Women, Work And Public Policy

Gender and the market are both concepts that carry tremendous power to shape society. Indeed, these institutions are so powerful within society that they can seem invisible and immutable. Each of these influential constructs has become the lens through which a theoretical approach defines and analyzes the world: feminist theory centering on gender, and economic theory centering on the market. Such a primary focus enables each theory to function as an invaluable tool in clarifying complex interactions. On the flip side, however, such a lens can also obscure the ability to enlarge understanding beyond that initial analysis. In this way, the strength of focus can become a weakness, setting one analytical approach as exclusively paramount, and inherently discrediting other approaches. This has often been the case with the disparate economic and feminist approaches to analyzing work and gender.
A synthesis of the economic and feminist approaches, however, would provide a more complex, applicable, and efficient tool than the confrontational stance that often pervades discussion. The synthesis process would begin with realizing that, although both theories are extremely valuable methods of achieving an understanding of work, gender and society, neither theory provides a complete picture. Indeed, the very fact that they are such powerful tools, with defined focuses, makes it very difficult for each paradigm to comprehend and incorporate insights foreign to its bias. Such an effective synthesis would emphasize how the focus and methodology of these two stances can be complimentary, and result in the development of a more comprehensive, flexible analytical approach.
The economic approach to society, including gender and work, focuses on the workings of an “invisible hand” which guides forces of supply and demand within a market constructed of aggregates. In this approach, human beings operate by a set of rational rules that are predictable, graphable, and individual. Using these behaviors, economic man weighs the opportunity costs involved in economic choices and makes decisions at the margin to maximize benefits. Deductive reasoning and empirical knowledge comprises the methodology used to explain the interactions of these market forces. Within this purely theoretical world, economics appears to hold no biases that would influence its approach to labor or gender, because it impersonally uses formal models to simply emphasize how wages influence the forces of supply and demand.
Economics, however, was not designed to exist as a theoretical construct. Instead, this approach applies the lens of the market to view the intricacies of everyday life as a never-ending cycle of supply and demand interactions. This invaluable approach does demystify the causal relationships between a myriad of interconnecting labor decisions and interactions, thereby allowing people to understand reoccurring patterns and apply this knowledge to the future.
The practical application of economics also, however, demonstrates that this paradigm itself does not always provide a complete picture, and therefore skews the approach’s ability to efficiently analyze many aspects of how work and gender interact. Built into the theory itself is the conviction that the market forces of supply and demand are the determining forces within interactions, and that human beings consistently behave as though this was true. Although other “factors”, such as gender, are taken into consideration, they can only influence the primary forces and therefore occupy, at best, second place standing. This mindset is demonstrated repeatedly on every graph drawn to represent the market.
Feminist theory also utilizes a dominant paradigm to interpret the millions of interactions that are constantly taking place in society. Through the lens of gender, this approach describes work and gender as value-laden social constructions with the power to define and determine the unequal power dynamics that shape lives. Within this approach no analytical inputs are neutral, impersonal, or unconnected. People are constrained by a hierarchical system that uses gender as a primary method to rank everyone according to levels of power, independence, dominance, and entitlement. Heavily relying on historical and contemporary experiences of gender and work, feminist theory details the patterns behind the construction of these institutional forces in an attempt to thoroughly analyze their power and pervasiveness. Feminist methodology uses inductive reasoning to blend these experiences into a societal definition that is often related in very personal or overtly value-laden terms.
By applying the lens of gender to society, feminist theory does illuminate often disregarded patterns and outcomes