Economics’ Missing Women

It should not come as a surprise that there is a problem with gender representation in the field of economics. At the American Economic Association meeting this January, during an mostly-woman panel, researcher after researcher presented their work revealing patterns of gender discrimination in our discipline and, for the first time, the leaders of the AEA made an announcement that they would take these concerns more seriously.

The issue came to the spotlight in August 2017 after a detailed study of the misogynistic difference in language used in discussions about male and female economists on the website Economics Job Market Rumors. Alice Wu, from the University of California, Berkeley, used natural language processing to analyse over a million anonymous posts. She discovered that when discussing female economists, posts tend to focus on physical appearance, and regularly use incredibly offensive and crude language. On the other hand, when discussing male economists, the terms used tend to stress the intellectual ability of the subject.

The gender issue in economics seems to go beyond anonymous forum posts. About 20% of Europe’s senior economists are women, and in America 15% of full professors are women. Closer to home, around 27% of people listed as faculty on the Toulouse School of Economics website are female. There is less female representation in economics than in other social sciences, the humanities, and the environmental sciences, but there seems to be a similar issue in the fields of engineering, maths, and physics. Maybe the problem is not within economics itself? Sadly, that is not the case.

Donna Ginther, of the University of Kansas, found that American universities promote women economists to full tenured positions within seven years at a rate of 29% and men at 56%. Heather Sarsons, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, found that, when publishing a single-authored paper, men and women in economics departments see the same rise in their chances of getting tenure, but when the paper is co-authored, women only see a 2% increase in their tenure rates, while men experience an 8% increase. There is no difference in these ratios between men and women in the STEM fields.

Erin Hengel, of the University of Liverpool, studied the gender bias in the process of revision of papers submitted to Econometrica, finding that papers submitted by women take six months longer to be reviewed. According to a readability measure, the abstract of women’s papers are considerably improved in the publishing process while those of men do not change, despite starting at the same level of readability. Another paper by Friederike Mengel, Jan Sauermann, and Ulf Zölitz analyses teaching evaluation data collected from the Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics. They find that, even though there are no differences in students’ grades or self-study hours, women receive consistently lower teaching evaluations than their male colleagues. This bias is mostly due to evaluations written by male students and is more pronounced for mathematical courses and junior-level female instructors.

A study by Betsey Stevenson of the University of Michigan also caused controversy this year in the Economics community. She found that 77% of the people mentioned in introductory economics textbooks, real or imagined, are male, 18% are female and 5% are gender neutral. Real life economists mentioned are mostly male, but not always because they are important historical figures, the study claims. Men are also more likely to be mentioned in business and policy contexts while women tend to be mentioned more passively and in situations involving food, fashion, or household tasks. Throughout the seven textbooks, there is not one female economist mentioned in any of them — while 30% of all the people mentioned are economists, inside of this subset male mentions outnumber females’ 12 to 1. If you only take into account imagined people, 70% of these are still men. Gregory Mankiw, the author of one of the textbooks, defended himself by asking whether this is really a matter of his own implicit bias or rather just an accurate representation of reality.

Subjected to this type of statistical discrimination, women in economics undergo academic experiences that may be hard to fathom for their male counterparts. Sarah Jacobson, of Williams College, described one such emblematic experience of her time in graduate school in a recent interview with the New York Times. She described how an important female economist who had given a talk was continuously interrupted by her male colleagues while she tried to answer questions: “In the middle of the seminar, a male economist I respect turned around — they’re in the audience — and they were explaining the answer for her, on her behalf,” she said, “You see it all the time, you occasionally see it if a male is presenting. You see it pretty often if a woman is presenting.” Ms. Hengel also told the NYT, “When you’re teaching something, when you really nail an explanation, the front row just lights up.” But during the lecture of a male friend of hers, the students lit up, “even though he wasn’t nailing it.”

From all of this, one might wonder if economics simply fails to attract enough women. Indeed, some economists try to explain these gender imbalances by saying that it is just a matter of preferences. Do women just relate less to the worldview held by economics? If so, the field probably needs to start questioning its principles, since it is only managing to explain half of what it intends to. It is clear that poor teaching evaluations by chauvinist students have a biased effect on the career of women in the field. And it is not surprising that Donna Ginther’s study found that women in economics are less happy than their male peers, and, more surprisingly, than women in other fields – even those with similar gender disparities.

I believe that what we are facing is an insider/outsider problem. There are mostly men deciding what research topics are of most interest to the field, reviewing the articles, writing the introductory textbooks, and lecturing new students. Women have a higher barrier of entry and once they make it in, not only do they face discriminatory practices, but their careers are also often sidelined by male-dominated mainstream academia, as women are more inclined to specialise in more people-oriented topics, according to a paper on vocational psychology published in 2008. Given all the power that economists have over policy-makers, one cannot help but wonder what could have been accomplished if there was no bias in the first place. Maybe we would have already solved urgent humanitarian matters that have been long left aside in research, like homelessness, extreme poverty, war or even issues of sustainability. The discrimination against women in economics is harming us all.

The next step is not an easy one: implementing a solution to the problem. The AEA announcement that they would set up an alternative job site and a code of conduct for economists is a baby step in this direction. Another possibility is working on representation at the undergraduate level: a 2017 study suggests that carefully picking the instructors of introductory economics courses has an impact on the number of women interested in majoring in economics. This may also suggest that creating new, forward-thinking introductory material aimed at enticing a wider variety of people into economics, instead of exacerbating the discrimination found in society, could be a good idea. Published papers could also list authors by contribution rather than alphabetically, a technique that helps to prevent gender bias in other research fields. One more radical possibility could also be to introduce gender quotas within economics faculties, but this would have to be coordinated in universities worldwide, or else the equilibrium would be not to cooperate.

We are all being affected by this problem. As research interest is based on personal experience, leaving of the field half of the population out of the field harms the diversity of research and its overall accomplishments.

By Diego Dabed


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