Macroeconomics and women in the workplace

I was curious from the beginning how far into a macroeconomics textbook I would get before it pissed me off. It turns out: only until the end of Chapter 2: The Economizing Problem. The most offensive passage comes from a section titled “Women and Expanded Production Possibilities”, which aims to explain the increased proportion of working women in the U.S., and which does it thusly:

Over recent years, women have greatly increased their productivity in the workplace, mostly by becoming better-educated and professionally trained. As a result they can earn higher wages. Because those higher wages have increased the opportunity costs — the forgone wage earnings — of staying at home, women have substituted employment in the labor market for more “expensive” traditional home activities. This substitution has been particularly pronounced among married women.1

This passage implies that the reason women were not working before is that they weren’t valuable workers (being untrained and uneducated) and without the prospect of high wages, they preferred to stay home. The section goes on to give a number of additional explanations, none of which give any reference to social factors, e.g. the women’s movement (just as a random example).

Certainly economic explanations are important to understanding broad social and demographic changes. But only an economist would not put social or cultural factors among the reasons for women’s rise in the workplace. And this goes to a fundamental problem with neoclassical economists: they believe economics can explain far more about the world than it does. And then they make policy recommendations based on that conceit, and we keep listening to them.

  1. McConnel, Campbell R. and Brue, Stanley L. Macroeconomics: Principles, Problems, and Policies (15th ed). McGraw-Hill. New York, 2002. []

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