Gary Becker Treatment of Women who Work for Pay as “Deviants”

By William K. Black

This is the second article in my five-part series on Gary Becker as an exemplar of the book we are writing about why economics is the only field in which one can receive the top award for proving wrong, anti-social, and intellectually dishonest.  In keeping with that triple failure the Swedish Central Bank prize in economics is frequently awarded in the year in which the recipients’ failures and intellectual dishonesty has become so obvious that only the most dogmatic of theoclassical central bankers could pretend not to recognize reality.  Becker’s award exemplifies this unintentional exercise in self-parody.

Becker’s Disingenuous Dance about “Deviants”

Becker claimed that women are inherently inferior to men as paid workers.

“Investments in ‘deviant’ children … conflict with their biology” (1991: 40).

There may be a few female “deviants” who it would make sense to train (“invest” in) for “male” jobs if we could predict their (deeply unlikely) future success in “male jobs” when they were five years old, but we cannot.  Given this inability to identify now the tiny group of potentially successful “deviant” girls, it makes no sense to provide girls the option of undertaking the years of training necessary to qualify the few “deviants” who would actually be as good as males in such jobs.  The “optimal strategy” is to educate all boys – and no girls – in the skills required to succeed in the paid sectors (1991: 40).  It is a subtle point, but Becker is no longer talking about some minor competitive advantage he claims women have because they can lactate.  He is now claiming that women and men are genetically predisposed to desire to work, respectively, in the household and paid labor sectors.  He uses the word “orientation” to indicate the nature of his claim.  Becker, of course, presents no evidence of such a genetic predisposition on the part of either males or females.  He simply assumes into existence the predicate for his “theory” – and gets the Prize for this exercise in “science.”

Meanwhile, of course, there were actual scientists in disciplines specializing in the study of institutions like the family who worked in the reality-based world and relied on data to formulated and test their theories – the scientists that Stigler so famously dismissed and Becker so often ignored despite his pretensions to exhaustive (and exhausting) research.  It was inescapable by the time Becker began his research in the late 1970sthat it was common for women to work in the paying sector, that the education of women was rapidly expanding, and that all the trends predicted that it would be the norm for women to work in the paid sector.  This trend was reality by 1991 when Becker published his expanded Treatise and 1992 when the Swedish Central Bank committed its act of unintentional self-parody.

Becker claimed that he used the terms “deviant” and “normal” only in its statistical sense – because, you know, there was no other word for that concept that avoided the obvious and bigoted double insult to both women and lesbians.  Come to think of it, he could have used the word “exceptional.”  “Normal” is not a statistical term as Becker used it to refer to individuals (as opposed to distributions). Becker used the phrase “normal orientation,” which lacked any subtlety.  Becker disingenuously claimed, however, that he meant none of these innuendos that he so diligently employed.  In both editions of the Treatise he used the term “deviant” in a manner contrary to normal statistical usage to describe a characteristic, women working in the paying sector, that was in fact common and not remotely a statistical outlier.

“Let me emphasize that ‘deviant’ is used in a statistical, and not a pejorative sense” (1991: 40 n. 4).

But if you are still tempted to believe such an obvious lie, consider the following.  Becker states that the difference between “deviants’” “biology” and their “investments” caused them “agony” (1991: 40).  Becker also asserted (again, without benefit of data or citation) that “deviant” women were more likely to remain single, get divorced, or remain in unhappy marriages (1991: 40 n. 4).

Becker was also wrong in a manner that demonstrates his blindness to women and the markets.  He claimed that deviant women would often seek “a deviant division of labor with men in the household and women in the market” (1991: 40).  Remember, Becker is supposedly using the word “deviant” to refer to some subset of non-lesbian women who have a rare “orientation” toward being paid for their work.  These straight women wish to work for pay, but they also generally want to marry a man.  Becker purports to believe that the goal of straight “deviant” women must be to marry a “deviant” man who wishes to be a “house husband.”  Why?  Why not do what married women who work for pay overwhelmingly do in reality (and did even when Becker was beginning his research)?  Households in which the wife works in the paid sector overwhelmingly follow a strategy of hiring others to help with household tasks.  We educate our children at schools rather than home-schooling, we hire people who clean the home, we use day care, and we pay for haircuts.

Every adult American has been aware of these strategies for decades.  Becker could not have failed to be aware of the strategies even before he began his exhaustive research about families.  (Becker’s “research” on women seems to have been conducted in a frat house during a homecoming party in which he drunken alums who graduated decades earlier told stories about the “good old days,” which is a fair description of U. Chicago’s economic department in that era.)  But Becker could not admit the reality of this dominant strategy because the reality destroyed all of his theses.

