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Women's economics

You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. Women are not only getting more and more educated, they also represent the majority of university students, both in undergraduate and in Master's programs. In the coming years, your doctor is very likely to be a woman, so will your lawyer. Things change, society changes.

But not everywhere. Economics is one of the rare fields in which women remain a minority. Their scarceness in economics classrooms explains their scarceness elsewhere. Indeed, to teach economics, be awarded prestigious prizes or be renowned as one of the world's leading experts, one must first attend university.

Thus it was only in 2009 that the first and only woman won the Sveriges Riksbank prize (a.k.a. the Nobel prize for economics), and jointly with a man. Elinor Ostrom, American economist, received the prize in recognition of her work on common goods governance. Her research specifically tackles the collective management of common resources (namely in the exploitation of ecosystems) and demonstrates such an approach's success in a truly sustainable and perennial development.

In Québec too, we hear few women speaking on economic matters. Of course, we've had Monique Jérôme-Forget as Minister of Finance, and Nathalie Elgrably-Lévy is always ready to sign off as an economist (even though she studied management). Sylvie Morel and Ruth Rose rarely venture into commenting on economic news. Even at our institute, IRIS, we are a bit short on female staff.

Why is economics such a boys' club? Could it be because even today, the "masculine" rationality of numbers clashes with the "feminine" emotionality of personal experiences? Could it be because economic power still remains within the hands of men? Could it be that we have come to believe that this is the way the economy is because the field has been dominated by male economists for so long?

However, maximizing profit at each "transaction" in life is not the only motive driving homo œconomicus. Other models exist, other ways of envisioning economic and social relations, other approaches than the econometrics sought after so badly by economics departments these days. The economy can be thought of in other ways that integrate an analysis of gender and discrimination from the get-go, not as atypical phenomena. Incidentally, faced with the economists' failure to both prevent the current economic crisis and to get us out of it, it could seem logical to try to think about the economy differently.

That being said, one must not fall into naïve optimism. In economics as in politics, sex and gender are amongst the factors which determine our worldview. However, as in politics, having more women interested in the subject, taking a stand, taking over the public sphere, becoming active in both the media and in academia can't hurt.

Eve-Lyne Couturier works with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think-tank. This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

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