The Economics of Gender (2nd edition)

Prue Hyman (Economics and Women’s Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Hyman, P. (2000), "The Economics of Gender (2nd edition)", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 27 No. 4, pp. 308-314.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

There is now a substantial body of research on gender issues in economics, particularly labour economics, with all good modern labour economics texts paying some attention to this area. However, Joyce Jacobsen’s is the only textbook of which I am aware specific to gender economics, and it is a solid tome to boot, densely packed with theoretical models, statistical information, and results of empirical studies. It is well written, clear, and the theoretical sections particularly well done, with one of the best treatments of the diamond/water valuation issues I have seen.

The second edition, four years after the first, is updated “to reflect changes in both theoretical and empirical thinking" (xxiii), with commendably recent data included, largely for the USA. Usefully for a text, Jacobsen has also added some discussion questions after each chapter and included what she calls “Focus insets”, separated by a contrasting background colour. These raise controversial issues, for example “the economics of domestic violence” and “has feminism failed?” in the household chapter, and “the ‘mommy track’ controversy”, “is there gender bias in educational testing?” and “is the classroom climate chilly for women?” in the human capital chapter. Each of these is based on a controversial piece of research, and like the discussion questions, should provoke lively classroom debate.

The US author’s interests and expertise are reflected in the proportion of the text devoted to various topics. Two of the six parts into which the book is divided together account for well over half the book.

Part Two, entitled “Why do Women and Men Work?”, incorporates chapters on the household as an economic unit, labor force participation trends, and the links between the two, while in Part Three “The Earnings Puzzle: Why Do Women Earn Less than Men?” the subdivisions are occupational segregation, human capital, compensating differentials and discrimination.

Part Four is a commendable attempt to introduce US students to gender differences in other countries, divided into “industrialized capitalist”, “socialist/cooperative”, and “nonindustrialized traditional”. Its brevity and over‐reliance on US written international comparisons, some of which have errors, however, makes this less effective than the previous sections.

An example of the deficiencies in the international area is the only major reference to New Zealand (351). This is a focus inset on institutionalized pay discrimination in New Zealand, referring to gender‐specific wage rates set by national awards and the Arbitration Court following collective bargaining and based on the concept of the family wage. While the inset ends with Parliament considering equal pay legislation in 1972 and a subsequent table shows this was implemented over a period (although the 1979 date mentioned for full implementation was subsequently altered to speed up the process and complete it by 1977), there is no mention of the resultant narrowing of the pay gap. Further, the impression is left that national collective bargaining cannot be beneficial for women, which is highly contestable. Deregulation of the labour market has led to enterprise bargaining, similar to the US system, where the male female earnings gap is substantially wider than the New Zealand one in 1977 or today. Deregulation in New Zealand, however, has led to widening labour market differentials, with low paid women workers among those losing absolutely or relatively, and with the average gender earnings gap staying static (despite the impact on it of some decline in vertical occupational segregation).

The international section includes brief treatment of areas omitted from or scarcely discussed in the US parts, such as childcare, other family support policies, and the valuation of unpaid work, major topics in feminist economics. But readers expecting to see any discussion of inter‐ and intra‐gender differences between and within countries in the context of globalisation, structural adjustment policies, and the role of international agencies and TNCs, will be disappointed. Power dimensions of modern capitalism, with the mobility of enterprises seeking cheap, frequently female, labour, are not apparent. The international section is followed by brief chapters on the history of gender differences in the USA and on race and class differences and issues. It was a relief to reach this, but its positioning, size, and lack of integration into the main material makes it hard to see it as much more than an afterthought.

One aim of the book is “to further the establishment of the economics of gender as a valid area of economic investigation” (xxi), a perfectly reasonable objective and one perhaps needed given the prejudices of the economics profession. In line with this, it wants the student reader to “think like an economist" (xxii), presumably a neoclassical one, since it talks of giving “the economic perspective on gender issues” (my italics). The author is prominent in the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the profession and an active member of the International Association for Feminist Economics, but this book casts a neoclassical economic lens on gender issues, rather than varied feminist perspectives on economic issues. Hence the promising discussion of alternative schools within economics, other disciplines’ perspectives on gender differences, and critiques of the economic approach contained in the introduction is not followed up in the body of the text as much as this reviewer would wish.

This is not to say that the impression is given that all is well for women in the household and labor market. While the author finds it necessary to say that “I attempt to approach this field in a balanced way”, emphasising “gender studies as opposed to women’s studies or men’s studies”, she then acknowledges “the reality that women receive a less favourable outcome than men”, so giving attention to how they might “achieve parity” (xxi).

The approach of this book can be illustrated more richly by discussing in detail one area. I have selected a chapter from the earnings difference section since the introduction to this area claims that the reasons for women earning less than men is the central question facing economists interested in gender issues. This is revealing in itself, since many feminist economists might see broader questions concerning gender (and race/class/international) differences in choices, capabilities (Amartya Sen’s term), and standards of living as more important. The first chapter of this section contains an excellent outline of US occupational segregation, and changes over time, including the phenomena of de‐skilling and “tipping”, raising rather obliquely the issue of the possible subjectivity of skill definitions. In few other places in the book would the reader get any sense that definition and measurement of individual productivity is in any way problematic: the marginal productivity theory of labour demand generally rules supreme.

The occupational segregation chapter continues with a good discussion of segregation indices and presentation of cross country and culture data, demonstrating the pervasiveness of gender role differences but differences in their patterns. It provides alternative accounts of why segregation exists and persists, including diagrammatic presentation of the crowding hypothesis, and discusses the relationship between segregation and earnings, demonstrating the strong correlation between femaleness of occupation and low pay. It concludes with a section examining how segregation patterns might be influenced by various policy alternatives, and is pessimistic about most options, with good reason given the data and results to date.

The author has used the first edition of the book in a variety of classes. Appendices to chapters present some of the economic theory, which she says can be skipped or used as review by students with a background in microeconomics. She rightly adds that these appendices “will need to be carefully covered in class” (p xxii) with those without prior economics. That would certainly be the case if the book was used as a supporting text for a course in women’s studies, as she proposes. From my experience, such students would need a beginning economics text in addition, and indeed many women’s studies (and other) students would find the length, density, and detail somewhat daunting.

The book is, however, a mine of well‐referenced information on gender differences in the US labour market and a comprehensive source for neoclassically inspired (and some other) research on these differences. It will be an invaluable resource in these areas for academics, and a good text for carefully selected courses. It presents a raft of alternative hypotheses and causative links on almost every topic, and some students may be disappointed to find, rightly, that so little has been established or agreed about the causes of gender differences!It might have helped if an attempt had been made at the end of the book to summarise alternative views and help students understand how, despite the best efforts of economics and statistics, totally different perspectives on the extent of discrimination can (reasonably) persist.

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