Is Economics A Dismal Science For Women?

Academic economics in the UK is dominated by men, according to a new report by Professor Alison Booth and Dr Jonathan Burton that is published in the latest issue of the Economic Journal. Some may argue that this is because men more closely resemble the ”rational agents” of traditional economic analysis – they are more opportunistic, competitive, single-minded and selfpromoting than women. But these researchers find a more powerful explanation in the fact that the many women who study economics lack good role models at the highest levels of the profession to encourage them to pursue academic careers in the field. Booth and Burton”s work reveals that:

  • Women make up 32% of research or PhD students in economics, 28% of fixed-term lecturers, 17% of full-time permanent lecturers, 11% of readers and senior lecturers, and just 4% of professors. Since 1996, the proportions for tenured posts below professor have increased, while the proportion of professors has stayed the same.
  • Men in standard full-time academic jobs are 1.75 times as likely to be at a senior level (above lecturer) than women. The situation has improved slightly since 1996, when men were twice as likely to be at a senior level.
  • The proportion of female PhD students has increased from 28% in 1996 to 32%. There has also been an increase in the proportion of female economics MSc students – from 31% in 1996 to 34% – and in the proportion of women working at the most junior level as fixedterm lecturers – from 23% in 1996 to 28%.

What explains low female representation in academic economics?
The report finds that the lack of role models or mentors for women economists starting their careers is an important reason for male domination of the discipline. Other possible reasons include low levels of female interest in economics, perhaps because of the mathematical nature of the discipline. The report concludes that there is no evidence for this view since a third of research students are women, indicating considerable female interest in the subject.

It is sometimes suggested that the long hours required of academics may have discouraged young women from embarking on an academic career. Yet this hypothesis cannot explain the lower proportion of women in academic economics relative to other subjects. Nor can it explain why educated women go into the private sector or the civil service, where the hours are just as long. Indeed, an academic lifestyle seems as well-suited to women as men given its relatively familyfriendly flexibility.

A more likely explanation of the low proportion of female academic economists is that it reflects discrimination in the academic job market, either now or in the past. What is more, for a long time, economics was viewed as a predominately male preserve and a male subject, and it is possible that this created an environment that was unattractive to many women. But if that is the case, the expansion of economics and its willingness to take on board ideas from other disciplines may attract more women.

Why should we care about the low proportion of female academic economists?
It is important to the whole economics profession that it attracts and retains women in academic economics. There is no doubt on both equity and efficiency grounds that a greater proportion of women economists is desirable. There are deadweight losses arising when women are put off entering a male dominated discipline, plus the loss of potential human capital since it can be argued that women bring a different value system to the discipline that is potentially enriching.

What can be done?
This research shows that one third of PhD students are female, and that the proportion of female students is significantly increased by the proportion of female staff. The growing proportion of women at the junior level may both increase the number of female graduate students of economics, as well as having a knock-on effect of increasing the number of senior women academics a few years into the future. It is possible that we may be shifting from an ”equilibrium” in which the male domination of the discipline and the deterrent effect this may have on new entrants may be being replaced by an equilibrium with a more equal gender balance. The Research Assessment Exercise may also have played a part in the expansion of female representation in more junior positions. While the exercise has some unattractive features, there can be no doubt that it has freed up the academic labour market in the UK: it is now more difficult to choose a white male over a black male or a woman if the CV of the first is unambiguously dominated by the other candidates.

”The Position of Women in UK Academic Economics” by Professor Alison Booth and Dr Jonathan Burton is published in the June 2000 Economic Journal. The authors are at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. The data used in the report is the 1998 RES Survey on the Gender Balance of Academic Economics, conducted by ISER on behalf of the RES Committee on Women in Economics. The RES Committee on Women in Economics aims to increase the number of women economists at all levels in UK academia and business by promoting equal opportunity and supporting entry into the profession and career advancement.

Alison Booth

Australian National University and the University of Essex | albooth@essex.ac.uk

Jonathan Burton