Gender Economics and the Meaning of Discrimination

Nancy Folbre
9 January 2022

Shelly Lundberg gave a terrific paper at the session on Identity, Culture, and the Economics of Gender at the Allied Social Science Association Meetings, January 8, 2022, and this is a distillation of my comments on it as discussant.

You can find abstracts for the session as a whole here, and the papers will be forthcoming in the May 2022 Papers and Proceedings issue of the American Economic Review.

Shelly’s paper lays out the overarching theme of this session, the importance of attention to social norms. This is a topic receiving increasing attention from economists, but most of it seems directed at the consequences rather than to the formation and evolution of norms. Shelly argues very persuasively that economists should drop the time-honored distinction between “choice versus discrimination” in the face of so much evidence of “pre-market discrimination” in the form of gender norms that shape individual preferences. In other words, we should stop taking preferences as a given, and think more about how they are shaped. I wholeheartedly agree, though I would prefer the term “pre-market power” to “pre-market discrimination,” because I’m not sure what it means to say norms are “discriminatory” but the wording is not terribly important.

She gives the example of gender norms that punish women in the labor market for preferences that would help them in the marriage market, citing evidence that even high-powered women in a prestigious MBA program downplay their job market ambitions when their male peers (potential life partners) are in the audience. By contrast, traditionally masculine preferences are rewarded in both the marriage market and the job market. I totally agree, and my earlier take on this issue, coauthored with Lee Badgett, can be found here.

However, I also see larger tensions between preferences conducive to the production of diffuse public benefits and those conducive to the production of more easily captured pecuniary benefits. Think of preferences for caring/helping others versus earning money, or, to be more specific, preferences for raising a family versus prioritizing a career. Some preferences may be penalized in the labor market regardless of whether they are expressed by women or by men.

Yesterday, Madeline Gelblum presented a paper on “Preferences for Job Tasks and Gender Gaps in the Labor Market” (based on Chapter 1 of her dissertation, available here), showing that one of biggest gender differences in preferences concerns “helping others.” This is obviously not a very lucrative preference, since people who need help are usually the least able to pay for it, and it is consistent with a large body of empirical research (including my own) on “care penalties” in paid employment. Yet this preference certainly has a payoff for society as a whole, contributing to what some economists call social capital and others might call solidarity.

This matters for the big question posed above regarding the formation and evolution of norms. Like most other social institutions, norms often help solve coordination problems, but deliver greater benefits to some than to others. Norms are often contested, not only when and if they become outmoded, but also as a result of shifts in the relative power of the groups differentially affected by them. Conventional definitions of femininity and masculinity are generally more contested by women than by men—an observation consistent with the characteristics of the economists exploring them, who are (like participants in this session) disproportionately women.

If some degree of commitment to helping others is functional for society, but this commitment is costly, then the optimal strategy for any powerful group is to offload it onto less powerful groups. Herbert Simon once described this as a form of “docility” that could deliver evolutionary advantages for a group as a whole, and it applies to altruism in general, including masculine willingness to fight on the front lines of military combat.

In her paper, Shelly concedes that norms may be partly shaped by the collective pursuit of group interests, with a hat tip to the way that stratification economics explains racial inequality. However, she quickly adds that gender is very different from race, because of greater ‘intermingling’ of women and men.

Yes, there is greater intermingling (and also more pooling of income) between women and men, but virtually all group conflict is partially counterbalanced by some intermingling. Consider, for instance, Gavin Wright’s analysis of the economic gains that desegregation delivered to working-class whites in the South, Sharing the Prize, or Heather McGee’s recent book The Sum of Us. What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.

Even capitalists and workers, at odds over the distribution of surplus, can have some common interests in increased productivity and sustainable economic development. Even the very rich and the very poor share the same planet. We are all intermingled to some extent, which helps explain the complexities of collective conflict and negotiation over social institutions. We should not take norms OR preferences as exogenously given, and we should think about which ones promote sustainable and equitable economic development and which ones do not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *