The Gender Revolution Economics Needs

Words by Georgia Wiley

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After two years of studying Development Studies I sold my soul 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’ ad nauseam. As my cohort shrunk I made two discoveries about economics that I really should have known going in:

  1. Economics is 90% maths
  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 79 individuals awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics just one has been female. The situation at the University of Adelaide is no exception, currently less than 30% of Undergraduate Economics students are female. This year there are no domestic female honours students. The teaching staff mirrors this 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 enrolment 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 reasons why women are choosing not to enter economics are complex and personal. However, we cannot ignore the systematic factors that dissuade women. Economics is not always a friendly place for women to exist in. For her thesis, Berkley undergrad Alice Wu studied the language used to describe men and women on a popular and anonymous online grad jobs forum Economics 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 a cesspit of toxicity especially towards women, but Wu’s research shows the discrimination women in economics face at its most extreme. The anonymity of forums allows posters to comment unmarred by social convention and largely exempt from repercussions.

Outside of 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 a 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 the 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 representations sake. The gender imbalance in economics has dramatic consequences for the field itself.

Economists may study the world, but they also help set the rules of the game. Economics and economists shape public policy, influence trade between nations, government spending, taxation and regulation. 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 Organisation, found that male economists are more skeptical of environmental protection and tend to prefer market-based solutions over government intervention. May and others undertook a similar study of American economists and found male economists were more likely to believe increasing the 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 standards abroad.

A lack of diversity in economics means that we have a smaller, more homogenous group of economists, making decisions based on a reduced pool of experiences and knowledge. To find the best possible solutions for more than 50% of the population, we need female economists. Diverse teams make better decisions and bring a wider range of views and knowledge to discussion, challenging everyone to find better answers. If the field is dominated by a largely homogenous group, the diversity of legitimate views will be drowned. A lack of diversity in any field limits its scope of debate and its intellectual rigour 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 interests 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.

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