Updated: August 13, 2022
U.S.|Shedding Her Clothes in the Name of Economics
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“Women and their bodies are neglected by economists and yet are so important when it comes to answering the big questions that we face.”
— Victoria Bateman, economics lecturer at Cambridge University and author of “The Sex Factor”
In the spring of 2018, hundreds of the world’s brightest economists descended in the British seaside town of Brighton for the annual gathering of the Royal Economic Society, one of the academic field’s oldest and most prestigious organizations.
It was, as you would imagine, a room full of blazers and elbow patches, most of them worn by men, with hushed conversations over glasses of champagne and stiff upper lips. Suddenly, in walked Victoria Bateman. Completely naked.
“I was literally playing out the elephant in the room,” said Bateman, a fellow and economics lecturer at Cambridge University, referring to the absence of women in traditional economic theory and at the conference itself.
“It’s certainly not an easy thing to do,” she added. But Bateman said she was hoping her stunt would “punch feminism into the center of economics.”
“Women and their bodies are neglected by economists and yet are so important when it comes to answering the big questions that we face: What are the causes of prosperity, poverty and inequality?” she said.
Her sweeping book “The Sex Factor” offers an answer: that freedom for women, particularly over when they get married or how many children they have, leads to economic growth — a concept that upends the traditional narrative of the Western economy.
When women have that kind of control over their bodies, she explained, you get smaller families. That eventually creates higher wages and, in turn, a more productive economy.
To support her theory, one of many outlined in her recently published book, Bateman zooms out to before the Industrial Revolution, when women in Europe had “significantly greater freedoms” than those in other parts of the world. They could choose who and when to marry, inherit property and work. That, Bateman argues, let European economies surpass economies in China, India and the Middle East, where women weren’t as free.
Some economists say Bateman’s view might be too simplistic. Gender inequality, they argue, stems from unfair trade policies between the West and developing countries, inadequate government institutions and a complex chain of other factors.
But, according to Bateman, this kind of discussion is often ignored within economics, a field in which the concepts of feminism and women’s rights are clumped together as social, political and cultural issues best suited for other disciplines to study.
And so she shed her clothes.
A short while into that 2018 conference in Brighton, a naked Bateman did at least partially fulfill her aim: She started conversations about her ideas with fellow economists in the room. That is, until she was thrown out — an unsurprising turn of events, given the setting, but one that was perhaps the perfect metaphor for her theory.
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By the numbers
Economics, like many other industries and fields of study, is male-dominated and therefore “it is going to see the world through what are traditionally male eyes,” Bateman said. At every level of the field, women represent a minority.