1Every six months the team at Regards croisés sur l’économie publish a synthetic overview of a major economic issue, written by economists specializing in the given area and specialists from other social sciences. Here the issue is “economics of gender.” The editorial introduction recalls a familiar paradox: whereas girls’ education levels rose throughout the twentieth century and have now overtaken boys’, inequalities between men and women persist in many areas of economic life: poor gender mix in particular occupations, lower pay for women, more difficult access to management positions, overrepresentation of women in part-time work, etc. How has economics research, with its specific methods (econometrics, experimentation, etc.), helped describe and explain these inequalities? What theoretical explanations can the science of economics provide? What political economy lessons can we draw from them? These are the questions discussed in this special issue.
2In the first part, “What gender does to economics”, Fatiha Talahite recalls that economics was one of the last disciplines to take gender into account in its analyses and advances several possible reasons for this (pp. 14-28): economics is a more “masculine” science than other social sciences because situated at the intersection between them and the “hard” sciences; economics is a highly formalized discipline, characterized by a divide between an abstract theoretical core that cannot accept the notion of gender – homo economicus has no sex – and an applied level based on econometrics. Gender was of course more easily integrated into empirical studies, but the systematic construction of statistics by sex that makes such analyses possible is fairly recent in France. As indicated in the article “Genre dans la statistique publique en France” [Gender in public statistics in France”] (pp. 73-79), up until 1982 women were virtually invisible behind the male “head-of-household,” whose socio-occupational category was used as the reference in social mobility analyses.
3Fatiha Talahite then shows that gender in economics shifted from analysis that followed the dominant paradigm to a feminist economics that applies the notion of gender to deconstruct theoretical concepts. The interview with Christine Delphy clearly illustrates the feminist economics perspective: Delphy sees a link between “the overexploitation of all women in paid work” and “the exploitation of most women in the private sphere.” This perspective leads in turn to a critique of economics for attending only to inequalities in paid work, and a critique of public policy (see below). Overall, this section shows that gender has not been integrated into all economic approaches (Keynesian economics, for example) and has had little impact on the foundations of economic theory. It is regrettable, however, that a more diverse set of theories was not discussed and that institutionalist approaches did not receive more attention.
4The subjects of Part II, “Why do they earn less?” and Part III, “The family: a woman’s affair?” are more traditional but the discussion is just as interesting. Part II focuses on the issue of educational and occupational “segregation.” Marie Duru-Bellat recalls that gender mix in jobs and study programmes has not progressed to anywhere near the same extent as girls’ schooling and women’s employment, and that education is still the main vector in occupational segregation, especially for the low skilled (office and manual workers); for managers the problem seems to occur at the hiring stage (pp. 86-98). Thomas Breda examines the low representation of women in scientific jobs and study programmes (pp. 99-116), reviewing and refuting three explanations put forward in the literature: discrimination against girls, differentiated aptitudes, and the idea that men are more versatile or have a wider range of talents; i.e., that “genius” is masculine. Only one possible explanation remains: gender stereotypes about feminine and masculine occupations continue to influence girls’ and boy’s choice of study programmes and disciplines. Séverine Lemière and Rachel Silvera then show that occupational segregation is more of a problem for women than men: women are concentrated in few occupations, specifically caregiving and education, and this type of segregation has not fallen much in 30 years (pp. 121-136). They cite education choices, labour market matching processes, and jobs (mostly held by men) that demand absolute availability and so make it very difficult to attain family-work balance as the main factors explaining why occupational gender mix remains low. For as Marta Dominiquez Flogueras’ text shows so well (pp. 184-196), women still carry out nearly all household and family responsibilities, and having children reinforces this inequality. Economic theories in line with Gary Becker’s and positing rationally calculating couples and household optimization cannot explain why unequal sharing of domestic tasks is found even in dual-career couples (though to a lesser extent than in single-career ones), including when the woman’s occupational position is higher than her male partner’s. And unequal sharing of household tasks impacts on employment. Dominique Meurs, Ariane Pailhé and Sophie Ponthieux (pp. 197-210) show that most earning gaps between men and women have to do with child-related career interruptions. But women’s traditional roles of caregiving and housekeeping have yet another kind of impact on the labour market: women are overrepresented in caregiving jobs, specifically care for dependent persons, jobs that are continue to be unstable, low skilled and low paid (pp. 264-276, 327-340).
