Heterodox Economics Newsletter

Issue 244 March 18, 2019 web pdf Heterodox Economics Directory

Two weeks ago I was rather intrigued to see that a paper on "Beliefs about Gender" was featured as the lead article of the recent issue of the American Economic Review. Bluntly speaking, I was hoping to find a paper that was sensitive to the problematic tendency to provide essentialist accounts of gender differences, e.g. by asserting that women are less risk-seeking and more cooperative without much of a contextualization (see here or here for treatments of this topic in greater depth). Specifically after the implicit* acknowledgement of a lack of diversity in economics by the AEA and the illuminating working paper on sexist biases in a major digital forum on economics, I thought it could be possible that times are ripe for a change (at least in this regard) and this paper might be a good indicator how far such a change might go.

Against this backdrop, it does not come as a surprise that I was slightly startled when finding that the theoretical nesting of "beliefs about gender" did not care much to disentangle the often complex interplay between gender roles, stereotypes and beliefs about one-self as well as others. Rather, it posited a "kernel of truth"-approach that "predicts that stereotypes exaggerate true gender performance gaps in different categories" (p. 740).

In other words, innate differences between men and women are assumed to exist in the first place, which are in turn exaggerated by cognitive biases leading to the emergence of gender-stereotypes. Of course, this blunt demonstration of essentialism not only crushed my hopes and dreams regarding changes in the econ profession, but also left several questions unanswered: Why is this the only theoretical explanation for stereotypes offered by the paper? Why is this kind of explanation preferred, when the authors' own data do not point to sharp innate differences between men and women in core categories such as mathematics (see, e.g., Figure 1)? And, finally, how can we critically assess a theory that posits that gender stereotypes and associated discrimination emerge from, maybe very small, innate differences between the underlying populations from an empirical viewpoint? Or, more provocatively asked, when do alleged 'small differences' become tiny enough so that they may no longer serve as a justification for stereotyping and discrimination?

After having delved deeper into the idiosyncrasies of this subject for several times, I am more than ever convinced that it is highly necessary to support initiatives like Diversifying and Decolonialising Economics (D-Econ), which is dedicated to promoting "an economics field free of discrimination, including sexism, racism, and discrimination based on approach and geography." For D-Econ, gender gaps in self-confidence and assessments of others, for example, cannot be understood detached from social norms that are certainly immersed within the patriarchal features of our society. Rather, beliefs about ability of oneself and others, as well as differential constraints or preferences should be understood and theorised as a function of gendered social norms.

In my view it is high time to address and confront the real 'kernel of truth' here, namely, that economics is quite far away from overcoming well-established biases in terms of sex, race and gender as well as unnecessary and hindering barriers in terms of theory and method. And, honestly spoken, in this case the 'kernel of truth' does not seem to be so tiny after all ;-)

All the best,

Jakob

* The AEA's acknowledgement was implicit insofar as the final document refused to employ the term 'diversity', because of interventions by individual AEA-members…

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