Economics: still a job for the boys?

15th December, 2015

‘There are two or three male undergraduate economists for every female undergraduate economist in the US. That is not good’

The world’s most powerful economist is a woman — but chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen doesn’t have a great deal of female company at the economic top table. Christine Lagarde runs the International Monetary Fund, it is true — although she is a lawyer. But the president of the European Central Bank has never been a woman, nor the president of the German Bundesbank, nor the governor of the Bank of England. The US Treasury secretary has never been a woman, nor has the UK chancellor of the exchequer, nor the president of the World Bank.

To some extent this reflects the well-known fact that women are under-represented in positions of power. But beyond that it suggests that economics itself is a curiously male-dominated discipline. There has still only been one female winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences: Elinor Ostrom in 2009 (she shared the prize with Oliver E Williamson), and she was not a mainstream economist herself.

Quite why economics is so testosterone-laden is unclear. The situation at the top of the profession now is partly a reflection of the state of economics education decades ago. Ostrom’s desire to study economics was set back by the fact that she was discouraged from studying mathematics at school because she was a girl. We cannot travel back in time to give her a more enlightened maths teacher.

In the younger echelons of the profession there is more cause for cheer. The John Bates Clark medal, for example, is awarded to economists based in America under the age of 40; it is a prestigious award and in many cases a precursor to the Nobel Prize. Until 2007 it had been an exclusively male preserve but it has since been won by three women.

Another hopeful development is the blossoming of psychological realism in economics, in the form of behavioural economics. Behavioural economics doesn’t have all the answers but it is certainly asking some good questions. Since psychology is as popular among female undergraduates as economics is unpopular, it seems plausible that behavioural economics will make the dismal science more appealing to women.

Perhaps we should simply wait, then, and the women will break through? That seems doubtful. The American Economic Association publishes a regular newsletter from the “Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession”, and two summers ago the newsletter pondered a depressing trend — or rather a depressing lack of a trend.

“The fraction of all bachelor of arts candidates majoring in economics has not budged much over the past decade,” wrote Cecilia Conrad of the MacArthur Foundation, co-editor of the newsletter. There are two or three male undergraduate economists for every female undergraduate economist. That is not good — but at least the ratio isn’t getting worse. In the UK, the ratio is similar but has shown a marked decline between 2002 and 2013. The basic explanation is lack of demand: too few women wish to study economics.

Tempting as it might be to blame the financial crisis for this trend, the sharpest movement occurred a decade ago, before the crisis hit. The downward trend in the percentage of women enrolled in UK undergraduate economics courses has continued since then but much more slowly.

One possible explanation is that unconscious sexism is depriving young women of role models in the profession. Justin Wolfers, an economist and New York Times contributor, recently complained that when journalists wrote about economics research with both male and female authors, journalists routinely quoted the man or cited the paper as though the man were the senior author.

(My own confession: I once committed the same sin in demoting Wolfers’ co-author Betsey Stevenson when she should have been cited first. And another confession: one indignant reviewer on Amazon pointed out that my first book, The Undercover Economist, habitually uses “he”, “his” and “him” in situations where female pronouns would have been perfectly proper. These days I try to do better.)

Unconscious sexism is hardly the exclusive preserve of economics, though, so what else is going on? Diane Coyle, an economist and FT contributor, wonders if mathematics is the problem, since girls are less likely than boys to study mathematics at A-level. She recently sounded a call to arms on her blog: “Girls, women, brush up on the maths a bit if you need to, but above all come and study economics!”

I can’t disagree with that but we cannot just blame imbalances in mathematics. A recent study by Mirco Tonin and Jackie Wahba of the University of Southampton found that even among A-level maths students, girls were less likely than boys to choose economics. And in the United States, where economics degrees are just as male-dominated as in the UK, girls have long since achieved gender parity in advanced high-school maths.

The sad truth is that economics just does not seem to be terribly attractive to young women. That is a shame, and it has financial consequences, since economics graduates tend to be well paid. But the real loss is to economics. If we cannot make the subject relevant to half the world, we have a problem.

Written for and first published at

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