Economics has a women problem. It’s obvious enough just looking at the talking econo-heads who appear on TV, but the data confirm the impression. Studies by the Women’s Committee of the Royal Economic Society have found that in academic research and employment, women are in a minority in economics departments, and the proportion declines the higher the level – women are under-represented as professors in particular. The latest report also finds a decline in the proportion of undergraduate economics students who are female (although numbers overall of economics students have been rising).
A new working paper (pdf) by Mirco Tonin and Jackline Wahba of the University of Southampton finds that the gender gap precedes university: despite the relatively high pay and the potential for an influential career offered by an economics degree, in the UK only 27% of students enrolling for economics degrees are female, compared to 57% of all students enrolling for university. (They use the UCAS data on acceptances for the 2008 round.) They find no evidence of universities discriminating against would-be female economists; the gap lies in the fact that girls are less likely to apply to do economics, even after controlling for individual characteristics, type of school and region. A large part, but not all, of the gap is due to the differences in girls’ A level choices at school, as they are less likely to have chosen maths and economics at 16.
The paper therefore urges better maths preparation for girls in high school, so that more of them choose to study it for longer. Some people, of course, would urge economics to become less mathematical, but I’m not one of them, although it should never be only about the mathematical models. In many ways, a more ‘real-world’ economics would need more proficiency – think, for example, about network theory, or the use of non-linear dynamic systems in macroeconomics.
The paper landed in my email in the wake of the arrival of a new book, Why Gender Matters in Economics, by Mukesh Eswaran. It’s fascinating.
There are three sections, covering: whether women and men behave differently in economic situations (more or less altruistic, risk averse etc) and their power within households when it comes to economic decisions; gender in markets, which covers the labour and credit markets and globalization; and finally a section on the institution of marriage looking at questions such as access to birth control and fertility rates. It’s a non-technical book, having grown out of an undergraduate course. It discusses these questions in the setting of both poor and rich countries. Of course, it does not summarize all the empirical literature on these questions, but it gives readers the analytical tools to think about them, and enough of a flavour of the state of evidence on the answers.
The book ends on a sombre note, reporting the evidence of a decline in the subjective well-being of women, either absolutely or relative to men, in recent data for developed and developing countries.
We certainly need more women economists for its own sake – there is likely to be distortion in the questions addressed by any subject which is only a quarter female, and an odd sociology. To give just one example, the absence of data on unpaid work in the home makes it hard to evaluate lots of policy proposals concerning (paid) labour force participation; the economists and statisticians who concluded unpaid domestic labour should be outside the GDP production boundary were men.
Beyond this, though, Tonin and Wahba are right to say that a career in economics is potentially influential. Economists wield great influence over public policy, including policies affecting the lives, economic power and ultimately the well-being of women. There is lost ground to make up. Girls, women, brush up on the maths a bit if you need to, but above all come and study economics!