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Barbie in the Job Market: a gendered perspective in a Principles module

Introduction

In recent years, undergraduate economics teaching has been critiqued for its gender- neutral stance and the failure to expose students to heterodox approaches, such as those embedded in feminist economics. Undergraduate economic teaching continues to be rooted in the “flawed” assumption of an “economic man” and lacks a gendered perspective in the treatment of key economic principles. Ferber (1995) has described these as “errors of emission” and analysed how important economic developments such as the rise in women’s labour force participation, the differential concepts of work and leisure between men and women, as well as the definition of women’s unpaid care work do not form the subject matter of mainstream economics textbooks. This failure to keep up with the current developments in economic theory has robbed the subject of its dynamism. The curriculum is not representative of current economic realities and contemporary debates among different schools of economics (Mearman, 2007).

The second major critique of mainstream undergraduate economics is its continued reliance on lecture-based teaching. Some empirical studies reveal that undergraduate economics lecturers on average spend 65–80% of class time on traditional lectures (Picault, 2019). In this regard, Lewis and McGoldrick (2011) have described the undergraduate economics classroom as a “chilly environment,” which is devoid of any sense of community or relevance to a student’s life. This dominance of “chalk and talk” approaches has not only adversely affected student experience, but also hampered the achievement of key learning outcomes in undergraduate economics teaching. Studies have revealed that a significant proportion of undergraduate students only acquire conceptual knowledge of the subject in a traditional classroom format. They are not able to adequately develop critical thinking and reasoning skills, which are thought to be at the core of the curriculum (Watts and Schaur, 2011).

It is in this context that the present inquiry was intended to incorporate a gendered perspective in the discussion of labour markets in a Principles of Economics module, using a case of barbie careers from 1950s onwards. In this inquiry I also deviated from an individualistic approach and attempted to create an “inclusive” learning environment using group learning.

The Classroom Context

This classroom inquiry was instituted among second year students pursuing a Business with Economics degree. This course comprised of 53 students, with considerable diversity in their previous academic background. Some of these students had studied A level Economics while others did not have any previous background in Economics. During the first year of the degree course, they only studied business related modules. Hence, approximately half of the students in the cohort had no previous exposure to the subject. The module was being taught online, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic wherein asynchronous lectures were combined with weekly synchronous seminars through the e-learning platform Blackboard.

As an economist with a keen interest in gender issues, I was inclined to introduce students to a gendered perspective on key topics. Mearman (2007) has described this as “enriching an orthodox module.” In the topic on “labour markets”, therefore I planned a learning activity centered on barbie dolls' career choices from 1950 to now. This learning activity was designed to expose students to issues like changes in the labour force participation rate among women, and women’s entry in careers which were traditionally considered male oriented.

The Learning Activity

As a pre-reading to the seminar I asked students to read a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (2018) titled The rise and rise of women’s employment in the UK. This article analyzed the trends in women’s working patterns between 1950-2020 and the causal factors responsible for these changes. I spend the first few minutes summarizing the key points that were covered in the pre-recorded lecture on labour markets. On the first slide I displayed a data table based on the Office of National Statistics that provided the percentage of women in the working age population engaged in gainful employment in UK between 1975-2020. Based on this data table I posed the following questions:

  1. What was the percentage of women in the UK employed in 1975?
  2. What percentage of women were employed in the UK in 2010?
  3. How do you estimate the rise in women’s employment between 1985-2020?
  4. What are the possible explanations for this increase in women’s employment?

This led to a lively classroom discussion and some students who were shy to speak up in class started using the chat column to record their responses. Many students came up with responses like increasing acceptance for women in roles traditionally reserved for women, rising educational attainment of women, rising age of marriage and child bearing in response to the last question about possible explanations for women’s increasing employment. This enabled me to channel the discussion to concepts such as “reproductive tax” and how women’s roles as mothers had constrained from taking up some careers in the past. I next displayed a slide derived from the St Louis Federal Reserve teaching source, which displayed the top ten most popular career choices for women between the years 1950-2010. I gave students a few minutes to study this slide. Following this, I showed them an 8 minute YouYube video titled The Evolution of the Barbie Doll from 1950s to Today on the history of Barbie and her career choices over the years. I then displayed a number of images of barbies in ten different occupational entities ranging from a fashion model to a nurse, an astronaut and a presidential candidate. I divided students into “breakout” groups of 4-5 and asked them to arrange these barbie careers in a timeline from 1950 to 2020, giving a justification for their choices. I was intrigued to see that different groups chose different timelines, along with supporting explanations. For instance, one group of students put the “nurse” barbie in 1950s arguing that in the post-World War II scenario, nursing as an occupation could possibly become popular. Another groups had put in the nurse barbie in 1960s and discussed how more women were going in for higher education degrees in that decade and quoted an empirical study to support their argument. Similarly, one group of students had put in the fashion designer barbie in the 1950s explaining that barbie was primarily developed as a fashion doll and another group put fashion designing as a career choice in the 1980s, describing it as a decade of advancement of fashion as a career.

In the next part of the seminar session, I divided students into breakout groups again, and asked them to come up with a career choice for barbie in 2021 and make a presentation justifying their choice quoting at least three academic sources. Different groups came up with varying career choices ranging from an epidemiologist barbie to a YouTuber barbie. Many students presented graphs and tables from sources like Office of National Statistics to strengthen their arguments. I was pleased to find that most of the groups had referred to academic sources on career choices to support their arguments. I also found out that some students who were more artistically inclined had used graphical tools like Procreate to give a visual appeal to their presentation. This enabled me to see how visual tools can also be integrated in academic work to strengthen student’s engagement and participation in class, even in an online learning environment.

The Way Forward

I used the last quarter of the session to gain students’ feedback. The student feedback on this activity was overwhelmingly positive. This learning activity has given me confidence as a tutor to incorporate new approaches and heterodox concepts in a traditional principles of economics module. It has also enabled me to consider adopting innovative, art-based pedagogies in my teaching. From my personal observations and student feedback, I could gauge that such approaches can foster creativity, enhance communication and help students to draw inter-relationships between new ideas exchanged in class, and connect these to their own lives. In presenting this teaching case study, I hope that more tutors would be encouraged to incorporate heterodox concepts in their teaching.

References

Ferber, M. A. (1995) “The Study of Economics: A Feminist Critique,” The American Economic Review, 85(2), pp. 357-361. JSTOR 2117948

Lewis, M. and McGoldrick, K. (2011) “Moving beyond the masculine neoclassical classroom,” Feminist Economics, 7(2), pp. 91-103. https://doi.org/10.1080/13545700110059252

Mearman, A. (2007) “Teaching Heterodox Economics Concepts” in The Handbook of Economic Lecturers, The Economics Network.

Picault, J. (2019) "The economics instructor’s toolbox," IREE, 30, 100154. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iree.2019.01.001

Watts, M. and Schaur, G. (2011) "Teaching and Assessment Methods in Undergraduate Economics: A Fourth National Quinquennial Survey." JEE, 42, pp. 294–309. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220485.2011.581956

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