"Gender, Societies and Economics"

Interview with Hélène Périvier

Hélène Périvier is a researcher in economics at the OFCE at Sciences Po. She is currently the director of the research and academic programme on gender of Sciences Po, PRESAGE. Her research focuses mainly on social and family policies and gender inequalities. She also works on discrimination processes and on the evaluation of public policies. At the Sciences Po Summer School, she teaches the elective course "Gender, Societies and Economics" in the July session.

What is the main purpose of your course on "Gender, Societies and Economics"?

Through the lens of gender studies, I try to introduce students to the field of social sciences as a whole and to show them what these disciplines can bring to the study of gender. My aim is neither feminist nor ideological. Of course, I am a feminist, but I am not there to voice my opinion: I really want to emphasize the controversies surrounding this question. There is no such thing as a single "gender theory", but there are debates and discussions between researchers holding differing views.

I give my students all kinds of works realized in the field of social sciences and that shed light on the complex interactions between men and women: we confront and compare sociological, psycho-sociological or economic studies. I always pay special attention to dialogue and exchanges in this course. It is the best way to question commonplace and seemingly self-evident "truths".

What kind of topics do you address in this course?

We work on different case studies, including very current topics. It can be Apple and Facebook that decided to cover the cost of egg freezing for their female employees. This example is very telling; it calls into question our relationship to reproduction policies, women’s control over their bodies and what favours or restrains their emancipation.

Typically, we also address topics such as co-educational schooling: several studies seem to indicate that co-educational schools lead to a strengthening of gender norms. In certain underprivileged areas, boys would for instance drop out of school and build their sense of masculinity upon academic failure. In higher education, we also found out that Women’s Colleges, which are very prestigious in the United States, get more female students into scientific careers. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we should reconsider co-education; segregation may not be the right solution either!

I sometimes use cinema as a starting point for reflexion: should we consider "Game of Thrones", which often depicts rape or prostitution, as a sexist or as a feminist series? To make their point, students can refer to various studies on the representations of femininity and masculinity, on the question of sexuality or on the uniformity of female characters – the idea that there would only be one type of "ideal woman".

You have already been teaching this course at the Summer School for a couple of years. At the end of the session, what feedback do you usually get from your students?

The first part of the class focuses on the controversies surrounding the question "What is Gender"? For students with no previous background in gender studies, this part of the course can open up a whole new field - a field that is often much richer than they would have imagined!

But gender studies are not exclusively focused on the question of femininity and masculinity. They are also related to our social organization and social hierarchies, to the division of labour and the efficiency of public policies. For students who already have some knowledge of gender studies, the socio-economic dimension of the course can enrich their reflexion: it gives them concrete arguments - figures, measures - to support their points. They also gain concrete tools to understand issues such as women’s participation in the job market, wage inequality or economic exploitation – topics that can be quite challenging for them!

What is your analysis of the current trends in terms of women’s rights?

We still haven’t solved the problem of the sexual division of labour. In developed countries, there was a widespread movement of women emancipation in the 1970s and 1980s. But nowadays, the context is less favourable: we have reached a kind of stagnation, a status quo in terms of wage inequality and women’s access to leadership positions. In Europe, we are bogged down in a social structure that we are having difficulties reforming: France, for instance, is not able to overhaul its family policies and family law.

In some countries, there is even a backlash in terms of women’s fundamental rights – a trend in which the resurgence of religions plays a certain part. Poland is one of the countries that is backtracking on those rights, and the European Union’s inability to raise women’s rights to the status of fundamental requirements is worrying. It is the question of universality: shouldn’t Europe hold and defend universal values, and have the authority to impose them on its Member States?

But we should remain optimistic: in a country like Spain, women took to the streets to demonstrate against a draft law negating the right to abortion, and the governments yielded. This hopeful examples shows that, in many countries, political institutions and "checks and balances" work well; and that these acquired rights are firmly rooted in society.

To learn more about Hélène Périvier’s elective course at the Summer School, download the course overview for "Gender, Societies and Economics" (PDF, 457 Kb).

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