An extraordinary event took place, almost unnoticed, at the University of York last week – 30 female economists, ten of them professors, met to set up a mentoring scheme for women in the profession. Organiser Professor Karen Mumford, the chair of the RES Women’s Committee, said: “Women are under-represented in this discipline. In 1992, there was just one female economics professor in the UK and, although things have improved dramatically, they are still relatively rare.”
The figures are depressing, despite the improvement. In 1997, just five per cent of professors of Economics in UK universities were women; 10 per cent of senior lecturers and 15 per cent of lecturers. The figures now have risen to 10 per cent, 20 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. The proportion of women among economics students is higher again, and the balance in sixth forms is nearly even. In other words, more girls and women get squeezed or discouraged out at every stage as they progress along the professional pathway.
No doubt there are many causes. In the London-based Women Economists Network Amanda Rowlatt and I set up several years ago (still going strong), we found there are many more women working in the government service than the private sector, and more in applied economics jobs than in academia. The conditions for working mothers are better in the public sector than elsewhere, and academic career tracks are extraordinarily difficult to combine with a family. The structure of the REF (and its predecessors) is institutionally sexist because of the requirement to publish lots of papers during prime child-bearing years. There are sociological reasons too – economics is socially more like engineering than like political science or anthropology. Some women believe that females are too sensible to buy into the intellectual character of neoclassical economics – I don’t buy this argument myself.
Anyway, intertwined causes mean easy solutions are unlikely. But the mentoring scheme for academic women economists launched at York is very welcome.
The most powerful book on this subject I’ve read recently is Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcokc and Sara Laschever. It offers a simple but depressing solution to the gender pay gap: women need to ask for higher pay as so often we quietly expect merit to be recognised and rewarded. But when we do ask, the men pay up – and dislike us for it.