Lourdes Benería

Lourdes Benería is a professor of gender and economic development at Cornell University and the author of Gender, Development and Globalization: Economics as if People Mattered. Her research centers on feminist economics, labor markets, women’s work and globalization, with a special focus on Latin America. She spoke with ecological economist Tom Green.

On why economics is so resistant to change

Economics is a very hegemonic discipline, even though there are so many heterodox economists that protest this arrogance and this unwillingness to discuss criticisms. Compared to other social sciences that have integrated gender much more easily, conventional economics has been one of the most impenetrable disciplines. It has been difficult, if not impossible, for orthodox economics to incorporate feminist issues.

Part of the resistance is because economists think of themselves as developing scientific tools of analysis, and some of the issues raised by feminists seem too remote to this culture: economists think that they are more “scientific” than other social scientists. The salaries of economists are higher than those of other social scientists – even in universities, let alone in the business world. Economics is called the queen of the social sciences because it mimics physics and uses math.

Mathematics gives the impression that economics is scientific and so you cannot question it. But you have to dig into the assumptions. For example, look at the area known as “household economics.” The neoclassical assumptions used to set up these models imply that men and women are free and equal individuals negotiating rationally what’s best for the household. Some models assume that decisions are made by a “benevolent patriarch” who understands what’s best for the household and each member. There is no emotion or love involved in decisions based on economic rationality.

But the fact is – as feminists have pointed out – within a household, men and women can be very unequal subjects, and decisions are not merely rational. Men have often had better educational opportunities – they may own land, they may control the money, they typically have more power. The picture of reality portrayed by these models is very androcentric or male-biased. Policies based on these models can underestimate how they affect men and women differently.

The problem is that to deal with gender relations you have to incorporate power into the analysis. Neoclassical economics does not deal with power relations; it tends to focus on purely economic issues. In contrast, the so-called “bargaining models” can focus more directly on power and asymmetric relations within the household.

On the perils of maximization

Economics is the big maximizing discipline: we want to maximize utility, maximize growth, maximize income and maximize production – given some constraints of course. We assume that the capitalist maximizes profits. For years and years the discipline has not taken into consideration the economic costs generated by all this maximization without any checks, and we are now seeing the consequences. The earth is in danger of not being able to support all this unregulated economic activity, and we now have a very serious ecological crisis. We cannot think only about maximizing anymore. At the very least we have to think about maximizing subject to some conditions. Our discipline is totally in need of rethinking. Economists talk about sustainable development with a very weak notion of what sustainability means. Scientists are telling us that it is impossible to even sustain what we have been taking for granted so far – especially in the high-income countries. We have to start reducing consumption, which means reducing the production that is causing so many problems to the earth. What the ecological crisis means is that economists have to start almost at zero in terms of rethinking the discipline.