October 2014 newsletter – More on the gender gap in economics

Karen Mumford* reflects on the very interesting issues raised by Tonin and Wahba in their article.

The paper by Tonin and Wahba 'The Gender Gap in Economics Enrolment: Where Does it Arise?'
published earlier in this Newsletter highlights issues of ongoing concern for gender balance in
undergraduate economics enrolments in the UK. In the following I extend further their very interesting
discussion beginning with a look at recent UK enrolment data.

Figure 1 reports HESA data for UK undergraduate economics enrolments split by gender and domicile (UK or non-UK domiciled students); whilst enrolments for males and female have grown post 2007, these increases are clearly larger for male UK student enrolments.

The relative decline in the proportion of female UK undergraduate economics students is perhaps more obvious in Figure 2.

An obvious explanation could be that girls lack the qualifications needed to enrol in these degree programmes. Table 1 provides UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) information on the Alevel results for this year’s cohort of UK secondary school students in economics, maths, and across all subjects. We can see that there were fewer girls in the UK studying A-level maths than boys (38.7 per cent of all the A-level mathematics students were female). There were even fewer girls studying economics (only 32.4 per cent of the students studying A-level economics in 2014 were girls). These figures are particular low when we consider that some 54.5 per cent of all 2014 A-level students are female.

It is also worth noting that the girls studying economics at A-level were more successful than the males (with 35 per cent getting A or A* grades, relative to 29.9 per cent of the males). One would think that there were reasonable numbers of suitably qualified girls to enrol in economics degrees. Maths departments are, however, considerably more successful at recruiting females into their undergraduate programs. According to the Equality Challenge Unit, females make some 40 per cent of undergraduate students enrolled in mathe-matics in the UK. And the representation of UK females in undergraduate mathematics degrees has remained relatively constant in recent years, in striking contrast to the situation for economics revealed in Figure 2.

In the UK, students apply to enrol in a university degree programme; the university then decides whether or not to make an offer (usually conditional on the student obtaining a set of specified grades at the end of their A-level year). Those students satisfying their offers can choose to take up the place and go on to enrol in the degree. Tonin and Wahba use the 2008 cohort of A-level students (their data comes from UCAS). They argue that university offer rates in economics are very similar for males and females; the gender difference in enrolments lays in less women applying to study economics. The similarity in offer rates conditional on applying is itself interesting if girls are doing better at A-level economics than boys. In the 2008 cohort, the average achieved UCAS tariff for males who applied for economics was 312 and 339 for the females; the average achieved tariff for those offered was 346 for the males and 388 for the females. A gap of 20 UCAS points is equivalent to a single higher grade (e.g. B to A or C to B), most state school students take 4 subjects in their A-level year (although the fourth subject is usually General Studies or its equivalent). We might expect girls to have a higher offer rate than the boys.

The results from Tonin and Wahba’s probit analysis indicates that girls are 1.0 per cent less likely to enrol in an undergraduate economics degree than males (controlling for demographics, socio-economic group, school type, and region); this drops to 0.8 per cent less likely once having A and AS level maths is allowed for; and to 0.4 per cent less likely when having A and AS level economics is also included in the analysis. Whilst maths is important, studying economics at secondary school has a considerably stronger relationship with the probability of girls enrolling in an economics degree at university than does their studying maths at school. Indeed, for the entire cohort (males and females combined) students who studied A-level maths are 1 per cent more likely to enrol in economics than any other degree, whilst those studying economics at A-level are 11.6 per cent more likely to enrol in an economics degree.

Tonin and Wahba raise the very pertinent questions: (i) why don’t more girls want to study economics at university? ; (ii) is it because they don’t want to grow up to be economists? The first question should perhaps be rephrased to ‘why don’t girls want to study economics at secondary school?’. Whilst it might be nice (as economists) to believe that 16 year old teenagers make subject choices on the basis of maximising their long term earnings (or maybe even well-being), it is perhaps more credible to believe there are other factors of the secondary school syllabus that makes economics relatively less attractive to girls (and let’s face it, with less than 5 per cent of this year’s male A-level students studying economics, it’s not that attractive to the boys either). Professor Wendy Carlin is leading an international project — the CORE project — to reform the undergraduate economics curriculum. There is currently no equivalent project considering a thorough overview of the secondary school curriculum in economics.

We have a little more a priori evidence in relation to the second question. As discussed in a recent Newsletter (‘A Career in Modelling: A Note on the Government Economic Service’)1 a substantial proportion of the GES economists are women and this is rising over time; 25 per cent of the new entrants in to the GES in 1992 were female, 31 per cent by 2000, and 35 per cent in 2012. (This later value is on a par with the proportion of female graduates receiving a first or upper second honours degree in economics across the UK.) However, the relative presentation of women in the GES is considerably higher than the proportion of females found amongst academic economists in the UK where, despite strong growth, the relative number of women has only risen from 20 per cent in 2000 to 24 per cent in 2012. The recent surveys of Business Economists (admittedly taken from small samples of all possible business economists) also suggests strong movements of women into senior positions over time. All of this evidence would suggest that economics is improving as a place to be for women although — of course — other disciplines may be improving faster. Whilst we are slowly building up our knowledge base amongst graduates, a major lesson from the Tonin and Wahba paper is that we have little knowledge of what is happening to discourage girls from enrolling in economics at secondary school and in undergraduate degrees at universities. The Women’s Committee will look to collect further information on these issues in its next round of biennial surveys to be sent out this November.


* University of York. Chair of the RES Committee on Women in the Economics Profession.

1. April 2014, no. 165 pp.20-1.