Gender Performativity and the Economy | Dabya Al Riffai

Published as part of “The Gendered Economy: Between the Constant and the Changing” which was held on August 25, 2016 at Coffee Republic in Riffa. 

The discussion of gender inequality in the workplace is not new. Numerous studies indicate that female employees on average earn less than their male counterparts, and that despite the growing number of women in management, only a few occupy executive positions. Although these statistics offer concrete evidence that a lot remains to be done to overcome the patriarchal structure of the economy, examining them alone does not account for the social processes that engender the economy in the first place.

Our sense of selfhood is produced by the demands power has placed upon our bodies, forcing us to perform in certain ways, as identified in the writings of the gender theorist Judith Butler[1]. We may be born with different body types but these do not dictate our behavioral patterns, nor do they define our place in society or indeed the economy; our coerced performance of gender roles does. Being a man or a woman does not say anything about your truth; it only says that you are a good subject who can perform properly. ‘Proper’ feminine performativity is an interesting paradox; on the one hand, womanhood represents a powerful interiority that holds a primary position in maintaining the nuclear family. At the same time, womanhood represents an interiority that is secondary, dependent and occasionally irrational. This regulated system of contradictory performances is institutionalized through social policies and practices that reinforce gender differences, which is strikingly visible in the economic domain.

The first representation of the feminine has traditionally allocated domestic responsibilities to women exclusively, and dictated that the public sphere becomes the arena where only men are allowed to compete over resources. While social progress has been made to include women in the public sphere as evidenced by the increasing number of workingwomen, society is yet to challenge the authoritative notion that it is only women who are equipped to fulfill domestic responsibilities. Women’s economic inclusion, when not accompanied by the redistribution of these responsibilities reinforces their position as secondary earners, because after all, someone has to keep the house clean and the kids fed. The introduction of social policies aimed at facilitating female enrollment in the marketplace such as paid maternity leaves and the provision of public childcare for working mothers therefore not only institutionalizes feminine performativity, but also makes women less employable in the marketplace due to the higher economic cost of hiring them. This perhaps explains why in Bahrain for example, women constitute approximately half the workforce in the public sector, but only a third of the private sector workforce[2].

Interestingly, even when women overcome the constraints that prevent their access to the workplace, gender inequality persists because of the second, paradoxical representation of the feminine as secondary, dependent and irrational. This representation systematically disadvantages women in the workplace, as it becomes the basis for differential expectations regarding competence, which often translates into actual differences in performance. It starts with the acknowledgement of difference by simply identifying with ‘opposite’ genders, and the performance of acts associated with these identifications. What follows is the assignment of expectations of performance for one’s self and other actors involved in the workplace, which translates into behavioral differences between actors. This leads to men expecting higher task performance for themselves; exercising influence over female colleagues; initiating interactions more than them; and actually outperforming them[3]. A famous field experiment in behavioral economics found that due to these expectations, women perform as well as men when they compete against other women, but they perform significantly worse when competing against men[4]. This indicates that it is not gender itself that defines performance outcomes, but gender representations that we are tricked to believe as spontaneously occurring.

Representing and performing gender in acceptable and expected ways that organize our social life around the poles of gendered being therefore determines our place in the economy. To overcome gender inequality, we should not be asking how to efficiently help women balance their domestic and career responsibilities, but how do we restructure the power dynamics that assign domestic responsibilities to women in the first place by representing the feminine as inherently nurturing and more competent in maintaining the nuclear family. And certainly, we should not be asking why do men outperform women in the economy, but how do we destroy the gender system that presents a coerced and coordinated set of differentiating performances as natural.


[1] Nick Mansfield (2000) Subjectivity: Theories of the Self From Freud to Haraway. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

[2] Central Bank of Bahrain Economic Indicators, 2015

[3] Charles W. Mueller, Munyae Mulinge and Jennifer Glass (2002) Interactional Processes and Gender Workplace Inequalities. Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2

[4] Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesturland (2007). Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?. Gender Differences in Competitiveness. Quarterly Journal of Economics. Vol 122 No. 3


Dabya Al Riffai, B.Sc. in Politics and Economics from Queen Mary, University of London.

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