5The fourth and last section, “The gender of globalization,” opens with Romain Lafarguette’s review of the research of two Chinese economists, Wei and Zhang, who relate the skewed sex ratio in China to an excessive level of household savings. The mechanism as they see it is that tensions on the marriage market due to the excess of men in China ratchet up competition to attract women. Men and their families therefore have no choice but to save more to improve their social standing and have a hope of finding a wife. Their surplus savings, which are rational at the individual level, are not so at the aggregate level, where they become a source of macroeconomic imbalance. Though this analysis is original in linking gender inequalities to macroeconomic aggregates, Lafarguette stresses that one or more hidden factors might be influencing both sex ratio and savings levels and that there is not necessarily a direct tie between the two. Part IV then takes up a variety of different issues, including prostitution and international trade. It would have been useful to have more articles on gender inequalities in Southern countries given the substantial body of development economics literature on these issues.
6Public policy is a recurrent concern throughout the book. And clearly, judgments of the relevance and effectiveness of family policy depend on the economic theory cited. For example, feminist economists criticize public policies on taxation, reversion pensions, state-subsidized day care for young children, all of which were designed to assist women but actually, they say, subsidize husbands’ extortion of free labour (pp. 29-41). Another question addressed: Should male/female behavioural differences be considered basic facts or should policy attempt to impact on them? Thomas Breda discusses the following example: If girls choose to study letters rather than science because they “prefer” letters (and even if their choice is influenced by the socio-cultural context), should efforts be made to dissuade them? As Breda sees it, policy that does so could be perceived as interfering in matters of personal preference and decision-making. However, there are economic arguments in favour of public policy that works to reduce stereotyping in the socioeconomic environment in which individuals decide what they are going to study or train in; they show that stereotypes generate poorer performance and decision-making and a less-than-optimal distribution of talents (a loss in aggregate productivity). Arguments can also be made for intervening ex-post rather than ex-ante; i.e., by valorizing literary and language skills, areas in which girls are overrepresented. We can also draw on economics to analyse how public policy affects behaviours and social roles. Séverine Lemière shows that the RSA in-work welfare benefit in France may prove an inactivity trap for women in a couple, and that incentives to work part time adversely impact women’s careers and retirement pensions (pp. 230-244). The excellent account of the debate on the “couple and family quotient” tax benefit illustrates the ambiguities in French family policy: designed to equalize living standards for couples with or without children, this arrangement is criticized for being inherently anti-redistributive in that the tax savings that come with having children rise with family income. Moreover, income tax may be a disincentive to look for work, since the household member with the lower income is usually the woman.
7Last, at several points in the articles and in the boxed texts, a number of concepts and approaches are reviewed, many of them imported from English; e.g., the difference between sex and gender (p. 54), gender mainstreaming (p. 60), the contribution of intersectionality (p. 80), “glass ceiling” analysis (p. 139), family pay gap (p. 200) and empowerment (pp. 306-321), to name a few.
8All in all, this set of texts constitutes a fine introduction to the question of gender in economics. Though the economics perspective is particularly useful in measuring inequalities between men and women and analysing the effect of public policy on behaviours, gender has not had much impact or resonance for pure economic theory, and whatever understanding theorists have of it is quite simplistic. Findings in experimental psychology, one direction that economics is moving in today, also raise questions: for example, experiments seem to show that women have a greater aversion to risk than men, but nothing proves that such experiments are generalizable or what the underlying causes of that aversion might be (they are likely to be found in gender socialization). Last, gender economics seems better equipped to study the effects of inequality between the sexes (in terms of wages, access to employment, etc.) than its causes. In this area perhaps more than others it is crucial to compare economics perspectives with views from other disciplines.