It sounds a strange question, yet it is in fact a very relevant one. We’ve probably all heard of the shortages of women in subjects like maths, science and technology but the surprising fact is that there are even less women in the fields of economics. For instance if you take academic economics posts in the US, only about 12% are help by women. It’s not particularly a geographic thing either, the UK has only 15% women in similar posts.
If you look at other measures, perhaps the lists for potential noble prizes for economics – there is not a single woman on the last list won by economist Richard Thaler. In fact, there has only ever been one woman who has won this prize – Elinor Ostrom in 2009. What could be causing this, why such a huge imbalance in what is an important field of study?
When I think back to my undergraduate days, it’s probably at a very similar level. Sure the culture on economic courses was definitely male orientated and at least in my experience focused on a significant amount of alcohol and political discussion. Yet there were plenty of females on other courses who fitted into to much more masculine environment. It was very similar to other sciences like maths and Physics, it was just a subject that women didn’t seem that interested in.
Some people say it’s just a natural choice, and to put it in economic terms women are acting ‘rationally’. The implication being that other subjects are more suited to women’s temperament and skills – again that’s hard to comprehend. There is little in the subject matter on most undergraduate economic courses that should mean it’s more suited to men than women. In fact broader degree subjects like PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economic degrees in Oxford are extremely popular with female students.
So if it’s not the content and courses themselves what else can be responsible for this huge imbalance? Also why does no-one really talk about this issue, as it’s potentially a very serious issue. After all having a wholly masculine viewpoint in a large, important subject like economics can have enormous impact on our everyday lives. It means that few women will end up in economic posts and influencing factors which potentially could affect all our lives. It’s almost certain that women would have a slightly different approach to the subject than men, and very likely would be a much fairer one!
Some studies have suggested that there might be an inherent bias in the subject itself and how the subject is portrayed. One study found that language in economic focused forums could be more sexist that is average. It’s sad to think that it may be the economists themselves who may be responsible for this bias. It should be said that this is not a mainstream view and one that most economists would disagree with completely.
There are other studies though which suggest some sexism in the sector. One found that if a male economist published a paper he was 8% more likely to get a tenured post as opposed to only a 2% increase for women. Obviously such studies should be approached with caution as the sheer numeric imbalance could also explain some of these findings.
yet other studies are slightly more difficult to dismiss. Why should a female economist’s paper take on average six months longer to peer review than a mans? Why do women in economics tend to receive less in salary for similar jobs than men. If an employment sector is perceived to be sexist it is unlikely to attract enough female applicants.
It’s an interesting and contentious subject which should be a real worry for economists everywhere. The fact is that it doesn’t seem to be improving either, if you look at UK Universities the proportion of women on economics related courses was about 30% and now it’s fallen to nearly 25% – a significant downward trend.
Further Reading: BBC News Site