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Gender at the core of systems of power and inequality

An interview with Elissa Braunstein by Esther Jeffers, Agnès Labrousse, Thomas Lamarche and Cécile Lefèvre
Entretien avec Elissa Braunstein, conduit par Esther Jeffers, Agnès Labrousse, Thomas Lamarche et Cécile Lefèvre
Elissa Braunstein, Esther Jeffers, Agnès Labrousse, Thomas Lamarche et Cécile Lefèvre

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Elissa Braunstein is a Professor and Chair of Economics at Colorado State University, as well as Editor of the journal Feminist Economics. Most recently she worked for 2.5 years as a Senior Economist at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Her work focuses on the international and macroeconomic aspects of development, with particular emphasis on economic growth, macro policy, social reproduction and gender. She publishes widely in both academic and policy venues, and has done consulting work for a number of international development institutions, including the International Labour Organization, the World Bank, the United Nations Research Institute on Social Development, and UN Women. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a Master’s of Pacific International Affairs from the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego.

Her main publications:

Braunstein E. (2008), « The Feminist Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society », Journal of Economic Issues, vol. 42, no 4, p. 1-21.

Braunstein E. (2012), Neoliberal Development Macroeconomics: a consideration of its gendered employment effects, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) Research Paper 2012-1.

Braunstein E. (2015), « Economic growth and social reproduction: gender inequality as cause and consequence », UN Women Discussion Paper.

Braunstein E. & N. Folbre (2001), « To Honor and Obey: Efficiency, Inequality and Patriarchal Property Rights », Feminist Economics, vol. 7, no 1, p. 25-44.

Braunstein E. & J. Heintz (2008), « Gender Bias and Central Bank Policy: Employment and Inflation Reduction », International Review of Applied Economics, vol. 22, no 2, p. 173-186.

Braunstein E., Staveren I.V. & D. Tavani (2011), « Embedding care and unpaid work in macroeconomic modeling: a structuralist approach », Feminist Economics, vol. 17, no 4, p. 5-31.

The making of a feminist economist

Revue de la regulation (RR). You are currently Professor and Chair of Economics at Colorado State University, as well as editor of the journal Feminist Economics. Let’s start with your professional history and experience. You studied economics (and Asian studies) at Cornell, at UC San Diego, and obtained your PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst [UMASS]. What were your main topics of interest at the time? What mainly influenced you on a theoretical and personal level?

Elissa Braunstein (EB). Economics was a practical afterthought for me as an undergraduate; my passion was Asian studies, in particular studying Chinese, as well as the history, philosophy and sociology of China. After college, I moved to Taiwan to study Chinese, traveling throughout East and Southeast Asia and supporting myself by teaching English. It was there that I became aware of how perceptions about my race and citizenship afforded me tremendous privilege, one that seemed to dominate what I saw as the otherwise tremendous gender constraints faced by women throughout the region. I also became interested in processes of economic development at this time, after seeing first-hand how important it is for well-being and social justice. When I returned to the US, I decided to go to graduate school to get a master’s degree in international relations, trying my hand at graduate school while also getting a degree with clear professional pathways – many graduates would go on to a diplomatic route at the US State Department, or the international public-oriented NGO or business sector. The international school at UCSD had just been established, focusing on Pacific International Affairs and attracting a number of scholarly stars in economics and political science, with a serious language program. It seemed like the perfect place to land. It was during this time that, while taking a course in the economy of China, that my professor and mentor, a well-known economist who specializes in Chinese industrialization, gave me Nancy Folbre’s 1986 World Development article “Hearts and spades: paradigms of household economics”, saying “I think you will really like this.” Nancy’s article was a revelation, combining my interests in gender and economics in a way that I never even imagined was possible, and I later came to understand as feminist economics. I had also come to believe that it was the economists who seemed to have the most power and intellectual cachet in global policy discussions, for better or worse. I decided that if I wanted to contribute to global policy discussions on development, particularly as a feminist focusing on gender as a system of inequality, I should become an economist. And so I applied for the PhD program at UMASS, where Nancy was a professor, the following year. I went to UMASS to work with her, and she became my mentor and intellectual guide. To this day, I see a lot of my work as growing out of her theoretical work.

RR. At what point did you realize the importance of a feminist perspective? Was it part of these universities’ curricula? Did you run into obstacles in pursuing this approach?

EB. Some of this point I answered above – it was not an explicit part of my undergraduate or master’s degree program, though one of my professors in the master’s program was responsible for introducing me to Nancy’s work. In terms of obstacles, once I arrived at UMASS, I wouldn’t say that I encountered any obstacles in pursuing feminist work, and in fact found the opposite – lots of enthusiasm and support. But then, UMASS is a very nontraditional place as far as US PhD programs are concerned.

