Economics of Gender Stereotyping
Matthew Martin 3/11/2013 12:00:00 PM
Here's a post a little off the beaten path for the econosphere. As you probably know, sexism is already a significant topic of economic research--for example, the gender pay gap constitutes its own sub-field within the field of labor economics. But what hasn't been addressed in the economic research is gender stereotyping itself, a topic that is typically left exclusively to the other social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology. Interestingly, economics remains the most male-dominated of these professions...
Anita Sarkeesian has an excellent blog over at feministfrequency.com which, if you don't already, you should definitely start following. You'll be a better person for it. She has three particularly striking short video documentaries about the commercialization of gender stereo types in the markets for kids' games such as Lego's and video games. The first two videos examine the example of the extremely popular Lego brand. Here's part 1:
"Executives are going to great lengths to explain that the line is based on research… The frame gives the company an excuse for reproducing the same old gender stereotypes that we see throughout our culture… In this way they are trying to make it clear that they shouldn't be held accountable for the messages their products send."Lets think about this from an economics perspective. Companies like Lego and Nintendo have done their research to figure out what kinds of games will maximize their profits, and they are going out of their way to point to this research as a reason that they shouldn't be held accountable for the negative consequences of the stereotypes and sexism they contribute to. This should send up a red flag in every economist's head. The negative effects of sexism and gender-based stereotypes are well known, yet the companies profiting off their dissemination are not being held responsible. In other words, sexism is an example of what's known in economics as a negative externality, associated with the marketing of some goods and services including Lego and a wide variety of video games.
Economics 101 tells us that firms should be required to internalize the costs of negative externalities they cause. Forcing firms to internalize the harms of externalities will create an economic incentive to find ways of producing the good or service in ways that do not cause those externalities. If we apply the same economic analysis to the markets for Lego's and video games as we do for all other markets and externalities, then the fact that companies face no consequences when they disseminate harmful gender stereotypes as part of the production and marketing of their product has some pretty clear and far-reaching policy implications: the two most commonly chosen options for reversing the inefficiencies caused by negative externalities are regulation and Pigovian taxation.
One interesting but unexplored area of research would be to quantify the size of these negative externalities. To be sure, doing so would be difficult and highly imprecise, but one possible rout would be to estimate the amount that people would be willing to spend to eliminate sexism and harmful stereotypes. This is imperfect both because people are dishonest about their preferences, and because there would undoubtedly be economic gains they cannot predict--such as the female secretary who, in a world without stereotyped gender roles, might have been a far more productive mechanic. At any rate, here is a starting point for our estimation procedure: Anita Sarkeesian has so far found at least 6,968 donors giving \$158,922 to her effort to expose and combat the negative externality that is sexism in video games. That means that the size of the negative externality is at least \$158,922. But we all know it is way higher than that. So visit her donations page and add your name to the list!
Disclaimer: I have no relationship, affiliation, or collaboration with Anita Sarkeesian or her blog, other than the fact that I donated money to her project.