Girls are low in numbers. Nigella Vigorosso-Heck demands a recount.

Last month the Economist magazine published an article entitled Sample Bias. It argued that women – and particularly schoolgirls – were “shunning” economics and that gender diversity in it was still problematic. The Royal Economics Society’s (RES’s) new Discover Economics campaign was hailed as a game-changing moment that would widen the pipeline into the profession.

I have a problem with this narrative.

The RES campaign is laudable. But it is symptomatic of a gender evolution in economics that is already well underway rather than a game-changer in and of itself. If anything, the RES is turning up quite late to the party.

Discover Economics is a new three-year campaign, launched by the RES in October 2019. According to its website, the campaign aims to:
■ broaden the appeal of economics to potential students;
■ change their perceptions of economics and economists; and
■ increase diversity among economics students. Women and state-educated students are currently under-represented among undergraduates and A-level students.

The current iteration is just a website but there are promises of a great deal more substance to come. To be clear, I, and others who teach economics to teenage girls, welcome this project. I wasn’t at all surprised by the data from this summer’s A Level exams that showed that A Level economics is male-dominated. Boys are twice as likely to study economics than girls and there are only three other subjects (Further Maths, Physics and Computing) that have a wider gender disparity in favour of males. That’s a fair reflection of most co-ed schools that I know of.

“Let’s look at the gender gap. It is almost always explained by saying that girls just don’t like numbers.”

However, this does not convince me that schoolgirls are “shunning” the subject. In 2009, there were 6,827 female candidates for A level Economics. Ten years on, in 2019, that figure has risen 40% to 9,599. While the gender ratio has admittedly stayed relatively constant, girls are definitely not shunning the subject, they are actually showing up in economics classrooms much more frequently. In my school, we are seeing a year-on-year increase in the number of girls wanting to study economics.

So what is going on?

Firstly, let me try to explain the dismal science’s rise in popularity. Economics is the fastest growing A Level subject of the past two decades – so much so that schools are struggling to recruit economics teachers (see previous article). The two biggest spikes of growth occurred in 2008/09 and in 2016/17. My belief is that schoolchildren (girls and boys) look to economics as the subject that would help them understand the world better in these times. The Great Recession and the Brexit vote dominated media attention, and they continue to dominate media attention; economics, they thought, had the answer.

Secondly, let’s look at the gender gap. It is almost always explained by saying that girls just don’t like numbers. Table 1 is often used as clear evidence of that assertion: it shows, for example, that girls are far more likely to take courses in the social sciences and arts than the quantitative subjects. But we need to be careful here. There is a long history of academic literature that has tried to separate the “rational differences in preferences between gender” from “sexist mumbo-jumbo”.

In my experience, girls aren’t afraid of numbers. They outperform boys in every maths metric there is at school. Instead, I think there is something more subtle going on.

The Economist was right to point out that most teenagers associate economics with money. And when they are asked to draw an economist, they will draw an older man in a suit. This shouldn’t really be a surprise. The great forefathers (note even my use of language) of economics were old men in suits. To be more precise: they were old, white, rich men in suits. As a direct result, the subject was shaped to reflect the sorts of questions that old, white, rich men in suits were interested in answering: questions about money and personal wealth. Economics is associated with money because it has been about money almost all its life.

But that is changing.

When schoolgirls look to understand the world better today, they don’t have to listen to old, white, rich men in suits anymore. Until recently Richard Lipsey and Paul Samuelson wrote our textbooks. Today, Wendy Carlin’s Core Economics is the new default textbook at university. She put income inequality in Chapter 1 – not supply and demand.

“Schoolgirls can finally see their own passions and interests being discussed by female economists in print, on TV and social media.”

Tim Harford’s Undercover Economist is no longer most teenager’s first foray into popular economics. Over the past few years, I have seen Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid and Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics name-checked in more university application personal statements than any other author.

Even the Economist magazine itself has its own female editor in Zanny Beddoes who is shaping the public discourse to reflect more social liberal values. She is quoted in her first interview in the role as saying that “we don’t want to be the grandpa at the disco [any longer]”.

It is my view that schoolgirls can finally see their own passions and interests being discussed by female economists in print, on TV and social media. Consequently, the subject isn’t just about old, white, rich men and their money anymore. It already has a wider appeal and that will lead to gender gap closing in the future.

Having said all of that, I am not advocating complacency. As I have already said: the RES’ contribution to the wider appeal of economics is welcome – as is Rethinking Economics, Economy and, of course, this magazine. There is still a lot of work to do (as can be seen above). But let’s give credit where credit is due.

“The credit for greater female participation in economics should go to the female economists themselves.”

The credit for greater female participation in economics should go to the female economists themselves. At a time when the head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, the president of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, and the latest Nobel Prize winner for economics, Esther Duflo, are all female, schoolgirls finally have influential role models to inspire them to study the subject. The RES, I’m afraid, is already a bit slow on the uptake.

Nigella Vigoroso-Heck

Nigella heads up an economics department in a leading independent school. (S)he uses a pseudonym to avoid offence or embarrassment.

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