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The Feminist Economics Critique to Neo-Classical Economics

By Ojasvi Agarwal

Neoclassical economics is a broad theory that came into existence in the nineteenth century and only accounts for supply and demand as the means of propulsion behind the consumption, production, and pricing of goods and services in the market. Therefore, this theory lays its foundations on the assumption that transactions in a market are impersonal. Even though neoclassical economics is the most widely taught theory around the world, it can still be deemed as an unfit and inaccurate representation of actual economics. Neoclassical economics indicates that only your ability and willingness to buy and sell matters while facilitating an exchange of goods and services in the market. Hence, factors such as gender, age, caste, creed, race, etc. that one belongs to, are not central in determining the market transactions. However, Karl Polanyi’s in his book, ‘The Great Transformation’ challenges this claim by arguing that the market is ‘embedded’ in the society. This implies the idea that the economy is not autonomous. Even though it is believed to be in the theory of neoclassical economics. All the societal norms, rules and frameworks have a bearing on the market as the market is not a black box existing outside the society but inside it. Feminist economics articulates that gender plays an important role in deciding the allocation of resources, buying and selling of labour and marketing, selling and creation of products, and therefore gender is a key stimulus in determining the economic outcomes for an individual.

According to the homo economicus approach of neoclassical economics theory, an economic man is one who interacts without being influenced by society, and “his mode of interaction is through an ideal market”. The prices are regarded as an important aspect and people as economic actors who behave a certain way, without getting influenced by society. However, humans are more complicated than such models assume and can be motivated by other factors such as love, jealousy, etc. Therefore, the definition of homo economicus should also account for elements like group interactions, societal norms, prejudices and factors other than just self-interest and greed. Furthermore, as neoclassical economics lays great importance on monetary rewards and ignores how legal rules and cultural norms may affect market outcomes to be disadvantageous for certain social groups, especially women. The discrimination in the workplace leading to unequal pay for women completely goes against the definition of labour markets in neoclassical economics which presumes that jobs can be freely chosen by free individuals.

Subsequently, the power the employer has over the employee is often overlooked, as a result of which no mention is made about how commonly due to this power hierarchy, employers often tend to favour men over women. The work of women is regarded as inferior plainly because it is done by women. There is a clear distinction between how the work of men is perceived and how the work of women is perceived. The work of females is labelled as unskilled and is characterised by lesser wages than men and tenuous union organisations. Wherever there are female workers, irrespective of what jobs they do, they almost always find themselves at the lowest level on the skill ladder, earning salaries that are not enough. If men and women with equal labour market responsibilities are compared, women spend more time working than men do and still earn less. People mistakenly overestimate the disparity between an average man and an average woman delegating women with minuscule roles while they continue to be perceived as low-value.

In neoclassical economics, the unpaid work done by women is ‘non-economic’ and not accounted for as it does not form a part of the Gross Domestic Production. However, the production and reproduction of domestic labour, which is only possible because of women’s free labour lay the foundation of all economic transactions. Women play an essential role in producing each labourer and nurturing them till the time they are ready to offer their services to the market. Women employ their emotional labour and do all the household chores necessary to sustain and maintain social and physical life. Hence, women continue to provide the industry with the supply of labour and without the fulfilment of these activities, there would be no economic activity. Furthermore, the time spent by women in performing these tasks of fruitless labour, they have to forego the time that they could have spent working as a paid labourer. Neoclassical economists, by not including the tasks so performed by women in the GDP or accounting for such tasks anywhere in the economic model, invalidate and devalue their efforts.

Women do not lose their social obligations even after reaching the upper echelons of the corporate world. Females are still treated as economically subordinated to men. This can be proved by explaining the concept of glass-cliffing. Glass-cliffing refers to situations when the women are promoted to the upper ranks of power and put into precarious positions by being made the CEOs and put into leadership roles when the risks of failure are the highest. When an organisation is in a situation of crisis, women are handed the mess for them to clean it up.

Women think that this might be their only chance at success and in asserting their leadership capabilities, they fall prey to this trap set by the male-dominated economic systematisation. Given the remarkable changes women have achieved in recent years in terms of market power and social position, they are still undervalued in the marketplace and underestimated in the workplace.

In the neoclassical theory of economics, different power relations that may exist between the buyer and seller in the labour markets are ignored and it is assumed that both the buyer and seller of labour benefit equally from the exchange. Feminist economics argues that the goods that are desired by the consumers aren’t provided in the market. Subsequently, producers fail to meet the needs and wants of the female buyers due to the societal norms, values and prejudices embedded in their minds, society and the market. They fail to understand the needs of female buyers and continuously offer them products they do not really want. For example, in the summer of 2009, Dell tried to market laptops specifically for women and since they emphasised on the laptops being “pink” and the accessories and how recipes could be found on it and a count of calories be kept, the condescending efforts were short-lived and caused a huge outcry amongst women. The disparity in the way in which products are sold to women and how the products are sold to men defies the whole argument of Adam Smith of transactions being impersonal in a market.

Gender also plays an important role in deciding an individual’s role in the process of marketing. Women are subject to the male gaze and their bodies are glorified and sexualised to sell certain products while ignoring the effects that it might have on a woman’s social and mental wellbeing and her self-image. The self-image of women is distorted when they compare themselves to the unrealistic standards of beauty which are set through advertisements which only re-establishes the historical notion of ideal beauty and women being nothing but just non-thinking decorative items. Moreover, the eroticised and provocative imagery of women in the advertisements leads to increased incidents of crime and violence against women as they are depicted as objects designed for the pleasure of men. In the advertisements, there is no real representation or portrayal of women, they are either shown as home-makers who are obsessed with keeping the clothes of the family clean, cooking or caring for kids or are multitaskers juggling be- tween office and household work. This falsification also sets unrealistic standards of expectations on women’s capacities. Ethics and morality are sacrificed every time an association is made between a woman’s body and a product. A woman’s body is sexualised and set as bait to attract customers. This representation of women commodifies them inviting a gargantuan volume of harm their way. They are glorified as flawless beauty to appeal to the desire of the male viewers by using artificial looks and are expected to fit into those falsified standards of beauty. Women are reduced down to objects of trade for a product to be sold to the male consumers and with the right tools and right skills, the insecurities of women are attacked upon to sell products to women themselves. The women are exploited as cash cows, and their charm and charisma are wrongly used.

In light of the above arguments, it can be established that gender plays an important role in the economic system and how the very same is completely ignored in such a widely accepted theory of economics like Neoclassical Economics. Feminist economics often apply such critiques to many facets of the social world, claiming that by accepting that such stereotypes exist in the society and the market, a more well-round and holistic economy can be created.

Ojasvi is a student at Jindal Global University.

Image credits – https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/equality-inclusion-and-diversity/the-uses-of-feminist-pedagogy-before-during-and-after-the-pandemic/

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