-Kesa Zahera


Amartya Sen, in his paper “Equality of What”, puts forward the idea of freedom in economic discourse. He encapsulates the idea of social well-being and how it correlates to economic development. This heralded a new form of economic thinking, unconventional and distinctive, contrary to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand Principle. The constant tussle between objectives and morality-driven interpretations of economic principles has led to a disparaged perception of economic thinking, hence misjudging it as the “dismal science”. But the proposition is ironic as economics itself introduces novel means to achieve social welfare, equity and allocation of resources contributing to an inclusive tomorrow.

Economic thinking has its soul in the idea of scarcity, however, there continue to remain discrepancies as to how we have engaged with the idea of scarcity of resources. This is where the advent of feminist economic thinking comes to its full glory. Feminist economics is not exclusive to Keynesian or Neoclassical principles, nor is it an antithesis of conventional economic methodologies. It is rather a means to rethink these ideas within a novel framework, that takes gender disparities and inaccessibility of resources into consideration. Reproductive labour, welfare economics, characterisation of an economy, rational expectations, and national income accounting which includes the very metric to evaluate the health of an economy are fundamental concepts inherent in conventional economic thinking. Feminist economics believes that is crucial to re-evaluate these concepts in a way that is sensitive to gender disparities.

Welfare Economics and Gender Inclusivity

Myra H. Strober draws our attention to what A.C. Pigou had openly argued that women are weaker and lesser than men, and how women’s labour in their homes could be used to increase national wellbeing. Pigou also argued that keeping women’s wages lower than men’s was “welfare maximizing”.

This is disturbing, and it prompts a re-evaluation of the notion of “welfare” because the conventional idea suggests the seclusion of a particular gender. Household welfare optimization or simply put, the welfare of the family suggests, through conventional economic analysis methods, that a family’s utility is represented by a single utility function. This implies that the components of the family (the family members) have homogeneous preferences and have the same ‘labour versus leisure’ trade-off (as assumptions). However, despite women getting a smaller portion of the family’s income, their leisure time also continues to remain less compared to their male counterparts (in the household). The proposition is also supported by data. Pew Research Centre released a report in 2013 on ‘Modern Parenthood’ that shows comparative data of leisure and work time, of men and women.

The table suggests that the leisure time consumed by women in a household is lesser compared to men. Additionally, it implies a disproportionality in the case of hours devoted to childcare and housework.

Claudia Goldin, awardee of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, performed an extensive study to analyse the impact of women (white women) entering the labour force and its consequences on household responsibilities. In the paper ‘The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870 -1920’, she highlights that occupations and industries were often highly segregated by sex. She believed that these divisions were less a reflection of inherent differences in ability than they were a by-product of segregation by method of payment and the specialized nature of work. Men were seldom found in the tedious, task-oriented jobs which women held. Because of the expectations of their attachment to the labour force to be longer in comparison to women, they had greater incentive to perform efficiently in non-piece rate work and were more likely to receive “prizes” in the form of promotions and monetary rewards. The conclusion of her paper stated, “… work in the labour market for women from 1870 to 1920 was the realm of the unmarried, whose occupations involved much on-the-job training but little long-range advancement.”

Such reports are suggestive of the gender discrepancies existing in the economy. Therefore, the labour force cannot be assumed to be a homogenous unit and requires a multi-faceted approach that considers such loopholes while formulating policies. To emphasize the inability of welfare economics to address gender incongruity, one must look back at Frances R Woolley’s explanation in her paper, “The Feminist Challenge to Neoclassical Economics. The economist introduces a concept called ‘error discrimination’ which explains how discriminatory errors made by employers, as an outcome of their prejudices, can be corrected through policies and affirmative action or pay equity. However, this contradicts the very idea of rational consumer behaviour. 

Our existence within a patriarchal economic structure inevitably leads to social biases and hence the objective ‘value-free analyses’ gets hampered. This could be understood by analysing the labour market behaviour, especially wage disparity. One of the pioneering feminist economists of the early 21st century, Barbara Bergmann, explains wage disparity through ‘taste discrimination’. It is a prejudice-driven decision-making process where women are reimposed in their gender roles, often forbidding them from being employed in “male-dominated” work positions. She uses it to re-evaluate wages, efficiency theory and how the turnover rate of women is different from that of men, because of the pre-conceived notions concerning social responsibilities. These prompt a multitude of questions parallel to Amartya Sen’s critique of the consumer behaviour principle. These questions include have our economic models have been ‘value-free’, whether consumers are truly rational or are we “rational fools” as Sen had remarked, and other related queries.


The evolution of economic thought is strongly correlated with the changing socio-political dynamics. The complexities of human nature and societal needs, therefore, are ever-changing, making it imperative to pose new queries within conventional economic models especially as we aim for a more gender-aware world. The recognition of discrimination and the limit of individualism suggests a necessary paradigm shift through a feminist perspective.

Feminist economic thinking offers a valuable lens to pose critical questions that can foster economic sustainability and equity. However, despite its increasing significance, there remains a notable gap between feminist economic thinking and mainstream economic discourse. Bridging the gap requires inclusivity and externalities discrimination within economic frameworks, integrating insights from diverse social contexts and identities.


Sen, Amartya. 1980. “Equality of What.” McMurrin S Tanner Lectures on Human Values 1 (Cambridge University Press). https://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Sen-1979_Equality-of-What.pdf.

Goldin, Claudia. n.d. “The Changing Economic Role of Women: A Quantitative Approach.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History13 (4): 707-733. 


Goldin, Claudia. 1980. “The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870-1920.” The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press 40 (1): 81-88. 


Sen, Amartya. n.d. “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (4): 317-344.


Staveren, Irene v. 2010. “Post-Keynesianism Meets Feminist Economics.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34, no. 6 (November): 1123-1144.


Strober, Myra H. 1994. “Rethinking Economics Through a Feminist Lens.” The American Economic Review 84, no. 2 (May): 143-147.


Woolley, Frances R. 1993. “The Feminist Challenge to Neoclassical Economics.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 17, no. 4 (December): 485-500.



Kesa Zahera

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Research Associate, GAEE India


Aidamon Talang

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Editor-in-chief, GAEE India

Devananda S

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Associate Editor, GAEE India