, all respondents noted that there could be greater consideration of underrepresentation of women within the discipline and how that may impact on the ‘gender neutrality’ of economic theory (see for example Ferber and Nelson, 2003 on the caveats of this assumption).

But there are also notable positive features of the economic teaching approach. While challenging conventional theory could be improved, it is noticeable how students do value the economic focus on the  building of interdependence skills that are aligned with developing feminist pedagogy  (Aerni et al., 1999). The use of weekly assignments, for example, allows for a particular positive form of peer assisted learning conducive to open dialogue and conversation. Encouraging thought-provoking conversations about the topic at hand, it avoids more intimating teaching environments and encourages relationship-building which reduces reliance on the academic as pedagogical lead.

Further reflection on feminist economic theory

The need for a larger survey is indicated by how feminism is currently integrated within the economics curriculum. Rather than automatically considered within general microeconomics and macroeconomics, it is explicitly developed within more specialised sub-disciplines. At UEA, for example, its considered in modules such as Labour Economics and Multidisciplinary Economics. Issues covered include: the consequences of unpaid work; the importance of power; patriarchy and labour supply; and the links across feminist and Marxist perspectives. The importance of the feminist perspective is arguably most clearly advertised when referring to discrimination. Neoclassical ‘taste for discrimination’ can be seen as insufficient. Power and conflict requires consideration to ensure that there is a suitable challenge to ‘gender blind economics’, including a more nuanced understanding of occupational segregation across all disciplines of economics, macro and micro included. Rather than merely referring to passive policies such as equal pay legislation, there needs to be focus on the family and policy capably of solving the burden of care falling disproportionally on women – as highlighted so clearly in the recent pandemic. Through exploration of policy related reports (e.g. the Women’s Budget Group), we can further understand sectoral imbalances, whereby women have been more exposed to the virus, and also became more frequent victims of unemployment in industries that were forces to close amid the pandemic (See Kabeer et al., 2021).

Beyond the economics course

Beyond my experience as an Economics student, since joining the ‘Feminist Economics Project‘, I have realised the underrepresentation of feminist economic perspectives that otherwise could have easily been applied to topics taught across Economics degrees. For ideas and examples, Broadway et al. (2020) discuss the impact of paid parental leave on labour supply and employment outcomes in Australia. They highlight how paid parental leave has had a positive impact on labour supply and how those from disadvantaged groups, such as low income and less educated mothers, respond most to the scheme. It is striking to me that, when learning about employment theory and fiscal policy in the early years of my studies, such findings are underexplored. Instead, the classic distribution of time between work and leisure is taught without further exploration of labour supply issue. Thus, rather than the specialised sub-disciplines used to consider feminist perspectives, perhaps benchmarks in economics should be further changed to ensure greater consideration within general economic theory?

Thus, moving forward, I hope that our project highlights the benefits of avoiding a ‘one rule fits all’ in both economics teaching and research. Models and their implications can be re-examined, by acknowledging that decisions and constraints vary between groups and genders, with the same policies impacting on members of society differently. Through further feminist dialogue we can further improve the quality of an economics education.

*Link to original publication

Article references:

Aerni, A., Bartlett, R., Lewis, M., Mcgoldrick, K. and Shackelford, J., 1999. Toward A Feminist Pedagogy In Economics. Feminist Economics, 5(1), pp.29-44.

Barbara Broadway, Guyonne Kalb, Duncan McVicar & Bill Martin (2020). The Impact of Paid Parental Leave on Labor Supply and Employment Outcomes in Australia, Feminist Economics, 26:3, 30-65, DOI: 10.1080/13545701.2020.1718175

Naila Kabeer, Shahra Razavi & Yana van der Meulen Rodgers (2021). Feminist Economic Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic, Feminist Economics, 27:1-2, 1-29, DOI: 10.1080/13545701.2021.1876906

Nelson, M.A.F.J.A., 2003. Feminist economics today: beyond economic man. University of Chicago Press.