24 April 2020

Women vs Capitalism:

Why We Can’t Have It All in a Free Market Economy

Vicky Pryce
2019, Hurst & Company, 351 pages,
ISBN 9781787381742

Reviewer: Ian Bright

For those who have not read around the topic of women in society and their economic prospects, Vicky Pryce’s book provides a good background on the main issues and extensive data. The exception is the coverage of bias. This part is disappointing. It draws little on the literature about unconscious bias and behavioural change relating to women in the workforce. It relies more on anecdotes. There are many practical approaches that can be used to address these behavioural issues and how change can be introduced to recruitment and promotion within organisations in such a way that the culture changes. Iris Bohnet’s book “What works; Gender Equality by Design” covers these topics in depth.

However, Bohnet’s work is not referenced in this section and is referred to only indirectly in the part of the book devoted to solutions by noting the UK Behavioural Insight Team’s 2018 paper on reducing the gender pay gap.

Discussion of bias forms one four parts of the book. The three other parts are an overview of international data on the extent of the pay and power gaps, a description of how motherhood and caring create career breaks that affect women more than men, and an outline of solutions.

For those aware of the literature, the book provides a handy source of data in one place and a source of anecdotes providing colour to the data.

The book’s central argument is that there is a market failure which allows the pay and power gap against women to persist. This is despite existing legislation on equal pay, the requirement for many companies to publish gender pay gaps, and movements to get women on company boards.

The solutions suggested are wide-ranging but not novel. These include greater flexibility in working arrangements for all workers so that women are less likely to be trapped in part-time work due to motherhood and caring duties. Part-time work reduces both career prospects and pay levels but would be less problematic if more men also worked part-time.

Quotas backed by penalties for representation of women at various levels of seniority and not just at board level are mooted. However, amongst the various suggestions made, there is no sense of which may be more effective or urgent.

The book would be more effective by concentrating on the argument that the disadvantage faced by women is a result of market failure. It is telling that it is not until page 76 of 300 pages of text that market failure is defined in some detail and how it relates particularly to women. Concentrating on market failure would have added to the literature and given the book more heft. However, this approach may also have made the book less accessible to a general reader, which may be at whom the book is aimed .

While the suggestions made to improve the lot of women (and I would think men) are not necessarily new, it appears they are still controversial to many. For example, the Right Honourable Dominic Raab, currently First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the UK Government, has made statements in the past on gender equality including softening gender pay reviews. These statements indicate disagreement with the suggestions made at senior levels of the UK government. Reforms along the lines proposed would face stiff opposition.

Given this probable opposition, a more clinical and detailed examination aimed precisely at market failure and gender issues is needed. Some, indeed many, still do not believe women face particular disadvantages.



Comments (1)

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  • AR 7 months ago 1

    “Having earned an acknowledgement in the preface to this book, and so knowing the book well, I was puzzled by some aspects of this review. Chapter One begins with a detailed and powerful account of why capitalism markets fail for women, drawing on historical parallels with slavery’s waste of human talent and noting that it took the force of legislation to protect children from the inherent short-termism of Capitalism, and which led to inter-temporal improvements for all. These examples of short-termism are wider than, but encompass, the narrower neoclassical economic concept of market-failure. This more ‘techy’ definition of which, as a potential Pareto-improvement, is indeed elaborated on page 76, but only after a setting of the theme by earlier statements such as

    “Beyond the obvious morality of gender equality in terms of fairness and women’s well-being, there is another justification for women’s economic empowerment that should concern even the most hard-nosed money-counter. It is about economic efficiency, productivity and growth, and the vast amounts of wasted female potential-for the individual, the household and the wider economy. Instead of worrying about the cost of equality, we should be worrying about the cost of inequality”

    Such introduction is more helpful for the more general reader than plunging straight into technical definitions.

    Similarly, the book is replete with so many examples on bias, with fifty or so academic and other references in the bias section of the book alone, which is one quarter of the book. Much more extensive research is cited in the references after each chapter than a cursory look at the back index would indicate, offering a veritable list of further reading. The works of Bohner and other researchers on bias are well-represented in the documents and publications directly cited, and the book extracts a dozen practical recommendations for action and goes on to explore others. I am not a woman, and perhaps I am biased, but I do agree with the economist Ann Pettifer who has described the book as “Superb. An authoritative manual for the men upholding capitalism, and a guidebook for women who want to change the world”