Reigning Men

Teresa Linzner spoke to people and ran a survey to look into why so few economists were women. There is no reason other than most of them are men.

Quick. Close your eyes and imagine an economist. What is the first image that comes to mind? If you thought of a middle-aged or older, middle-class white man, I can tell you, you are not alone. The Financial Times published findings that showed most people tend to associate economists with exactly that type of man.[1] Or, as my friend and project manager at Philadelphia Youth Network, Samantha Kennedy, puts it: “When you think of economists, you think of a bunch of older, white dudes preaching that free trade is amazing.”

Leaving aside the value-laden free trade comment, age and skin colour for a moment, given figures about female representation in economics, it should come as little surprise that most people imagine the stereotypical economist as being male. A BBC report from October 2017 for example notes that:

  • only about 13% of US academic economists in permanent posts are women;
  • in the UK the proportion is 15.5%;
  • only one woman has ever won the Nobel Prize in economics – Elinor Ostrom in 2009; and
  • lists predicting the next prizewinner included no women.[2]

Furthermore, according to the Financial Times, women’s representation in economics is sliding further down. In the US, the UK and Australia, the proportion of women studying economics has declined since the early 2000s.

Is this a problem? At least 95% of respondents to our survey and most interviewees I have spoken to not only think the lack of women in economics is a problem but they also believe that we actually need more women in economics. Head of programmes and community at Impact Hub Brixton, Stephanie Gamauf, points out the importance of taking into account a diversity of voices when finding solutions in any area of social life. “Otherwise, the solutions and paradigms created will only be reflective of, and serve, a certain element of the population,” she says.

So without more women practicing economics, our economic policies might not represent half of the population they affect. Evidence for that might include the persistence of the age-old gender wage gap. And while having more women economists is unlikely to resolve this problem instantly, 84% of our survey participants say that the gender wage gap might at least receive more attention if economics was less male dominated.

“So without more women practicing economics, our economic policies might not represent half of the population they affect. Evidence for that might include the persistence of the age-old gender wage gap.”


Moreover, economy researcher, Kayshani Gibbon says, “Research from the MIT Centre for Collective Intelligence found that groups with a higher percentage of women performed better than those with a lower percentage… So having more women in a group results in greater collective intelligence.”[3]

So economists, as things currently stand, might be missing out on a valuable intellectual resource. That should be alarming for all of us because it means that economists – who shape everyday lives in important ways – are clearly not doing as good a job as they could were there more women among them.

Furthermore, two thirds of the survey respondents thought that a stronger female voice in economics could set off a domino effect making members of other, traditionally underrepresented groups feel welcome and invited to economics. If they are right, getting more women into economics would enhance the discipline still further because research shows that more diverse groups do indeed deliver different – and better – outcomes in business and policy-making.[4]

Clearly attracting, for example, more white, middle-class women into economics is unlikely to make members of black, Asian and majority ethnic and/or working-class communities feel more welcome to the economics table. If we want more overall diversity, we will have to be careful about how we try to get more women into economics by focusing on intersectional approaches says Head of Campaigns at Rethinking Economics, Rowan Mataram.

But any campaign to attract more women into the economics fold should start by asking: how come there are so few? Are there aspects of economics at which men are fundamentally better than women?

Most survey respondents categorically dismissed that as a possibility with 94% saying advanced mathematics was not a greater challenge for women than for men and 73% had the same view about abstract models. Evidence supporting the survey findings emerges from female representation in Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  In the UK, 52% of STEM undergraduates are female versus 27% in economics. [5] That supports the hypothesis that women’s aptitude for, and willingness to, deal with mathematics and models is not what holds them back from getting into economics. So what does?

“In the UK, 52% of STEM undergraduates are female versus 27% in economics. That supports the hypothesis that women’s aptitude for, and willingness to, deal with mathematics and models is not what holds them back from getting into economics.”

All interviewees, and 89% of survey participants, agreed that a severe lack of relatable female role models in economics could make women feel like they don’t belong there. And women who have pursued a career in economics confirm that perception.

Assistant professor of philosophy at the LSE, Susanne Burri – who also holds a masters in economics – illustrates the challenge the female economist encounters at the start of her career: “Imagine this: you are at a conference dinner, and you are the most junior person. Everyone else is male. How does this make you feel? Are you confident that others will be able to appreciate you as one of their own, as someone who distinguishes themselves for their views and for their research?”

Highlighting the need for more publicly visible, relatable female role models, though, makes the women-in-economics debate look as if it is trapped in a vicious circle; with no growth in the number of female role-model economists, then the number of women studying economics will not grow, so the number of women economists who could become role models will not grow. But this is not the end of the story.

