October 2014 newsletter – The gender gap in economics enrolment: where does it arise

In the UK there is a persistent gender gap in university enrolment into Economics. In this article, Mirco Tonin and Jackie Wahba* report the results of a recent paper exploring the sources of this gap.

Looking at figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) for 2013, it emerges that among UK applicants under the age of 21 who accepted an offer to undertake a degree in Economics in a UK university, 73 per cent were males. The gender compositions is more balanced when looking at students from outside the UK, with a 60 per cent share of males among EU applicants and a 56 per cent share of males among non-EU ones.

In this article we explore the reasons behind such a big gender gap in enrolment for a bachelor’s degree in Economics among UK students. We use a 50 per cent random sample of all UCAS applications in the 2008 cycle for UK domiciled applicants. In total, we have 230,722 applicants and 959,915 applications. UCAS data provide rich information on applicants, their applications, offers, acceptances and refusals into courses. In particular, in terms of socio-demographic characteristics of the applicants, UCAS data include age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and region. We also have information about the type of high school attended (e.g. grammar, independent) and the region where it is located, as well as about qualifications obtained at high school (A and AS levels) and about the so called ‘tariff’, a points system used to summarize achievement in a numerical and comparable format. We also have detailed information about the university application process, observing all applications (subject, course type, institution, route — e.g. main, extra, clearing), offers, and acceptances. In terms of the gender gap in Economics enrolment, the situation in 2008 was very similar to the one in 2013: in our sample females represent 27 per cent of those enrolling for undergraduate courses in Economics, despite the fact that females represent the majority (57 per cent) of those enrolling at university.

Why it matters
The gender gap in Economics enrolment matters for at least two sets of reasons. The first relates to the fact that economists have generally an influential role in policy making, directly or as academics, consultants or policy analysts working in think tanks, ministries, central banks, or international organizations like the IMF or the World Bank. Just as an example, the first female cabinet minister in Sweden, Karin Kock, was also the second one to complete a Ph.D. in Economics and the first given the title of Professor in Economics in her country. 

The gender of those making policies matters as several studies have shown how males and females have different policy preferences. For instance, a study of members of the American Economic Association (May, McGarvey and Whaples, 2014) finds that male economists express greater opposition to mandating that employers provide health insurance than female economists and express greater support for the use of vouchers in education. Male economists are generally more likely to see the costs associated with government intervention and, for instance, are more likely to see a loss of employment from raising the minimum wage. There thus appear to be significant differences between male and female economists for a large set of policies. Differences have also been found regarding policy actions rather than opinions, for instance by exploiting random variation in the gender of policymakers generated by gender quotas. The gender gap in Economics enrolment is thus particularly important as an Economics degree gives access to many positions related to policy making.

Another reason why enrolment into Economics matters is that different degrees lead to different occupations and different occupations lead to different earnings. A study of US graduates (McDonald and Thorntonas, 2007) indeed finds that differences in college majors selected explain most of the gender gap in starting salary offers. Given that Economics is one of the subjects associated with relatively high average earnings, then lower enrolment by females into Economics is a contributing factor behind the gender pay gap.

The possible sources
What we want to see is where in the application process the gender gap in Economics emerges, i.e. how big the differences between genders are at the application stage, or in offers made by universities, or at the stage of acceptance of these offers by students.

Starting from the beginning of the process, one possibility is that female students choose different courses at high school than males and, thus, are not prepared to meet the requirements to enrol into an Economics course when applying to college. In practice, given the Maths requirements in Economics, this would be the case if girls took less Maths courses than boys at high school. A further possibility is that, even if girls are as prepared as boy, they still choose not to apply to an Economics degree, either because of lower labour market prospects or because of different tastes or for other reasons.

Moving one step forward in the process, female applicants could be somehow discriminated against in the application process. This could be the case, for instance, because they are perceived as less competent in the field of Economics. An example of such discriminatory perception among science faculty members was uncovered in US research-intensive universities by a recent audit study (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012). The study finds a bias against female undergraduate students, as faculty members rate (fictional) male applicants for a laboratory manager position as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicants.

Female applicants could also be less likely to accept if an offer is made, possibly because Economics is lower in their unobserved ranking of subjects. With our data, we can then investigate the size of the gap at the application stage, whether admission practices by universities mitigate or exacerbate the gender gap, and whether women are less likely than men to accept offers made by universities.

