by Georgia Wiley.
After two years of studying Development Studies I sold my sold and moral superiority to transfer into Economics. My first-year econ courses were largely dominated by commerce students, resentful that BES is compulsory (rational people). As my degree went on, the majority of the commerce kids filtered out leaving only those of us devoted enough to write “at equilibrium” as nauseam. As my cohort shrunk I made two discoveries about economics that I really should have known going in:
1. Economics is 90% math
2. There are a lot of men
Economics is ostensibly a male dominated field, 80% of Europe’s senior economists and 85% of American Economics professors are male. Of the 84 individuals awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics just two have been female. The situation at the University of Adelaide is no exception, currently less than 30% of Undergraduate Economics students are female. The teaching staff mirror the imbalance, the School of Economics has 24 staff at the rank of lecturer or higher, 4 of them are female.
These statistics are disappointing but not surprising. What is most troubling is the trend — while female enrollment in STEM has continued to rise (albeit slowly), female participation in economics remains stagnant. Are we to believe that women simply aren’t interested in economics?
The reason why women are choosing not to enter economics are complex and personal. However, we cannot ignore the systemic factors that dissuade women. Economics is not always a friendly place for women to exists in. For her thesis, Berkeley undergrad Alice Wu studied the language used to describe men and women on a popular and anonymous online grad jobs forum Economic Job Market Rumours. This site is dominated by PhD students and reads as if 4chan took over whirlpool. The language used by posters when discussing men and women diverged significantly. The words with the strongest predictive power for discussing women included “hot”, “gorgeous”, “tits”, “lesbian”, “bang”, and “horny”. With the exception of “homo” and “homosexual”, the words most predictive of discussing men were “philosopher”, “keen”, “motivated” and “textbook”. Online forums have always been cesspit of toxicity especially towards women, but Wu’s research shows the discrimination women in economics face at the most extreme. The anonymity of forum allows posters to comment unmarred by social condemnation and largely exempt from repercussions.
Outside the troll laden world of online forums, women in economics face more nuanced discrimination and unconscious bias. As a PhD candidate at Harvard, Heather Sarsons investigated the effects of co-authorship in economics. She found that co-authoring a paper increased male candidate’s prospects of tenure by 8%, compared to just 2% for women. Sarsons concluded that women were 17% less likely to achieve tenure than men with similar publication records. Outside of academia things fare similarly, with men significantly outnumbering women in leadership of treasuries, central banks, and consulting firms alike.
As an undergrad this lack of female representation can be depressing, but representation is not important for representation sake. The gender imbalance in economics has dramatic consequences for the filed itself.
Economists may study the world, but they also help set rules for the game. Economics and economists shape public policy, influence trade between nations, government spending, taxation and regulations. As much as economists aspire to be bastions of rationality, research consistently shows that personal background and identity shape their beliefs, research, opinions, and decisions.
Our gender informs our experience, it seeps in to what we choose to research, the way we construct problems and ultimately craft solutions. It makes sense that women are more likely to research gender inequality because they are the ones directly affected. Even further, research shows that male and female economists diverge in belief. A survey of economists from 18 European countries by Ann Mari May and Mary McGarvey of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and David Kucera of the International Labour Organization, found that male economists are more sceptical of environmental protections and tend to prefer market-based solutions over government interventions. May and others undertook a similar study of American economists and found that male economists were more likely to believe increasing minimum wage would cause unemployment, more comfortable with drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and less likely to support connecting American openness to trade to higher labour standers abroad.
A lack of diversity in economics means that we have smaller, more homogeneous group of economists, making decisions based on a reduced pool of experience and knowledge. To find the best possible solution for more than 50% of the population, we need female economists. Diverse teams make better decisions and being a wider range of views and knowledge to discussion, challenging everyone to find better answers. If the field is dominated by a largely homogeneous group, the diversity of legitimate views will be drowned. A lack of diversity in any field limits its scope of debate and its intellectual rigor and development.
Economics is more than taxes — it is about looking at the world around us, and asking why things are the way they are and how can we make it better. If we let the field be defined by the interest of one group, we will never be able to make better decisions on the most pressing issues that face our world — inequality, climate change, or the rising price of m & m’s.