RR. You worked together with Nancy Folbre on patriarchal rights in Great Britain and the US between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. In particular, you compared the rights of household heads at the time to the governance of capitalist firms. Could you expand on that?

EB. One of the things I find so compelling about Nancy Folbre, is that she is a sort of “hybrid” economist in the sense that she’s willing to take a critical perspective, one that admits both the strengths and the weaknesses, on both orthodox and heterodox approaches to economics. In the midst of taking a political economy class with her, we started having conversations about how little economics, orthodox or heterodox, has to say about evolution and exchange within non-market institutions, like the family or the firm. From a neoclassical perspective, if markets are so great (and efficient), why do we need social or business institutions to organize exchange and allocation? We thought it might be instructive to take a classic in that literature – Coase’s theory of the firm – and apply it to family production in order to understand the gendered evolution of property rights and why hierarchy prevails in the family (as in the capitalist firm). I guess it’s a sort of feminist institutionalist perspective, one that is based in a materialist notion of institutional dynamics (i.e. property rights over children shifted from fathers to mothers when children were no longer economic assets).

RR. You did some impressive research on FDI [foreign direct investment], globalization, and gender issues in Asia. What were the main conclusions of your study on “Engendering globalization: household structures, female labor supply and growth”?

  • 1 Braunstein E. (2000), « Engendering foreign direct investment: family structure, labor markets and (...)

EB. Actually, this was the title of my dissertation, which included three essays. One of them, my first effort at engendering a structuralist macromodel with FDI as the point of articulation with the global economy, was published in World Development: “Engendering foreign direct investment: family structure, labor markets and international capital mobility1”. The second essay developed an intra-household bargaining model to better understand the circumstances under which women’s employment resulted in greater empowerment, a perspective that helped inform some later work, like: “Women’s employment, empowerment and globalization: an economic perspective”, expert paper written for the UN Division for the Advancement of Women’s Expert Consultation on the 2009 World Survey on the Role of Women in Development, 2008. And the last essay was women’s rising labor force participation in Taiwan, and how if one thought in terms of market + nonmarket GDP, the rise in Taiwanese growth over its so-called “miracle” years was much more subdued. Important idea that informs much of my later work, but I never published it.

RR. How have your experiences at UNCTAD [United Nations Conference on Trade and Development], the ILO [International Labour Organization], the World Bank, and UN Women impacted your views in terms of political economy and feminist economics?

EB. One of the core goals of feminist economic analysis is to improve economic theory and practice, and so working with international policy institutions has long guided my research, much of which is expressly targeted to multidisciplinary policy audiences. I love this work because it requires pushing myself into the immediacy of pressing social and economic questions in specific and intentional ways; more importantly, it also enables me to contribute to global development discussions – my original motivation for becoming an economist in the first place.

The time at UNCTAD was special because I spent 2.5 years at its macro policy division. You can read more about this in my personal research statement attached to the end of this questionnaire.

RR. Can you talk to us about your experience as editor of Feminist Economics and at IAFEE [International Association for Feminist Economics]?

EB. Wow, that is a big question. I overlapped with Diana Strassmann, the journal’s founding editor, for two years as part of a planned transition. I took over as sole editor this past June, and the whole process has been an incredible learning experience – especially the opportunity to be mentored by Diana, one of the leading lights in feminist economics, someone who played an absolutely pivotal role in making the field what it is today. It’s a lot of work and a big responsibility, but the journal is so essential to the intellectual and social project of feminist economics, in addition to providing a venue for feminist economists to publish their work and earn tenure. And I have a lot of help, with a team of 36 associate editors I think it’s one of the most participatory organizations I’ve ever been a part of, with an ongoing commitment to mentoring scholars new to the field (and widening the tent of feminist economics), as well as promoting underrepresented scholars whose voices have been traditionally excluded from analyses and discussions of the theories and policies that affect them. Taking over as editor is probably the biggest honor I’ve had in my career; I’m humbled at the prospect.

On the state of women in economics

  • 2 Sarsons H. (2017), « Gender Differences in Recognition for Group Work » [April, v.6], Working Paper (...)
  • 3 See for instance, Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (2017), CSWEP: Surve (...)

RR. In a recent paper,2 Heather Sarsons showed that in the US female economists are less likely to receive tenure the more they coauthor with men, because they are only credited with an ancillary contribution. This contrasts with the more equalitarian situation in sociology. More generally, reports show that in the US, the higher the level in economics, the fewer the number of women.3 How difficult is it for a female economist to become a full professor? What factors reinforce or help to break through the glass ceiling? Can you compare the situation with other social (or ‘hard’) sciences? With other countries?

