Gender Disequilibrium: The Underrepresentation Of Women In Economics

“Economic growth doesn’t mean anything if it leaves people out.”

- Jack Kemp

When it comes to the study of Economics, women are a minority. Only one-third of undergraduate students in Economics are women. What’s worse is that only 14% of full professors in PhD-granting departments are women. This article discusses many of the challenges faced by women in one of the most sought-after fields in the world. These start from the belittling language employed by budding PhDs in an attempt to describe their female colleagues to the representation of Economics in popular culture.

For decades, there was seemingly an increasing number of women stepping into the field of economics, deflating the persistent scarcity of professional female economists in the United States. But that progress has come to a standstill.

New data indicates that the share of women studying the subject in America’s universities has been facing a downtrend and the pool of prospective female economists may even be shrinking.

The largest shortage of women economists takes place at the beginning of the process—as undergraduates when economists are “born”. Among the top 100 American institutions that train young economists, the ratio is very unsatisfactory- there are more than two undergraduate men majoring in economics for every woman.

The ratio of males to females who complete their undergraduate studies and earn a degree from these institutions is actually below 1:1. The ratio of male to female Ph.D. candidates is 2:1, three males for every female assistant professor and associate professor, and six males for every female full professor.

The actual and inevitable question we all are bound to answer is - why is economics a (white) male-dominated field? A number of hypotheses and assumptions have been forwarded, including...

  • Lack of interest in mathematics: A large portion of Economics is centered around mathematical concepts. Over the course of the past few years, its mathematical nature has been used as an excuse for the lack of female representation.

While this statement could have been debatable a couple of decades ago, the relative prosperity of the STEM fields suggests that this is no longer applicable in today’s world. For example, 56% of PhDs in STEM fields go to women, but it is still < 33% in economics.

  • Lack of female role models to look up to: This self-perpetuating issue is also self-explanatory. Women are notoriously underrepresented among Nobel laureates - particularly in the field of economics.

Only two women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Prize in 2009, while Esther Duflo in 2019.

However, other fields (such as STEM) seem to have overcome this barrier with much more success. In 2016, Reuter's longlist (published every year) of 66 predicted names of Nobel Prize in economics counted just one woman- Anne Krueger, former World Bank chief economist.

Students less often get a chance to interact with a female economist as their instructor, their teaching assistant, or someone working in the real world. Women who want to pursue economics, often talk about being inspired by that one female instructor or TA.

Gary Becker, Nobel Prize-winning economist explained it precisely. For whatever reason (likely more psychological or sociological), women tend to restrict themselves in their careers - they tend to choose less stressful, lower-paying jobs. This is a very complex and deep-seated issue that deserves far more discussion and debate.

I believe that this issue will not disappear naturally, collective efforts and actions to raise the rate of women in economics should be done.

In order to take suitable actions, the first thing to be focused on is collecting information and data relating to this issue to actually understand the problem so that it could be solved, as done by organizations like The International Association for Feminist Economics.

More support should be given to such early career mentoring programs to encourage women to pursue economics- which could help them develop networking and other skills.

Organizations like CSWEP (Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession) and AAAWE (Association for the advancement of African Women Economists) have had a positive effect on a number of professional outcomes.

To conclude, the underrepresentation of women in economics is not a female problem, it is an economic problem.

Written by Harini Dhinakaran


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