IGC Quick Clicks: Where are all the female economists?

Blog Women's Economic Empowerment

“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders,” once said Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. Hopefully, yes. But today, this is not true in most fields and definitely not in economics. Why is this and how can we change it?

Over the last few years, we have witnessed an uproar in many parts of the world. Women have decided to come forth in large numbers with personal accounts of harassment and assault, to demand equal rights, and to proclaim that the time of women suffering in silence is over. Of course the ‘radical’ notion that women are human is not new, and the modern fight for equality has been many decades in the making. But this fresh wave is necessary to make women’s rights a key issue across all aspects of our lives.

Witnessing these events, I wonder what the state of equality is in my own field: economics. Before I continue, I realise that gender is only one lens through which to analyse the sector. There are many other important aspects such as race, caste, income, religion, and sexual orientation that need to be discussed but I am limiting the discussion to women for the purpose of this post.

First, let’s get the facts straight. There is a problem.

Alice Hu (Harvard) conducted a study on gender stereotyping in academia (The New York Times covered it here). Below is table of the top 10 words used in posts about women and men on a popular online forum for economists, Economic Job Market Rumours. The result are grim. On average, a post about a woman contains 43% less academic or professional terms, and 192% more terms about personal information or physical attributes.

Source: Based on Hu, Alice. 2017. “Gender Stereotyping in Academia: Evidence from Economics Job Market Rumors Forum

Further, according to the Royal Economic Society’s annual ‘Status of women in economics survey’ and the National Science Foundation, the proportion of women studying economics in the US and the UK is declining. For at least a decade, there has been no increase in the representation of women among new PhDs and assistant professors in the US, and there is a drop-off at the associate professor level that indicates women are less likely to advance to tenured positions than men.

Now that we have established that there is a problem, the question is why?

Apart from the sexism and hostile environment documented in Alice Hu’s paper, many economists have written thoughtful pieces about the dismal state of this dismal science.

So, what can we do to address this problem?

I realise that the picture I have presented is bleak, but one cannot try to change the situation without understanding it first. This has definitely become an important discussion point across economic organisations. Marginal Revolution University has launched a Women in Economics section with videos on the contribution of women to the field.

This year’s annual American Economic Association (AEA) meeting had a brilliant session on ‘How Can Economics Solve Its Gender Problem?’ Tavneet Suri has a great Twitter thread on the highlights from this session and nicely sums up the way forward: “Finally, very inspiring because so many solutions were also discussed: awareness, data, evidence, calling things out, training, reporting systems (w/ anonymity), platforms to connect people, informal sanctions, setting up formal mentoring for students & many more! Time to act!!”

I leave you with an inspiring talk by Lisa Cook on how she overcomes biases she faces as a woman and as an African American.

Editor’s Note: On 6th March, the IGC is hosting a panel discussion on Balance for better: Advancing women’s political leadership. The high-level panel includes:

  1. Amina Mohamed, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry Education, Kenya
  2. Yvonne Aki Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone
  3. Clare Short, Former Secretary of State for International Development of the United Kingdom
  4. Patricia Chanda, Deputy High Commissioner, High Commission of Zambia in the United Kingdom