EB. I’m giving my anecdotal, impressionistic response here, though I am familiar with the research you cite. In terms of how difficult it is to become a full professor: it’s difficult, and of course the reasons are complex. The topics that women economists tend to focus on often relate to their actual, lived experiences. And the methodologies they use reflect these perspectives, e. g. including more qualitative or critical work. Neither of these aspects are highly valued by the discipline’s mainstream, where mathematical abstraction and complexity on the one hand, or asking questions that are so narrow as to be almost without meaning (I’m thinking of some RCT-type studies here) on the other, are the options of the day. So many women who study economics opt for a different path than rising through the ranks of an economics department, especially one that grants PhDs – taking a private or public sector job, or going into a different discipline such as international, development or gender studies departments. These are important contributions, to be sure, but feminists’ ability to transform economics, at least from the inside of the discipline, is weaker as result. And that’s bad for the discipline as well as the policies it legitimates.

  • 4 Wu A. (2017), « Gender stereotyping in academia: evidence from economics job market rumors forum » (...)

RR. What has changed since the recent scandal unleashed by Alice Wu’s paper on the crude misogynist and sexualized portrayal of female economists on the US job market?4

EB. I think the coverage and discussion of Alice Wu’s paper was important, but what’s been really transformative has been the #MeToo movement, which has woken up just about everyone, and transformed relationships among professors, as well as that between professors and students, in very positive ways. The American Economics Association started its own job market board as a counter to the platform that Wu wrote about, as well as established a Committee on Equity, Diversity and Professional Conduct (two IAFFE folks, Lee Badgett and Lisa Cook, are members), and they’ve already started implementing new practices (such as requiring that job interviews take place in hotel suites with a separate living room).

RR. What kind of institutional changes would you suggest in order for female economists to attain a better status in academia?

EB. On the institutional side of things, improving efforts at diversity and inclusion in recruitment and hiring for both professors and graduate students will help address both sides of the pipeline. Something that I’ve learned about and benefited from in IAFFE is the importance of having a network that can offer mutual support, advice and professional legitimacy. Having this in departments, as I do in my own, is essential for success at recruiting and retaining women, as well as other minoritized groups. These efforts have to be intentional, long-term, and well-resourced, all of which require institutional commitment, as well as cooperation at the level of the Department, which is where the decision-making on who to ultimately hire, and who to promote and tenure, get made. This last part about the economics departments is the most difficult one, I believe. There can be institutional commitment at the university – or college-level, but senior professors sometimes constitute a last and insurmountable bulwark.

On feminist economics and its relations to other schools of thought in economics

RR. What is the state of feminist economics today in the US? How has it evolved in recent decades?

EB. It’s a large, inventive and diverse tent, mainly because of the dedicated work of feminist economists over the years, but also partly because studying the economic effects of gender inequality has in some ways become more mainstream (see above for more on the latter point), which creates new opportunities for bringing scholars into feminist analysis who would otherwise never encounter it. There is also a resurgence of interest in feminist economics among young people studying economics; you can see it at both IAFFE and URPE [Union for Radical Political Economics] meetings, as well as among a rise in the share of applicants to economics PhD programs that are interested in studying feminist economics (at least at my own institution!). Happenings in the broader American culture – from the #MeToo movement to increasing engagement with issues of inequality among university students – are also certainly part of this resurgence.

In terms of its evolution, as with the rest of the economics profession, it has gotten more empirical in general and econometric in particular, at least as reflected in the share of submissions and consequent articles published in Feminist Economics. At the same time, there is also a resurgence of interest in feminist political economy in particular, and you can see that in the increasing number of publications and presentations at heterodox-oriented journals and meetings. This is all great stuff, a moment I might characterize as a bit of a renaissance.

RR. Is there a kind of mainstream within feminist economists or is feminist economics a hotspot for pluralism with various theoretical and methodological approaches?

EB. Many who identify as feminist economists are talking about this exact question. I think there are some who feel that feminist economics has gotten too “mainstream”, primarily in terms of methodology (e. g. through the use of econometric analysis of secondary data or mathematical modeling). I see this rather as a manifestation of its big-tent success: the broader our appeal, the more our mainstream looks somewhat like the mainstream of the larger profession. But there are (at least) two key differences: one is the central role of power in feminist economic analysis – this in itself puts one outside of the orthodox mainstream regardless of methodological approach or theoretical structure. A second difference is the value put on methodological and theoretical pluralism by feminist economists in general – regardless of one’s own approach, it’s a part of our common intellectual project.

RR. As mentioned earlier, your research focuses on international and macroeconomic aspects of development, with a particular emphasis on economic growth, macro policy and gender. Macroeconomics, whether mainstream or post-Keynesian, does not seem much in phase with feminist perspectives or gender questions. In your opinion, what is the relationship between macroeconomics and feminist economics?

