Do women and economics mix?

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 [amazon_link id=”069108940X” target=”_blank” ]Women Don’t Ask[/amazon_link] 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.

[amazon_image id=”069108940X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide[/amazon_image]


7 thoughts on “Do women and economics mix?

  1. Amen! A boss of mine years ago in Silicon Valley once asked rhetorically, when another manager said something critical about our team of software engineers being primarily female, “Why should I hire men when women will work a lot harder for a lot less money?”

    After that job, I got a headhunter, who found me a job paying 15% more, and the next job I took which paid another 25% more than that.

    We need to ask (and if you’re in a field in which you can use a professional such as a headhunter, you can engage someone else to ask on your behalf).

  2. A woman of child-bearing age is likely to be more expensive to an employer than a man. It follows that, if the salary of male and female economists with similar talents is the same, a smaller quantity of the women will be demanded.

    Do I get a Nobel prize for this insight?

    • It’s correct that because of the social convention, and the preference of mothers, that women take career breaks for parenthood and that decreases their lifetime earnings considerably. This doesn’t, however, account for all of the gap between average male and female earnings, taking account of other explanatory variables such as educational attainment or years of experience. In other words there is a pay penalty for women that cannot be explained in a model of a ‘rational’ labour market. Institutional structures that prevent women who have children from jumping through certain promotion hoops are no doubt part of the story. Not sure you gain any prizes for insight…….;-)

  3. Having attended a great many conferences of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) conferences in recent years, I can say that there are a host of absolutely brilliant women economists and it has been encouraging to see their journal develop into being well respected across the Neoclassical/Heterodox divide. Yet more striking has been the way this organisation has encouraged scholars from developing countries – where different societies and cultures can often place women in an even less advantageous position than in OECD ones.

  4. Pingback: More on women and economics | The Enlightened Economist

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