What we find
Simply looking at descriptive statistics for those who enrol at university, the gender gap immediately emerges at the application stage, with only 1.2 per cent of females applying to Economics, as opposed to 3.8 per cent of males. However, once they have applied, the likelihood of receiving an offer (conditional or unconditional) is very similar across the two genders. Likewise, conditional on getting an offer, there is no gender difference in the applicants' acceptance rate (firm or insurance) for Economics degrees. What also emerges from descriptive statistics is a gender difference in terms of the choice of Maths at A level. Among those who enrol at university, Maths is an A level subject for 10 per cent of females, as opposed to 19 per cent of males.

The gender gap is present also when we estimate the probability of enrolment into Economics degrees (as opposed to enrolment into other degrees) controlling for individual characteristics, school type, and region. It drops but persists when we control for the subject choice at A level, and in particular Maths, and further drops if we control for Economics A level, while adding a measure of the quality of students measured using the tariff does not make a big difference.

We also look separately at the various steps that lead to enrolment, starting with application. In line with what descriptive statistics indicate, we find that even after controlling for individual and school characteristics and region, the probability of applying for an Economics degree is smaller for females. The probability of receiving an offer after having applied for an Economics degree is instead the same across the two genders, even after adding further controls for score and A-level subjects, thus comparing applicants that are very similar from the point of view of admission officers. This suggests that universities do not discriminate against females when making their offers. Considering the last step, females are as likely as males to accept an offer.

Our analysis shows that, once females decide to apply to Economics, there is no difference in their probability of receiving offers by universities, in their own decisions to accept offers or to eventually enrol into an Economics degree. Hence, the gap is entirely due to low application rates.

Why females are not applying
Our data do not allow us to investigate in detail the reasons why women are not applying to Economics degree. We can however explore some hypothesis. As underlined above, an important underlying reason for the lack of applications by females may be related to their choice of A level subjects at high school and, in particular, to the fact that they are less likely to do Maths at A level. As reported in the study by Goldin, Katz, and Kuziemko (2006), a similar gap existed in the US in the late 50s, but disappeared in subsequent years, with girls reaching parity in 1992. Interestingly, Guiso, Monte, Sapienza, and Zingales (2008) find a positive correlation between gender equality and the gender gap in Mathematics, showing that the gap disappears in more gender-equal societies.

However, in our dataset we find that women are still less likely than men to enrol in Economics even when we condition on having done Maths at A level. This is also the case when we condition on having done Economics at A level. This points to the fact that different choices in terms of A level subjects cannot be the whole story behind the gender gap in applying to Economics.

Several other explanations have been proposed for the reluctance of females to undertake Economics studies. The lack of role models in Economics faculties or, more generally, within the realm of politics and businesses or within the household, may play a role. Gender differences in (actual or perceived) labour market returns or in career expectations and aspirations may also be important, while differences in tastes could also play a role. Our data do not allow us to explore these hypotheses. What we can say is that the gender gap in Economics enrolment emerges at the application stage and that, while playing an important role, the choice of A level subjects is not the whole story behind it.

*University of Southampton. Contact details: m.tonin@soton.ac.uk and j.wahba@soton.ac.uk. UCAS cannot accept responsibility for any inferences or conclusions derived from the data by third parties. The paper, titled ‘The Sources of the Gender Gap in Economics Enrolment’, is forthcoming in CESifo Economic Studies and is available here: http://ftp.iza.org/dp8414.pdf

Goldin, Claudia, Lawrence F. Katz, and Ilyana Kuziemko. (2006), ‘The Homecoming of American College Women: The Reversal of the College Gender Gap’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives20.4, 133-156.

Guiso, Luigi, Ferdinando Monte, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales. (2008), ‘Culture, gender, and math’, Science 320, 5880, 1164-1165.

May, Ann Mari, Mary G. McGarvey, and Robert Whaples. (2014), ‘Are Disagreements Among Male And Female Economists Marginal At Best?: A Survey Of AEA Members And Their Views On Economics And Economic Policy’, Contemporary Economic Policy 32.1, 111-132.

McDonald, Judith A., and Robert J. Thornton. (2007), ‘Do new male and female college graduates receive unequal pay?’ Journal of Human Resources 42.1, 32-48.

Moss-Racusin, Corinne A., John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman (2012), ‘Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.41, 16474-16479.