Incentives alone won’t bring gender equality

Doris Ruth Eikhof*, Senior Lecturer in Work and Employment at the School, underlines why there’s so much more to the problem of gender inequality than the task of getting the incentives right

Those concerned about gender inequality have recently been given cause for optimism. Research in economics, according to Tyler Cowen’s New York Times upshot column, ispredicting ‘a better world to come’. Cowen concedes women ‘are perceived as easier to take advantage of in […] economic settings’ and they ‘participate less in many public settings, especially those in which real power is exercised.’ Nevertheless, drawing on recent economic research, Cowen confidently pronounces ‘once women achieve a critical mass in a particular area, their participation grows rapidly’. Women have, he continues, ‘made great strides’ in law, medicine and academia, promising ‘cycles of positive reinforcement’ will further level the gender playing field. Cowen’s optimism is as much rooted in findings from recent economics research (‘incentives matter and […] can be changed’) as they are in John Stuart Mill’s gender-equity predictions. These, of course, were made a mere 150 years ago. Time sure flies when you’re having it all.

Cowen is notably vague about which incentives towards gender equality he has in mind. The real devil of economic arguments like his is in the detail, buried in assumptions, footnotes and subordinate clauses. So immediately following the suggestion that once a critical mass of female participation is reached, gender equality becomes the natural destination, Cowen states, by way of a mere afterthought, ‘at least after basic norms of inclusion have been established.’ But just what are those basic norms? And just how might they be established? Cowen does not say. Perhaps this omission is a mere technicality from a behavioral economic perspective. Perhaps, but these basic norms just so happen to be the crux of an incentive-led approach to gender equality. The establishment of basic norms, in other words, is precisely the problem.

Today we have many Gender Equality Acts but, as the most recent Global Gender Gap Report revealed once more, we still do not have Gender Equality. The norms codified in those Acts are not established, neither in the workplace nor in society. Gendered perceptions of individual’s characteristics, as the Ban Bossy campaign has demonstrated, and as Cowen himself concedes, still disadvantage women. Ongoing research also demonstrates how gendered perceptions of entrepreneurship reproduce gender inequality, how cultures of presenteeism discriminate against those with caring commitments (mostly women) and how the knowledge economy’s reliance on personal network based recruitment places women at a disadvantage. Across many industries, overt and covert sexist behaviour remains the norm. Academic studies of engineering or management are popularly reinforced by initiatives such as the Everyday Sexism project.

These are precisely the sorts of issues which Cowen’s qualification about basic norms confines to the background. Yes, it is possible to change incentives and yes, cycles of positive reinforcement can play a part. But the reason that, over 150 years after Mill’s essay, we still face profound gender inequality in developed and developing economies is that basic norms of inclusion still get pushed to background. If we don’t address those norms, the gender gap might, as Cowen puts it, ‘eventually close’. Such optimism should come with a use by date.



* Doris Ruth Eikhof also writes for the American Sociological Association’s Work in Progress blog, where some of her work for the Management Is Too Important Not To Debate blog is cross-posted.

Originally published at

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