Capabilities and Gender

What is this paper about? Read the abstract! (I added the numbers)

This paper investigates how Amartya Sen’s capability approach can be applied to conceptualize and assess gender inequality in Western societies. (1) I first argue against the endorsement of a definitive list of capabilities and instead defend a procedural approach to the selection of capabilities by proposing five criteria. (2) This procedural account is then used to generate a list of capabilities for conceptualizing gender inequality in Western societies. (3) A survey of empirical studies shows that women are worse off than men on some dimensions, better off on a few others, and similarly placed on yet others, while for some dimensions the evaluation is unclear. (4) I then outline why, for group inequalities, inequalities in achieved functionings can be taken to reflect inequalities in capabilities, and how an overall evaluation could be arrived at by weighting the different capabilities. (Robeyns 2003)

Professor Brown thought that (1) showed that Robeyns sides with Sen over Nussbaum. Sen only describes capabilities as a theoretical “space,” leaving it open for others to specify exactly what capabilities are relevant for their particular purposes. Nussbaum, on the other hand, seeks to identify a list of capabilities that make up a good human life.

I see the difference between Sen and Nussbaum. But the point strikes me as a largely academic one. Robeyns does pretty much the same things that Nussbaum does: they make proposals to academic (or at least highly educated, literate, feminist) audiences, get feedback, amend their lists, and repeat. I doubt that Robeyns thinks the composition of the list could be settled by a vote. And I know that Nussbaum does not think of herself as bringing back the truth to those of us still chained up in the cave; she said as much when she visited Pomona several years ago.

So I was not really surprised that the list in point (2) was pretty close to Nussbaum’s list. I also thought that Ella made a very shrewd observation about it. She said that Robeyns’s list is a normative list: having the “functionings” on her list is better than not having them.

Ella also said that she thought Robeyns tends to assume that the male roles are what everyone would want to do if their preferences were not malformed. The suspicion is that this way of conceptualizing gender inequalities leads to a question-begging assessment. In part (3), Robeyns shows that men rank higher in many, but not all, of the functionings on the list and women rank lower. Then in part (4), Robeyns argues that the only reason why this would be so is that women lack the relevant capabilities. Her proof is that if they had had the capabilities, they would have chosen to “function” in the ways on the list at greater rates than, in fact, they do.

It looks as though she is saying that the reason why is that the functionings on the list are things that any rational person would want and so if some part of the population does not have them, the reason must be because they are prevented from getting them either directly or through deformation of their thinking. If so, that would bear out Ella’s point.

I suspect that she is saying something more modest, namely, that if capabilities were truly equal, you would expect to see a more equal distribution in functionings, where men and women function in the same ways in roughly equal numbers. Ella’s point might still apply to this more modest argument, but it would take more work to make it stick.

One thing that we tried to do in our discussion is come up with benign reasons for the gender differences in functionings. For example, if the different functionings reflected innate differences between men and women, that would explain what is observed without requiring any social manipulation. Another possibility is that there are cultural reasons why men and women sort the way they do that do not involve manipulation. For instance, women have better social lives than men do and, assuming that these rich social lives are available to them only if they pursue less demanding careers, they might opt for the superior social life over the more demanding career. You would see a gender imbalance in such choices if the rich social lives are not available to men. The PTA just isn’t a social option for men, for example; there is nothing inherently gendered about it, it just worked out that way for contingent reasons. Or you might see it if men did not value a rich social life as much as women. Maybe men are the ones who are systematically mistaken about what is good in life and it’s women who have it right (Ella’s point rears its head here).

More Robeyns

I quite liked the article for a number of reasons. One is that I now understand the difference between Sen and Nussbaum better!

If you’re interested in the capabilities approach, you might be interested to know that Robeyns wrote the relevant entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I bet it is as illuminating as this article is.


Robeyns, Ingrid. 2003. “Sen’s Capability Approach and Gender Inequality: Selecting Relevant Capabilities.” Feminist Economics 9 (2–3): 61–92. doi:10.1080/1354570022000078024.