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1 The title of this book is striking. How can economics, which is supposed to be a positive science, be ‘feminist’, a word with activist connotations—something, then, that could produce a biased and therefore unscientific stance? ‘Feminist economics’ may thus seem to be an oxymoron. Hélène Périvier deconstructs this contradiction, showing that there is no need to oppose feminism and economics. Inviting the reader to adopt a feminist perspective on economics, she shows, as the subtitle of the book indicates, why economics needs feminism and vice versa.

2 The book is composed of three parts, each divided into two chapters. The chapters can be read independently: each one sheds a distinct light on the relationships between economics and feminism. Nonetheless, together they form a cohesive sequence, and a reading of the whole offers a rich overview of the contributions of feminist analytical frameworks to economic science, and shows what results from economics can tell us about the mechanisms that generate gender inequalities.

3 The first part summarizes the main currents in both economics and feminism. In the first chapter, Périvier shows how economics was ‘designed by men for a society led by men’. She recalls that the first economists were interested in two major questions: first, the production of wealth and the functioning of markets; and secondly, justice in the distribution of resources. In taking the view that only work for market exchange produces wealth, they excluded domestic work, which was performed by women. This gendered division of labour was taken for granted and said to be the result of natural, and indeed desirable, inequalities between the sexes. Economic science was built upon these sexist precepts, which were then progressively challenged, notably by later currents in economics (such as institutionalist economics) better equipped to study gender inequalities.

4 In the second chapter, Périvier describes feminist theories, which analyse the relationship between patriarchy (understood as a set of legal rules, social structures and practices), capitalism (understood as a mode of economic organization), and neoliberalism (which takes competition to be the fundamental mode of regulation of society). This chapter presents many currents of feminist thought: Marxist, materialist, liberal, etc. An element these currents have in common is their highlighting of the key role of (generally unpaid) ‘reproductive labour’, performed mainly by women. This naturally raises the question of the place of this unpaid labour in society, who profits from it (the capitalist system? men?), and who should pay for it (the private sector? the family? the State?).

5 The second part of the book brings together the feminist critique of economics and the question of women’s place within the discipline. Périvier returns here to the history of economic thought, presenting feminist critiques of economics that emerged beginning in the 19th century. These critiques questioned the frameworks of economic analysis, revealing ‘the sexist and androcentric biases of economics’. These criticisms have centred mainly on the neoclassical framework (especially in its modern incarnation as set out by Gary Becker). According to this later neoclassical framework, the gendered division of tasks and the resulting inequalities result from the freely chosen actions of individuals, regardless of sex, and from a competitive market that creates the social order and organizes those choices. The feminist critique bears on the postulate of individuals’ freedom of action, which negates the existence of social norms. But Périvier also presents other feminist approaches to economics. New institutionalist economics, for example, offers a renewed analysis of the care economy that recognizes and interrogates the demand for women to take care of the vulnerable at many points in their lives (educational orientation, etc.).

6 The fourth chapter looks at women’s place in economics. Périvier presents the pioneering work of women she describes as the ‘daughters of Adam Smith’. Their contributions to the economic literature have often been underestimated, either because their work has been confused with that of their husband, or because they have been marginalized. Today, there is a tendency towards greater representation of women in economics, but the field has not yet attained gender parity. Périvier considers the reasons why relatively fewer women study economics, considering explanations such as self-censorship, anticipated discrimination, missing role models, difficulties with academic careers that are specific to women, environments that are hostile to women. She thus critically examines the functioning of economics as a discipline.

7 The third part of the book presents economic research on gender equality. Here, Périvier describes how economics (and in particular empirical economics) contributes to feminism by improving our understanding of the mechanisms that generate gender inequalities. A first important contribution was the measurement of women’s economic activity and its links with the birth and care of children. A second contribution concerns the social model of the ‘male breadwinner’: this model, established after the Second World War, organizes the gendered distribution of work through social insurance, benefits, and taxation. A third contribution is the study of gender inequalities in pay, in connection with domestic inequalities, notably with the birth of children. These studies highlight the importance of policies aiming at a more equal division of tasks (in particular through parental leave) for gender equality. A fourth contribution is the study of discrimination against women, which has made it possible to measure gender discrimination in hiring, for example.

8 The sixth chapter focuses on the implementation of policies to promote gender equality. Périvier notes that equality is rarely invoked for its own sake. At the European level, gender equality was enshrined in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The aim at the time was to prevent women’s lower wages from threatening men’s employment. Today, equality is promoted on the basis of its expected benefits. Large companies approach it as a tool to improve their economic performance, on the grounds that greater diversity at the executive level may promote efficiency. Périvier cautions against the dangers of using the principle of equality to serve objectives other than equality itself. She highlights the potentially self-defeating reasoning that lies behind this logic: if diversity leads to gains, it is because women’s social experiences differ from those of men— precisely the type of difference that policies aiming at equality seek to eliminate. In closing, she writes: ‘The egalitarian dynamic sometimes produces positive economic effects in certain configurations, which can be described as collateral benefits of equality, but these cannot be advanced as the justification for these policies’ (p. 205).

9 To conclude, gender equality is far from being achieved. With this stimulating book, Hélène Périvier issues a call for economists to take up their place in the struggle to attain it.

Uploaded on on 19/04/2022
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