Women’s contribution to economic growth

Women's contribution to economic growth - 1

The French economist Alfred Sauvy highlighted a shift in workforce throughout the three sectors of the economy; there is now more workforce in the service sector – the tertiary sector – than in the primary and manufacturing ones, as technical progress increased each sector’s productivity. It seems that women have benefited from these economic-related society’s transformations since they have become wage-earners in the 1960’s in developed countries. By earning wages, their work started to be taken into account when calculating the GDP; they became recognised contributors to their country’s economic growth. We might wonder then, what was women’s contribution to economic growth before, and how has it evolved?

Historical retrospective of women’s contribution to the domestic production 

The gross domestic product – GDP – began to be used as an economic indicator in the 1930s, thanks to the American economist and statistician Simon Kuznets. GDP can be expressed as the sum of all companies’ gross value added in a country. The first usual way to measure economic growth is in terms of production. Before establishing a national accountability system, census, which recorded the working population, could give an assessment of women’s contribution to the domestic product. In the XIXth century, women contributed to the national product by working in farms, as domestics, or in factories, for instance in textile manufactures. According to the historian Sylvia Schweitzer, women have always worked: they have never represented less than a third of the workforce. However, they were not considered as contributors to the economic growth, as they did not receive any salary. Indeed, the second way to assess the GDP is in terms of distribution, that is to say, by looking at the share of the value added. After the industrial revolution, the value added  essentially stemmed from the production coming from the manufacturing sector. During the XXth century, women have progressively been evicted from factories due to gender stereotypes. Until the end of the XXth century, the labour force was overwhelmingly male. One exception is the First World War, when women have been essential to the industrial production, by working in factories while their husbands were on the battlefield. Still, their ability to be employed was again denied after the war, even though some women wanted to keep working. Indeed, in France for instance, Vichy’s Government blamed women for dispossessing men of their job and for imperilling the national demography. Furthermore, in the same country, women were not able to work without their husband’s permission until 1965. The “Thirty Glorious Years” following World War II were, according to the French economist Jean Fourastié, a turning point. Women have gradually integrated the income earning sphere, and most of them worked as employees. Nowadays, according to the OCDE’s statistics, on average in Europe, the tertiary sector accounts for 70% of the value added; and in France, according to INSEE’s statistics, women make up 55,8% of the service industry. 

The impact of women’s consumption on economic growth

If the economic situation of a country is correlated with the domestic supply, it is also affected by people’s consumption. Indeed, in a Keynesian approach, companies produce only if they foresee demand of their goods and services, which means that economic growth depends on demand. Then, the consumer society, that has dawned in the XXth century, partly explains the average 5% growth in developed countries during the “Thirty Glorious Years.” In this consumer society, it is the housewife who is targeted by advertising. For instance, typical goods which emerged during that century are household equipment, first in the United States, and then in western Europe. Even though the women were the ones targeted, at first, it is their husbands’ wages which was used to buy these goods, and which, in the end, contributed to economic growth. Afterwards, with women integrating the salary society and earning wages, the number of consumers doubled, which had a positive impact on growth according to the Keynesian multiplier effect.


Endogenous growth theories

However, new theories of growth emerged in the 1960s. For instance, endogenous growth theories hold that knowledge, human capital and skills play a major role in economic growth. According to the American economist Gary Becker, “economists regard expenditures on education, training, medical care, and so on as investments in human capital.” Indeed, both Theodore W. Schulz, an American economist, and Gary Becker, highlighted that human capital favours people’s productivity and in the end increases the GDP. Following these theories, women have an important contribution to growth. In fact, the social scientists Christian Baudelot and Georges Establet highlighted that nowadays on average mothers spend ten hours per week helping their children doing their homework, while their husbands only spend four hours per week for the same task. Moreover, women are also more numerous to work in the medical care.

Is GDP the best economic indicator to measure women’s contribution to the national product?

Women's contribution to economic growth 2

Finally, there are three usual ways of assessing the GDP and its contributors: in terms of supply, according to the share of the value added, or by accounting for the demand. However, GDP may not be the best economic indicator to measure women’s contribution to economic growth. Indeed, while the output for one’s own final use is posted, the GDP still does not take into account the domestic labour. According to the Eurostat definition, “output for own final use consists of goods or services that are retained for their own final use by the owners of the enterprises in which they are produced,” for instance paid domestic services. It explains the following economist’s joke: “the GDP will decrease if you marry your cleaning lady,” as her labour will no more be accounted in the GDP. According to Christine Delphy, a pioneer of the materialist feminism movement, this represents an invisibilisation and an exploitation of women’s work. To conclude, if the domestic labour was paid and posted in the GDP in France, according to the INSEE, in 2012, it would represent 33% of the GDP, and 64% of the domestic labour was done by women. As a consequence, women are more likely to work part-time than men, and they officially contribute less to economic growth. GDP is even less reliable to assess women’s contribution to economic growth in some developing countries where domestic labour done by women is all the more significant. 

by Hélène Lechêne

References :

  • Baudelot, Establet, Christian, Georges. Quoi de neuf chez les filles ? Entre stéréotypes et libertés, Nathan, coll. « L’enfance en questions », 2007.
  • Becker, Gary. Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Emploi par activité, OCDE https://data.oecd.org/fr/emp/emploi-par-activite.htm 
  • Marchand, Olivier. 50 ans de mutation de l’emploi, INSEE Première, no. 1312, 09-29-2010 https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/1283207 
  • Maruani, Meron, Margaret, Monique. Un siècle de travail des femmes en France. 1901-2011, La découverte, 2012.
  • Kuznets, Simon. “National Income, 1929-35”, report to the U.S. Congress. 1937
  • Roy, Delphine. Le travail domestique : 60 milliards d’heures en 2010, INSEE première, no. 1423, 11-22-2012 https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/2123967 
  • Sauvy, Alfred. La machine et le chômage, DUNOD, 1980.
  • Schultz, Theodore William. Investment in man: an Economist’s view. Social Service Review, vol.33, 1959.
  • Schweitzer, Sylvie. Les femmes ont toujours travaillé. Une histoire du travail des femmes aux XIXe et XXe siècles, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2002.
  • Tableaux de l’Économie Française, INSEE, 2016 https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/1906677?sommaire=1906743 





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 



Emmanuelle Auriol, Guido Friebel, Sascha Wilhem,  Women in European Economics, 04-2019

Kasey Buckles, University of Notre Dame, NBER and IZA, Fixing the Leaky Pipeline: Strategies for making economics work or women at every stage, 2019

Amanda Bayer, Cecilia Elena Rouse, Diversity in the economics profession: new attack on an old problem, 2016

Anne Boring, Soledad Zignano, Economics: where are the women ? Banque de France, 03-07-2018


Donna Ginther, Women and economics, The Economist, 19-01-2017


Peter Vanham, To woman on a mission to close the gender gap in Finance, Forbes, 20-01-2016


Inès Goncalves Rapaso. A few good (wo)men – on the representation of women in economics,  Bruegel, 15-01-2018