The dominant strategy for American married couples is for both parents to work in the paid sector.  That dominant strategy, contrary to Becker’s thesis, enormously increases specialization (and, under his own logic, productivity) because a wife who works as a surgeon, corporate attorney, nurse, teacher, accountant, or saleswoman is vastly more specialized than is the “traditional housewife” – who is the quintessential generalist.

As important as the vast increase in specialization that occurred as the direct result of women entering the paid workforce is, it also critical to understand that as soon as the entry of non-married and married women into the paid sector became significant it kicked off a secondary wave of increased specialization – largely among women.  The overwhelmingly dominant strategy that single women and married couples employ to supplement their personal work in the household due to their work in the paid sector is hiring specialists in particular “household” functions.  Most of these specialties are dominated by women, e.g., day care, hairdressers, home cleaners.  The rise of these specialties began long before married women working in the paid sector became the dominant strategy, so Becker would have observed their rise nearly his entire adult life.  Becker’s central thesis, and its supporting rationales (actually, bigoted pseudo-genetic fables) were the opposite of reality.  What he saw as a terrible reduction in specialization and productivity was the opposite.  Had anyone listened to his theory and adopted policies designed to reduce the entry of women into the paid sphere the results would have been horrific.  Fortunately, women (and their partners) recognized that Becker was dead wrong.  Sadly, Swedish Central Bankers’ comparative advantage is chanting long-falsified dogmas.

Becker’s Willingness to Reinforce (and Ignore) Bias against Women

Becker stated that women make less money in the labor force not due to job discrimination, but due to less investment in the education of women (1991:42).  He never seemed to understand that the reduced investment in educating women was itself the product of and an act of discrimination against women.  He recommended not educating any females for work in the paid sector even though he knew that such a policy would lock women into unpaid household sector jobs and perpetual dependency on men.

By 1991-1992 It took Willful Blindness to Believe Becker’s Claims about Women

By 1991, when Becker published his updated Treatise, and 1992 when the Swedish Central Bank awarded him its Prize, there was no conceivable defense of Becker’s claims about the efficiency of gender specialization.  Census data show that male and female part-time labor participation rates were equivalent and full-time (paid) labor participation rate for women was about 60% of the male rate (see Figure A, below).  Becker’s award is another illustration of the Swedish Central Bank’s uncanny ability to award a Prize at the very moment that the falsity of the winner’s theories becomes obvious to anyone that follows the field.  1992 was the first year in which the percentage of women high school graduates aged 25-29 who had obtained at least a college degree exceeded the rate for men of that same cohort (28% v. 27%).

“In 1992, women earned more associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees than men, whereas in 1977 the reverse was true.  Though fewer doctoral and first-professional degrees were awarded to women than to men in 1992, the gap has narrowed considerably over time. For example, the percentage of first-professional degrees earned by women rose dramatically between 1960 and 1993: from 2 percent to 42 percent of all law degrees; from 6 percent to 38 percent of all medical degrees; and from 1 percent to 34 percent of all dentistry degrees.”


Paid labor force participation rates for women in the prime adult working years were above 70% by 1992 – and had risen steadily since Becker’s first published his (falsified) critique of the loss of “specialization” and “efficiency” that purportedly arose from having women work in the paid sector.  The numbers on women’s education and employment had already falsified Becker’s claims and the trend was obviously making a further mockery of Becker’s fables.

The situation today demonstrates that had we followed Becker’s recommendations about not bothering to educate women for “deviant” careers we would not only have denied half our population the educational and job opportunities they cherish, but done irreparable harm to our economy.


Key Facts from Academia & Education pulled from sources below.

Women represent 51% of the nation’s PhDs, 51% of business school applicants, 67% of college graduates, and more than 70% of 2012 Valedictorians in the US.

Nationally, about 58 percent of US college undergraduates are women, with some campuses at 70 percent.

Nationally, women are 57 percent of all US college students but only 26 percent of full professors, 23 percent of university presidents and 14 percent of presidents at the doctoral degree-granting institutions.

In 2011, 37 percent of young women had at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 29 percent of young men in the US.

In 2009, 57.2% of Bachelor Degrees, 60.4% of Masters Degrees, and 52.3% of Doctoral Degrees awarded in the US were awarded to women.”


If an enemy had deliberately sought to cripple our economy they could not have come up with a better plan than Becker’s blunder.  Fortunately, women ignored Becker.  Sadly, economists failed to show similar wisdom.  Economists do not simply reinforce failure – they declare victory in their “imperial” ambitions and give Nobel prizes to generals who led them to their worst failures at the moment that the catastrophic nature of their analytical and predictive failures becomes most glaring.  If theoclassical economists had any respect for the scientific method they would have hung their heads in shame when Becker’s Prize was announced.  Instead, they cheered.  The third installment of this series discusses a related topic – Becker’s bizarre and harmful treatment of discrimination as a “taste.”

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