October 2018 newsletter – British Science Association – Festival of Science

The annual meeting of the British Science Association (BSA) Festival of Science took place on 11th-14th September at the University of Hull. Barbara Petrongolo1, President of the Economics Section of the BSA, sends this report of the event that she organised.

Barbara Petrongolo (QMUL and CEP-LSE), as President of the Economics Section of the BSA, organised the Economics event at the Festival of Science in Hull. With fellow speakers Ghazala Azmat2 and Manuel Bagues3 , the session, titled ‘Mind the gender gap’ explored economic and social forces that hinder gender equality in the labor market, especially in high-profile careers.

Women at work: the good news and the bad
Barbara Petrongolo argued that the increased participation of women to the labor market has been one of the most salient economic and social changes of the 20th century, with narrowing gaps in education and earnings, and the entry of women in careers traditionally occupied by men. However, sizeable gender gaps persist to date in virtually all countries, and women are under-represented in top occupations, possibly with a suboptimal allocation of talents. She then introduced evidence on gender differences in personality traits that may interfere with labor market success, and concluded that their impact on gender gaps is likely to be quantitatively small. As women remain the main provider of child care and domestic work, she discussed the role of work-life balance and the demand for flexibility, which – despite medical, technological and institutional changes – still seem to set limits to women’s professional development. She highlighted that, if gender roles within the household were equalized, work-life balance considerations would not be any more detrimental to female rather than male careers. Hence the recent interest into the impact of gender identity norms on asymmetric gender roles in the household, which induce gender disparities in the market. But what is the origin of gender norms and what can be done to alleviate their labor market impact? These questions prompted the next two interventions. 

Early self-perceptions, and future career outcomes
Ghazala Azmat moved the discussion on to the role of self-perceptions and aspirations in understanding gender differences in labor market investments and outcomes. Focusing on the gender promotion gap (the “glass ceiling”), she discussed the effect of early career aspirations on the gap in promotions and earnings among high-skilled professionals – namely, lawyers in the US. The law profession with its “partner track” is a particularly interesting setting because promotions to partner at a law firm are well-defined, easy to track, and relatively comparable across firms, and data reveal that there is virtually no gender gap among law graduates, in terms of enrolment and academic attainment, nor at the junior lawyer level – but a substantial gender gap emerges at the partner level. The study, which tracks lawyers several years after law school completion, shows that early professional aspirations to partner status are a good predictor of promotions later in the career, over and above the impact of expectations about own prospects and actual performance. Both aspirations and expectations help explain a sizeable part of the gender gap in promotions and earnings. 

Gender quotas in scientific committees
In order to increase women’s presence in high-profile careers against the backdrop of slowly-evolving gender norms, several countries around the world have introduced gender quotas that regulate gender representation in the corporate sector, politics and scientific committees. Manuel Bagues discussed work on the impact of gender quotas in scientific committees and argued that it is crucial to understand whether these quotas are indeed effective, because they would require disproportionate time investments from the (scarce) senior female researchers who qualify as evaluators, who would have less time available for “promotable” tasks, most notably research. He presented an empirical study that addresses these issues using information on roughly 100,000 applications to associate and full professorships in Italy and Spain, which were randomly allocated to 8,000 evaluators. This research finds that, all else equal, female applicants did not see their promotion prospects enhanced by female-intensive committees. Interestingly, while female evaluators were slightly more favourable towards female candidates, male evaluators became less favorable to female candidates in the presence of female evaluators. According to these findings, a generalized introduction of gender quotas would harm senior female researchers without helping their junior counterparts.

Following the talks, the session closed with questions and comments from the audience. A lively discussion ranged over the role of early years’ education in shaping aspirations and norms, the strategies to identify the impact of gender norms, whether findings from research on top jobs generalise to less-skilled jobs, and what we can learn from the division of labor in same-sex couples. The audience participation clearly signalled that gender inequalities are of significant concern to the general public and an appreciation for economists’ insights into this matter.


1. Queen Mary, University of Lomdon and Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics

2. Sciences Po
3. University of Warwick