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Long walk for women economists

Trudi Makhaya was appointed as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic adviser on 16 April 2018,and will lead SA’s investment drive
Trudi Makhaya was appointed as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic adviser on 16 April 2018,and will lead SA’s investment drive
Image: Supplied/BusinessLIVE

A series of events and open, progressive discussions around the absence and invisibility of women in economics have been cause for optimism – albeit measured optimism.

Last week, there was the appointment and confirmation of women to highly important positions in the Presidency and at Nelson Mandela University. A week earlier, one of the world’s great female economists shared a prestigious award for her work. One can be forgiven for being optimistic.

Last week, the economist Trudi Makhaya was appointed as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic adviser.

Nelson Mandela University confirmed Sibongile Muthwa as vicechancellor, and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi as chancellor. They joined Nozipho January-Bardill, chairwoman of the university’s council, to complete a trio of women who will lead the institution for at least the next five to 10 years.

Abroad, one of the world’s exceptional economists, Marianna Mazzucato, was awarded the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. She received the award alongside Branko Milanovic who, I should disclose, is an old friend and former colleague at the World Bank.

Mazzucato received the award for her path-breaking research on the positive and entrepreneurial role of governments in fostering innovation. Milanovic received the award for his work on studying global inequality.

The Leontief Prize is awarded to scholars and thinkers who combine theoretical and empirical research to promote a more comprehensive understanding of social and environmental processes. Previous recipients included Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Laureate for Economics.

Shortly after I joined NMU two years ago, they were the first friends and colleagues to accept my invitation to visit the institution, and deliver keynote talks and lead discussions on advancing the frontiers of economic thought.

Earlier this month, I continued my engagement with thinkers around the world on the absence of women in economics – hence my excitement when Makhaya was appointed as the president’s economic adviser.

On the absence and invisibility of women in economics, I read again an account of the patriarchy that is so embedded in the discipline. One of the stand-out examples was the way in which Paul Samuelson, who some economists consider to be a revolutionary of mainstream economics, drew on the genius of his wife, Marion Crawford.

Crawford became a housewife after they got married in 1938, but continued to apply her mastery of mathematics in economics to refine her husband’s work. Samuelson would, of course, receive the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1970. It was some of his sexist conclusions, in his seminal text, Economics, first published in 1948, that sticks in the craw.

He was less offensive than Milton Friedman (another “revolutionary” of economics), who disagreed with the idea that “every economics department shall actively encourage qualified women graduate students without regard to age, marital or family status”.

In particular, he “never believed in reverse discrimination whether for women or for Jews or for blacks”. Friedman considered affirmative as unethical.

Samuelson and Friedman are two of the beacons of economics of the past 70 years or so. It is to their work that most economists turn for some of their most influential ideas, concepts and methods.

Samuelson himself had terribly sexist ideas that became embedded in his work, and in the textbook that continues to be used in economics departments today.

In the first edition of his definitive book, Economics, Samuelson described women as “longer on intuition than brains”. It took him two decades to revise some of his texts for the eight edition of Economics.

He would, nonetheless, insist, in a New York Times interview that year (1970) that students from an all-women’s institution (Sweet Briar College) were not as smart as those from Princeton.

As may be expected, he was forced into making some form of apology, but he held on to his belief that women were less suited to the rigours of economics.

The fight for women to enter the highest offices in universities has been under way for more than three centuries. In early April, I was engaged in a discussion on women in economics, hosted by the Paris School of Economics.

At the time I recalled a lecture, six years ago this month, by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, “It’s Complicated: 375 Years of Women at Harvard”. The key to her lecture was that for the first two centuries women were represented only as workers, or helpers in support of males. From the university’s founding, in 1636, until 1879 there were no women students at Harvard.

Horowitz explained that she was “haunted” by a statement made by biologist Ruth Hubbard about the impact on her generation students at the Radcliffe Institute of Advances Study at Harvard who were not taught by women.

“Sitting ‘at the feet of Harvard’s great men’ may mean students do not awaken to the ‘expectation that we might someday be great women’,” Horowitz said, with reference to Hubbard’s statement.

We may be slow, in South Africa, to eradicate poverty and inequality, in general, but we may be getting some things right. It starts with women.

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