A way to alleviate the role-model crisis might be to develop “a strategy to make sure female economists get the airtime”, as health management expert, Valerie Iles puts it. While I am not expert in the policies around national broadcasting, it certainly does not feel like there are any in place to ensure that male and female economists get equal airtime. Strengthening a push for quotas might be a good first step to initiate change and make the existing, female economists more visible.

All of this would only be worthwhile if women chose to pursue economics as a career in the first place. But a cause of concern is how few women actually do that. In fact there seems to be a downward trend according findings from recent research.[6]

“Having more women in a group results in greater collective intelligence.”

The authors of this study propose that, along with a lack of role models, and the fact that UK schools rarely offer an economics option to girls, young adults have an overly narrow perception of what economics is. And that perception is behind their lack of interest in economics at A-level and when choosing a degree subject for university. The researchers found that most students primarily associate economics with money. They also show that boys and girls in the UK have different motivations for choosing what subjects to study with boys “more likely to rank a higher salary as most important.”

The study found that “girls gave a similar average rank to high salary, job status and technical knowledge.” But on average, girls gave higher ranks to “creativity, making a contribution to society or the environment, and the opportunity to care for others.” So while girls care about money, they also attribute greater value to other aspects of a future job than boys do.

How might we use these findings in our efforts to increase the number of women in economics? Should we just make sure that young girls get offered economics at school and get them to care more about money and less about making a contribution to society or the environment? That is probably not the way forward on the grounds that motivation to improve society and the environment is surely something to be promoted in economics.

Alternatively, we might acknowledge that economics has an image problem for women. In which case it would be better to uphold its links with care, environment or even altruism as much as we currently promote its associations with money, supply, demand and markets.

“A severe lack of relatable female role models in economics could make women feel like they don’t belong there.”


A way of achieving this goal could be to teach, and ultimately practice, economics in a truly pluralist manner. That would entail, for example, taking feminist and ecological economics seriously by critically discussing them alongside – not instead of – other approaches to economics. And a subsequent domino effect could then also attract the range of races, social classes and other groups who are currently underrepresented in the field.

Only 11% of survey participants rejected the proposal that introducing a more open, pluralist economics could awaken greater interest at least in women. An approach to this move that would take in all strands of the discipline would be to teach economics at schools in a way that relates it to students’ day-to-day lives. The idea that providing a relatable understanding of economics in school could get more women into economics had broad support from our survey respondents with over 67% agreeing it was the way forward. And interviewees supported the idea.

Senior economy researcher, Josie Warden, for example, says: “I don’t think I understood what economics was, when I was growing up. The economy was just a word on the news, and it seemed like decisions about it happened somewhere else.” Samantha Kennedy said she did not pursue a career in economics because she “didn’t know what economists did, other than work in academia which I didn’t find appealing”. She said the discipline became significantly more interesting once she started studying it as part of a course that connected philosophy and economics. Personal friend and economist at the Oesterreichische Nationalbank, Teresa Messner, says her involvement in economics emerged from an interest in geo-political questions and conflicts, where economics always seemed to play a central role.  She says her understanding of what economics comprises broadened substantially while studying it as part of an interdisciplinary course.

So there is a body of support for teaching economics at school level – possibly within interdisciplinary modules – and emphasising compassion and care for others and the environment as equally important as supply, demand, money, and interest-rates. The anticipated outcome would be more women in economics in a first step to bringing greater diversity to the discipline as other thinly represented groups are drawn to it. Moreover, we might hope to see a swell in the number of people in economics who are motivated not only by their income prospects but also by an opportunity to contribute to society and the environment.

For economics to address the needs of all of us and not just the demands of some, diversity among economists should reflect the diversity in society – if only on the grounds that self interest is a significant motivator. Certainly there can be no rationale for economics being controlled by any single group, not even middle-class, middle-aged men.

References

[1] Tetlow, G. (2018), ‘Where are all the female economists?’, Financial Times (FT), 12 April
[2] Gittleson, K. (2017), ‘Where are all the women in economics?’, BBC, 13 October
[3] Malone, Thomas W. (2012), ‘Collective Intelligence’, Edge, 21 November,
[4] Hoogendoorn, S., H. Oosterbeck and M. van Pragg (2013), ‘The Impact of Gender Diversity on the Performance of Business Teams: Evidence from a Field Experiment’, Management Science, Vol. 59, pp. 1514 – 1528.
[5] Crawford, C., N. M. Davies and S. Smith (2018), ‘Why do so few women study economics?: Evidence from England’, Royal Economic Society
[6] Crawford, C., N. M. Davies and S. Smith (2018), ‘Why do so few women study economics?: Evidence from England’, Royal Economic Society

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