The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded this year to Esther Duflo and two other researchers for their work on global poverty reduction. The prize was first established in 1968, and only one woman, Elinor Ostrom, had previously been awarded in economic sciences.
In the workplace, men and women should be considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations and opportunities. Sad to relate, in all fields of economics, women represent 19% of the workforce on average worldwide. We must ask ourselves: why do we have so few women in economics? Why is it a problem? And how can we bridge this gender gap ?
Why are there so few women in economics ?
Over recent years, economists have slowly started to develop an interest in the gender gap in the economic field. Data has shown the existence of a « leaky pipeline »: women struggle to advance in economics, they face barriers in publishing, promotion and tenure, and appear to be sideline the more they try to progress. In the US in 2017, according to the CSWEP – Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, new PhD students in economics were approximately 33% females, falling to 29% for assistant professors, to 23% for tenured associate professors and to 14% for full professors. Similarly, if we take a closer look at the top 300 institutions in terms of research output, we see that they have few female researchers. This confirms the existence of a leaky pipeline, but it does not explain its damage.
In 2017, Alice Wu received a lot of attention when she published her working paper about an American professional forum dedicated to the higher education job market. She exposed sexist comments and gender stereotypes underwent by women economists. The thirty words most associated with conversation about women are disrupting: “hot”, “pregnant”, “slut”, “prostitute”, “dated”, … And the list is catastrophic. But on the male side, the trend is much different: “adviser”, “prepare”, “mathematician”, “goals”, … This scandal, largely related by newspapers, led to many reports of women in economics experiencing inappropriate behavior in job interviews, seminars, meetings and conferences.
Gender gap applies to all fields of science, but it is almost double in economics than in the others. In universities, only about 20% to 30% of undergraduate students in economics are female. A study published in 2006 found that they start introductory economics courses being more skeptical about the subject than men, and the difference increases between the start and the end of the course, despite no differences in their performance.
Moreover, if we examine shares of paper by gender composition, we see that in economics, women publish on average less papers than men. Economists have studied this difference and have shown that women are held to higher editorial standards than men in economics. Besides, women are 17% less likely to get tenure than men with similar publication records, which shows that their publications do not count fully for their promotion.
These higher expectations also occur in student evaluations of female teachers. In economics and business, student evaluations of courses are systematically worse for women teachers than those for men, and these poor evaluations can affect tenure decisions.
Why is the underrepresentation of women in economics a problem ?
As executive director of the Washington State Investment Board, Theresa Whitmarsh is one of very few women to wield a big influence in her industry. At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in 2014, she said: « If you exclude 50% of the talent pool, it’s no wonder you find yourself in a war for talent ». Women are not totally excluded from economics, but the rate is very low. Theresa Whitmarsh pointed out the fateful consequence of women’s underrepresentation in economics: universities and firms lose potential employees.
Moreover, a study has shown that topics favoured by women in research are different than those favoured by men: women are more attracted by health, education and welfare than by macroeconomics and monetary economics. It has shown that male economists were more skeptical of regulation and high minimum wages, and less likely to favour redistribution, than women were. Therefore the low rate of women in economics implies less research in those topics, and less investment in them, which could lead to a non-optimisation of policy decisions.
What can be done ?
Gender gap in economists will not disappear naturally. It is in favour of the common good to raise the rate of women in economics, and actions can be done.
Collecting information and building solidarity is the first step to mend the leaky pipeline. The International Association for Feminist Economics has tried to collect data to understand the problem so it can be solved. One of the solutions is to support early-career pipeline and mentoring programmes; their goal is to help participants to develop skills and networks. The CSWEP sponsors these types of programmes, and economists have studied its effectiveness and report that the mentoring program had a positive effect on a number of professional outcomes, such as the number of publications.
Some economists also think that the way the subject is presented to undergraduate students should be revised. Economics are taught most of the time in a lecture format, but it has been shown that active learning increases exam scores and decreases failure rates relative to traditional lecturing, with particular benefit for women in male-dominated fields. Additionally, universities are starting to create programmes that give support to women. For instance, Harvard has created its Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge, an initiative to encourage more undergraduate women to major in economics.
Finally, the hardest thing to remove is implicit and institutional barriers. The glass ceiling is everywhere at anytime, and universities and employers have to change their behaviour to ensure representation of women in economics. A lot can be done: removing identifiers in university exams, committing to fair and relevant admissions or hiring criteria, collecting more evidence on candidates’ competencies, scrutinizing the drop-out rate of female undergraduates, using nudges, … Some interventions are easier than others. For example, studies show that having more female teachers and female professors in universities is a powerful encouragement for women seeking postgraduate positions. But if the number of women in universities could be easily raised, the problem would already have been solved.
To conclude, underrepresentation of women in economics is not a female problem, it is an economic problem. As Lael Brainard, a member of the US Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, said, women and men should start to bring « diversity in the economics profession in order to help policy makers make better decisions in promoting a healthier economy ». We have to continue to recognise the problem, measure it objectively and find solutions. To all the actual and future female economists that are reading this article, one final comment: Go Girls!
by Alice Crolard
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