EB. I agree with the point that macro, regardless of its orientation, still seems quite apart from gender questions, not to mention feminist economics. I address this gap a little in my research statement at the end of this interview. But the absence is sort of a two-way street: not many heterodox macro scholars consider gender (much less feminism) to present important insights into macro dynamics, even though it’s at the core systems of power and inequality. Part of this is clearly about ignoring the nonmarket sector, especially care and social reproduction, in macro aggregates and dynamics. The other direction of the two-way street is from feminist economics to macro, which is sparsely populated, though there are a handful of extremely significant scholars, most feminist economics focus on micro questions and issues. In that sense, I feel that macro has been gendered masculine within the profession – much to its detriment.

RR. Do Feminist Economics and IAFEE have any academic ties to mainstream or heterodox currents of economic thought?

EB. Yes – many members of IAFFE identify as either mainstream or heterodox, though I think there is more of the latter than the former. It’s a theoretically and methodologically diverse organization. As far as the journal goes, our submissions come from across the methodological and philosophical spectrum, as well as being highly international in scope.

In France, it seems that institutional economists do not sufficiently read, or at least cite, feminist economists (even if that is slowly changing), probably reflecting the slow development of gender studies in France until the early 2000s. This is counterintuitive, since some great figures of original institutional economics like Gunnar Myrdal were also well aware of gender issues.

RR. Does the same problem of feminists economists being referred to in institutional studies exist in the US? If so, how do you explain it? To what extent do you think heterodox economics can contribute to feminist economics?

EB. I think that heterodox approaches to understanding and modeling power relations, particularly those having to do with class and inequality, are useful to combine with feminist perspectives on identity-based forms of inequality on things, like gender and race. For instance, I’ve based my macromodeling work on structuralist approaches to macroeconomics, whereby the distribution of income between labor and capital drive macro aggregates like investment and consumption. Extending this structure to gender, where elements like the distribution of the time and financial costs of social reproduction have an important role to play in macro dynamics and outcomes, seemed like natural extensions.

RR. What are the reciprocal impacts of political economy and feminist economics on each other? Do you have any advice for heterodox economists on how they can take gender into account when analyzing relationships of domination?

EB. I think one has to do more than take gender into account. One of the big feminist insights is understanding that patriarchy itself is a system of power and production that (pre)exists alongside capitalism – sometimes as complement but often as a contradiction. For me, understanding the material basis of power afforded great insight into how identities like gender, race or ethnicity confer choice, opportunity, and constraint. But these dynamics are not reducible to class.

RR. We all know that many economic indicators are not good indicators because they don’t tell the real story or the whole story. What do you see as the most important biases and how can they be overcome?

EB. As a macroeconomist, I often use aggregate indicators that are themselves highly problematic, from growth to measures of distribution (many of the latter being based on household surveys that don’t consider individual distribution) to measures of gender inequality in the labor market. But they’re the best that we have, and I feel that it’s important for feminists not to cede policy ground because of poor data. In terms of improvement, I think the variety of human development indicators can be useful, as can making better connections between micro- and macro-data, especially microdata that is collected at the individual (as opposed to household) level. I also think there is a lot of potential for developing better indicators – particularly on care work and well-being – using time use data.

Many thanks!

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1 Braunstein E. (2000), « Engendering foreign direct investment: family structure, labor markets and international capital mobility », World Development, vol. 28, no 7, p. 1157-1172.

2 Sarsons H. (2017), « Gender Differences in Recognition for Group Work » [April, v.6], Working Paper, Harvard University.

URL: [accessed on 24/06/2020]

3 See for instance, Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (2017), CSWEP: Survey & annual report, American Economic Association.

URL: [accessed on 25/06/2020]

4 Wu A. (2017), « Gender stereotyping in academia: evidence from economics job market rumors forum » [August], Working Paper. URL: [accessed on 24/06/2020]

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Elissa Braunstein, Esther Jeffers, Agnès Labrousse, Thomas Lamarche et Cécile Lefèvre, « Gender at the core of systems of power and inequality », Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 27 | 1er semestre/spring 2020, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2020, consulté le 24 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/regulation.17006

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Elissa Braunstein

Professor and Chair of Economics at Colorado State University, as well as Editor of the journal Feminist Economics;

Esther Jeffers

Professor at the University of Picardy Jules Verne, Amiens Research Center on Industry, Institutions and Economic Systems [CRIISEA];

Articles du même auteur

Agnès Labrousse

Associate Professor the University of Picardy Jules Verne, Amiens Research Center on Industry, Institutions and Economic Systems [CRIISEA];

Articles du même auteur

Thomas Lamarche

Director of the Laboratory of Social Dynamics and Spatial Reconstruction [LADYSS]; Professor at Université de Paris;

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Cécile Lefèvre

Professor at Université de Paris, Centre de recherché sur les liens sociaux [Cerlis];

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Revue de la régulation est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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