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One of my most successful strategies of translating feminist visions into economic policy is simply doing it without spending too many words on the why I do this. I am a feminist. And an economist, scholar, critical thinker, activist, lobbyist, teacher, writer, mother, partner, daughter, sister, rower, reader, home-owner, board member, and learning to become a very basic level drummer. That’s enough words on the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of me. Let me explain rather the ‘how’. How I translate my feminism, connected with or disconnected from my other identities, through my economics, in teaching, lobbying, advocacy, and non-academic writing.

First, I will publish an economics book on the very day that we will have this seminar about feminist visions for economic policy, on the 15th of February at the ISS. In Dutch (sorry). I have opted to write an accessible book for a general public, including policy makers and students and fellow economists, because I am frustrated by the lack of depth and width in economic policy debates. As if there is not a rich history of economic thought from Adam Smith to Amartya Sen.


As if we have to learn time and time again to prevent crises and to get out of them from scratch. As if Marx was only a revolutionary whose ideas have been proven wrong by the fall of the Berlin wall. As if Adam Smith was really the father of neoliberalism. As if Keynes can be reduced to overspending governments. I am angry about such a violation of the history of economic thought. This reductionism seems a strategy to prevent students of economics to learn about other theories than the mainstream, to learn about qualitative methods in economic research, and to learn about the ethical foundations of various economic theories (yes, also utilitarianism as the ethics on which neoclassical economics is founded). To provide a tiny little bit of a balance to this bias, I have decided to explain the basic lessons we could have learned to prevent the 2008 financial crisis, in ten chapters, each dedicated to an innovative insight by a key economist. My book includes two female economists. And it discusses feminist themes of equality, diversity, and caring in the chapters on male economists who dared to talk about these issues. Such as Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (not read by economists), and John Maynard Keynes who wrote about gender equality, and Gunnar Myrdal who explained the persistence of the discrimination of blacks in the US economy in the 1940s. I have not labelled a single chapter “feminist”. But I have written one chapter on a founding mother of feminist economics, Barbara Bergmann, explaining the importance of her work.

lagardeSecond, I have analyzed the Lehman Sisters Hypothesis, put forward by high-level women such as Christine Lagarde and Neelie Kroes, right after the crisis. I found that there is a grain of truth in it, both on the ground of gender differences in the average financial behavior of men and women and, more sensitive in feminist debates, because of biological differences that mediate the behavioral patterns. For example by discussing research on testosterone, cortisol and oxytocine and their two-way relationship with economic variables (including the German Bond rate!) and economic behavior (in particular risk taking and stress-resilience). That research has resulted in invitations as keynote speaker at interesting events. Such as the OECD Head Quarter in Paris, in a seminar series attended by OECD ambassadors or their deputies and OECD staff. And an invitation to Reykjavik, where a female banker whose investment fund was the only one that did not go bankrupt in Iceland in 2008, had organized a conference in order to get the lessons from Lehman Sisters out to an audience of business people, women and men. That was a very inspiring event, where business leaders, from the CEOs of banks to CEOs of global fish exporters, were eager to learn about balancing biased male behavior in finance jobs and leadership positions. And where actress Geena Davis made an insightful and sometimes hilarious speech about her own experiences with gender biases in the film industry.

davisThird, I have done a survey among Dutch bankers on banking culture. My key finding is that the average bank employee is client-oriented but banking culture is not. They do value caring, but their bosses care more for profit. They are generally service-oriented, but the bank leadership focuses on shareholders. To my own surprise many ordinary bankers agree with these findings. And they ask me to train them on how to understand the dominant banking culture and how they can make a contribution to make it more caring. I have done several trainings now with small groups of bankers. One such training took four hours with 22 Amsterdam-based investment bankers (20 male, 2 female). After having explained the ethics of care and how it differs from both utilitarianism and deontology (a rights-perspective), I handed out big sheets of paper and color pencils. I asked them to make a color drawing to illustrate what these ethical approaches mean to them in their daily work. This resulted not only in very creative and sometimes also very funny drawings. But it also led to extremely interesting discussions among the bankers themselves, talking for the first time in their lives about the meaning of serving clients. The same bank has now asked me to repeat the training for another group and not in four hours but in eight hours. I should get canvass and oil paint.sheila e

In conclusion, for me, feminist economics is about doing it, showing how diversity, equality, and caring matter for economic life, and pointing out how policy makers, business people, and others can “do it” as well, integrating these three key feminist themes in their policies and activities. Without having to go through debates about feminism. Remember that economists value efficiency: we like to get straight to the point of ‘how’. Simply doing it, not talking about it. Like my heroine Sheila E on her drumset (for this link you really need to switch on the sound of your device and put it at the max!).

International Institute of Social Studies

CIRI aims to scale up and identify synergies between existing research at ISS on civic agency and change agents, as drivers of societal change and development. This blog is a forum on which to share and discuss themes and issues which fall within the broad framework of the programme.

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