Economic theory Ideology

Privilege and pseudo-science

When people ask me why I did graduate school in economics, I sometimes half-jokingly tell them that it was a case of going into the lion’s den to see what the lion is up to in there. This is an exaggeration to be sure, but it is in keeping with the dictum that we should understand something in order to critique it effectively. For the similar reasons, I keep reading a variety of mainstream economics books, journals and blogs.

And sometimes I come across things like this. The title, “Feminist framing and general equilibrium theory”, is innocuous enough – especially if one is used to the residual sexism and racism that sometimes accompanies the ahistorical and asocial theory of society that underpins mainstream economics. The author, Nick Rowe, is a frequent contributor to the group blog on which the article appeared; he is a professor of economics and a fellow of a prestigious research institute.

The article is an argument against some recent evidence that shows there may be structural reasons for why fewer women major in economics in university. In particular, there is evidence that women are far more likely to drop economics as a major if they do not receive As.

Figure 1. Percentage of men and women who end up majoring in economics after receiving the given grade in an intro course (Source: Claudia Goldin, Harvard University).
Figure 1. Percentage of men and women who end up majoring in economics after receiving the given grade in an intro course (Source: Claudia Goldin, Harvard University).

Nick Rowe’s answer to this phenomenon? “Maybe it’s because men with low grades in economics have nowhere else to go, so stick with economics despite their low grades.” The proof for this statement is – as befits an economist – a quick ahistorical example of four sentences about men, women and their chosen disciplines. Not facts about what the academy actually looks like. No, four logically-equivalent statements, which show hope to show the horrible bias of “feminist framing” and, indeed, “bigotry”, when we talk about why women are discriminated against in economics.

Yes, you heard it here first: those man-haters in the humanities are forcing men into economics and other technical disciplines. I suppose we are meant to feel empathy for the closet poets forced to crunch numbers for seven figures in their Wall Street offices when they could be working at the local Starbucks for poverty wages with all the other humanities grads.

While these claims are outrageous, there are far worse things out there on the internet. However, to spare us the trouble of finding them, the author presents them to us himself – as further evidence for his views! Naively, I followed one of the links because in answer to the author’s rhetorical question if I’ve ever heard of “female hypergamy”, I had to admit that I hadn’t.

I lost the following ten minutes of my life to reading about “alpha fucks and beta bucks” and still didn’t quite know what hypergamy really was (thank god for Wikipedia, I suppose). I could, however, make out that it was thinly-disguised pseudo-science to cover for gender privilege and mysoginy (kind of like economics can sometimes be thinly-disguised pseudo-science to cover for class privilege). Here is a choice quote from the linked article:

Most often when I’m asked the “How do I get my wife to fuck me again?” it’s coming from a man who once thought he had the best his wife had to offer, sexually, emotionally, etc. only to discover she had or still has the potential to be much more than he can coax from her or she’s willing to give to him. Again, I have to come back to the question, does his being her husband make her impression of him Beta by default?


There’s a lot more I could write about this. What do you do if you find yourself in this situation? Leave, divorce, cheat on her? That may be enough to push past that comfortable familiarity. I can think of one married blogger who’s husband cheated on her with the result being her unconditional submission.

Why does this matter? It matters because a respected economics professor posts sexist drivel on an influential economics blog and links to full-blown misogynist idiocy. It matters because it furthers institutionalized sexism. It matters because women at universities across the country are not only dealing with institutional obstacles in the academy, they have been worried about their physical safety.

I’ve seen women from close friends to classmates become discouraged from economics. I can only speak for myself. There are reasons the lion’s den can be an ugly place sometimes. For example, when stepping in trepidatiously, we only find the lion rolling around in the muck of privilege.

4 replies on “Privilege and pseudo-science”

Michal: Let’s do the gender switch.
Suppose it were girls, not boys, who were doing worse in school. Suppose it were women, not men, who had fewer going to university, and even fewer graduating from university. Would we be asking why, and wondering if there might be some problem, and if we could and should do something about it?
Look at that graph again. What is strange about it? I don’t find women’s behaviour strange. It’s perfectly normal to be more likely to drop a subject if your grades are worse, because it probably means your grades would be better in some other subject (unless grades are perfectly correlated across all subjects, which they certainly are not). It is men’s behaviour that is very strange. Why don’t the men with weak grades in economics drop it, and switch? It is men’s behaviour we need to explain. Again, do the gender switch, and ask what people would see in that graph if the data were the other way around,
People are very slowly starting to look at problems like this, and try to understand them. Maybe you want to ignore them, but others are slowly starting to consider them, and ask the questions that need to be asked. And exploring those questions might lead us to some very dark places, like those sites I linked to. Maybe you don’t want to go there, but others will.

Hi Nick, thank you for responding.

First, I think the problem with such gender switch arguments is precisely that they don’t take gender into account. Gender is not simply a label that we can stick on one group and then imagine sticking on another. It is a social institution that involves history and power. That’s why I think such exercises are not only unhelpful but elide the issues. I think method matters.

Second, these are problems I’m interested in. I agree that it is men’s behaviour here that is strange, but it becomes much less strange when it is taken in the context of networks of privilege and higher education is certainly a site where such networks are reinforced (and contested). It is a problem that there are disproportional amounts of men in some fields despite the supposedly impersonal mechanisms giving them the “wrong signals”. Perhaps there is something called gender privilege that allows them to continue to pursue the careers that provide and reinforce the very power and social markers of success that are less available to women. Is it that surprising that the C students continue along a path that leads to a much higher chance of obtaining money and power if they can?

The study from Stats Can that you link to in the post your other post on retention rates is actually quite helpful here. The literature review in that study points to socio-economic status (class) as an important determinant of retention. There may be reasons to be concerned with boys, but it appears that these are closely related to other kinds of privilege – here class privilege. Different kinds of privilege are interrelated and we do need to pay attention to this. Again, however, this is a very different argument from the one you present.

Finally, “going there” and making offhand remarks to look something up without giving it context are not the same thing. Especially when a quick search for what you refer to leads to loads of misogynist BS where all women are “sloots”, people look for strategies to get women to submit and so on. Beyond the outright batshit crazy stuff is a lot of problematic argumentation (let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and call some of it that) stemming from the so-called “men’s rights” movement. Dressing it up in fancy words doesn’t change that and neither does linking to it just to prove a point. There are many women challenging this kind of stuff directly on campuses for example and doing so in a context that has not really let go of rape culture, nevermind achieved meaningful equality.: exposing, questioning and maybe even sometimes engaging with it at potential cost to themselves.

Thanks Michal. Coincidentally, I just came out of a seminar. U of Toronto economics prof, doing research on high school graduation rates in Regents Park — a very poor area, lots of public housing, etc. The graduation rates were very low. And 12 points lower for boys than girls, IIRC.

The local people decided to do something about it, and set up a program called Pathways, which was very successful. But, it was three times more successful for girls than boys.

Given the area, it really doesn’t look like power and privilege. Because there isn’t much of that in Regents Park. Something deep is going on here. I don’t know what it is, but we need to look at it. When technology takes away lots of the manual jobs, it will only get worse for boys.

Gotta go.

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