Race, gender, sexuality: How does identity affect our economic chances?

For a long time, economic theory didn’t grapple with the difference that identity makes to our experience of the economy. But it’s increasingly impossible to ignore how much things like race, gender, and sexuality play a part in the choices we make and the opportunities we have.¹ And economic theory is next to impossible to apply to the real world when it’s not representative of so many people’s lived experience.

So how does identity come into economics? One example to look at would be the jobs we choose to do. All over the world, our access to the labor market (in other words, the jobs that are available to us) can be limited by our gender and sexuality either by law and by social convention. Certain jobs are associated with certain genders to the point that people’s ability to choose that job is constrained by how it will be perceived by those around them. To take a silly example, the stereotype of the ‘gay hairdresser’ might stop a heterosexual man from becoming a hairdresser, not out of a lack of skill or training but out of fear that people would assume something about his identity based on his economic choice.

An even more fundamental economic choice that’s constrained by our identity is our right to shape economic policy, either by working in government or via the right to vote, depending on the country in question. There are anti-homosexuality laws in 79 countries around the world in 2016, threatening the security of a homosexual person in the workplace and stifling their right to take part in the conversation on what the economy should look like.²  There are few places in the world where women could vote before 1900, and the first woman to vote in Saudi Arabia only did so in 2015. People of colour in the United States were only given the legal protections needed to regularly vote in 1965, before which time they had a limited legal say in shaping the economy.

These are only a few of many more examples of how identity affects our position in the economy.³⁴ We’ll never live in a world where this connection disappears, and if we see the economy as just one part of a much more complex society, then there’s no reason why identity and economics shouldn’t overlap. But to understand economics, we’ll need to understand and embrace the fact that our identities can’t be disconnected from our economic experiences.