Integrating gender and wellbeing in economics

Megan Romania | 12 February 2018

Economics claims to be a gender-neutral domain and assumes that individuals are rational decision makers. However, economic theories and methods have been developed and applied from a one-sided, male view of the economy. In her new book, development economist Nicky Pouw successfully puts forth an inclusive economics model that takes gender into account and offers an improved way of viewing individuals and the allocation of resources.

Heterodox economists have criticized the restrictive notion of homo economicus. They argue that economics is not gender neutral, because society is not gender neutral; women and men are influenced by social and cultural beliefs and political restraints, and gender inequalities exist for women and men alike. For instance, because of gender inequality, there may be jobs that are unattainable for women or men and productive resources that they cannot access, like land or capital. Furthermore, customs and beliefs may force certain individuals into precarious situations, such as sex work, or cause girls to drop-out of school at an earlier age than boys.

Overall, economics cannot be separated from political, social, or natural systems. Therefore, economics must take a gender-aware approach. In light of this, Pouw’s book Introduction to Gender and Wellbeing in Microeconomics is a useful learning guide for development practitioners seeking a more holistic understanding of gender blindness in economics. It illustrates how gender is inseparable from issues related to caste, class, ethnicity, race and religion. Ultimately, gender is inherently tied to concerns surrounding human wellbeing. 

 In traditional economic models, the paid and unpaid economies are segregated; however, in these instances, economic interpretations of decision making only consider market logics, leading to erroneous predictions. For example, in some cases, women’s labour is considered ‘free’ and is, therefore, part of the unpaid economy, such as when women undertake economic activities to support their husbands, brothers, or other family members. Furthermore, tasks like taking care of the household are part of the unpaid economy. In both cases, chances are that women’s work will go unrecorded in national statistics. This segregated view of the economy is underpinned by its gender bias; taking a gender-aware approach calls for the need to de-segregate the paid and unpaid economies in economic models. Gender-responsive economic policies ultimately seek to address the differential situations, needs, and interests of women, men, girls, and boys, as well as situations in which women and men conflict or collaborate and are mutually supportive.

 In her publication, Pouw also makes the critical decision to distinguish between rational agents and resource agents. This distinction could be considered a first step towards a more enlightened view of how individuals interact with regard to resource allocation. The concept of individuals as rational agents has long been contested, as it is unlikely that an individual will make a ‘rational’ choice based on the market and a cost-benefit analysis. External factors arguably influence the decision-making process, and it is time for economics to view resource allocation through a more refined lens.

 Analysts and policymakers should feel the need to distinguish between short- and long-term policies during the policy-making process. Whereas short-term policies seek to address economic problems and practical gender needs, long-term policies focus on strategic gender needs concerning the performativity of gender (the performed gender identities, roles, and relationships of women and men). Designing long-term policies will typically take longer than one policy budget cycle, as it involves raising awareness and changing attitudes and institutions to overcome gender bias; therefore, policymakers will need to take these long-term policies into account alongside other policy debates and dialogues.

By using the gender-aware model within a wellbeing framework, gender inequalities can be made visible, measureable, and targetable; this will help development practitioners efficiently trace, analyse, and target social disparities and the associated power relations during policymaking processes. Furthermore, development practitioners can avoid making the mistake of overlooking women’s economic contributions, more effectively tackle inequalities, and ultimately facilitate gender equality in societies.