Diane Coyle delivered the sixth 2018 Coleridge Lecture, examining the implications of the male domination of the study of economics.
1. How bad is the problem?
hotter, pregnant, plow, marry, hot
These were the five words most commonly used to describe women on a website called Economics Job Market Rumors, as Berkeley economics student Alice Wu discovered in her research. Looking at word frequencies, she concluded:
“A closer look into the contrast between top “female” vs. top “male” terms reveals that women are more likely to be characterized by their physical appearance or personal information, whereas men are more associated with academic or work-related content.”
The website is moderated, by the way. This was post-moderation language.
There was a brief furore in the profession when Justin Wolfers publicised her findings in the New York Times. Some economists said the website was where graduate students let off steam and shouldn’t be taken to represent the wider profession. Others – including most female academic economists – recognised a manifestation of the culture women often experience.
Economics is one of the most male-dominated academic disciplines, along with engineering, computer science, physics and philosophy. I’ll come back to what these might have in common.
The figures are shocking. There is no gender bias in people’s interest in the fundamental questions of economics: What makes people better off? Why did inequality increase so much in the late 20th century? How do innovations occur and spread into daily use? What government policies improve pupils’ educational outcomes?
Although there has been some improvement since the 1970s in the proportion of women studying economics at university, to just under 30% here in the UK, that trend seems to have come to an end and perhaps be going into reverse. And the proportion declines at every stage from school to undergraduate and graduate study, to professional jobs inside and outside universities; and in academia at every stage of seniority. Almost two out of five researchers on junior grades in UK economics departments are female, but only one in six professors.
The situation is as bad in many other professional contexts such as the City or consultancy. The honourable exception is the Government Economic Service, and it will struggle in future as well if the proportion of economics students who are female carries on declining.
Because it may be getting worse. The proportion of women increased for a few cohorts; the signs are that fewer young women are choosing economics now.
2. Why does the economics gender bias matter?
All subjects at university have a gender bias to some extent, so the question is why economics is so extreme. And also why we care – and yet don’t worry about the under-representation of men in psychology or literature. I’ll come back to the ‘why economics’ question later, and start with why it matters.
The answer is that economics is powerful.
There is, for instance, a government chief economist. The new holder of the post is a woman, as it happens. There are a few similar expert roles in government. There’s a chief scientist and an Astronomer Royal and a chief medical officer, as also a chief poet, the Poet Laureate.
There is no chief anthropologist or chief historian, though. No chief philosopher or chief geographer. In the corridors of power, economics ranks with the so-called ‘hard’ sciences (and poetry).
So economics is powerful in this very direct way, influencing policy. Economists have a significant influence on government actions affecting every corner of every life. This is true around the world, not just here in Britain.
Proposals are assessed on whether they will be good or bad for the economy, and economists get to decide. Their say-so is treated as especially authoritative in deciding whether to tax the sugary drinks rotting children’s teeth, or what the limit on fixed-odds betting terminals ought to be, or how much the government should invest in scientific research.
Of course, it’s politics in the end, and there are many voices in these debates; but the politicians want to have an economist giving their decision authority.
Economics is also powerful in less obvious ways.
For example, it tunnels through mountains (Coyle, 2012). Financial economics shaped the derivatives markets that paved the way for high frequency trading. Nano-seconds cost money and so financial traders are spending hundreds of millions of dollars or pounds to tunnel through the Allegheny Mountains or build huge microwave towers on the south coast of England, in order to shave fractions of seconds off the speed at which orders are executed.
More subtly, economics shapes our thinking about the world – what do we see and how do we understand it? It defines what we think of as constituting ‘the economy’.
So everything the government does, so many of our collective decisions about how to order our society, are debated in terms of whether or not they increase GDP, our key measure of the economy.
It’s well known that GDP does not include unpaid work in the home, traditionally done by women. When GDP was devised during and after world war two, there was a debate about whether this should be included or excluded – as there was about whether or not to include government spending.
The debate hinged on whether GDP was going to measure only marketed activity, with money exchanged, and able to be taxed, or whether instead it should be a wider concept of well-being or value.
Government spending was included in the end. In wartime, there was a desire to avoid it looking like the government’s military spending was shrinking the economy.
Work in the home was excluded. And so what government and businesses do is ‘the economy’ but what happens inside the household is not, even though people constantly make decisions about whether to make their own dinner or buy a meal out, or between buying a washing machine and using the launderette.
Now we have the absurd situation that statistical agencies like our ONS have to include marketed but illegal activities like illegal drugs purchases and prostitution as part of GDP whose growth is taken as the main measure of whether we’re getting better off. But family or voluntary care for the growing population of older people doesn’t count toward that measure.
From time to time there are surveys of how people spend time in the home – how much leisure, how much volunteering, how much child care and gardening and so on. These time use surveys always show the household economy is roughly as big as the ‘official’ economy, if the activities are valued at market prices.
Yet aside from these sparse statistics, and other specially commissioned data sets, there is a lack of regular information essential for good social policies. Information such as who is caring for children and elderly dependents and what that implies for public services, or what the living standard of more than half of pensioners – the women – is likely to be. Statistical agencies spend little of their budget on figures not related to GDP.
Another consequence of the definition of what economists call the production boundary, with – at least to begin with – men on the side that counts and women on the side that doesn’t, is that the apparent growth of the economy in the mid-20th century was exaggerated. Women were increasingly going out to work, buying washing machines and microwaves and ready meals. Marketed activities were replacing non-marketed ones.
The digital technologies are sending activities out of the market and into the household now, so the apparently dismal growth of the economy is at least a bit understated (Coyle, 2017). People are doing more of their own travel agency and banking. They’re creating free online goods and service, from open source software to cute YouTube videos for the entertainment of others. They are participating in platforms for spare bedrooms, parking in driveways and walking dogs.
As a lot of men are doing these things, and digital is whizz-bang exciting, there’s a new interest in the measurement question. But not enough yet on asking what does measurement make visible or invisible.
Because we think we measure what we see; but actually we see what we measure.
More broadly, this is why it matters that study of the economy is male territory. Social science explores how we see ourselves. What questions do we ask about how society is ordered and who gets what (the allocation of resources)? What evidence do we even bother to gather? What do we think matters?
In our gendered society, men and women do and see different things, have different experiences. Just as it matters that medicine has largely addressed the male body and its needs, so it matters that economics is largely done by men and therefore for men. The results will fail at least half the population.
Male researchers do excellent work on taxes and the labour market, or pensions, or interventions in education, but there are questions, incentives and behaviours that won’t cross their minds. The choices available to women, our preferences, our risk attitudes are likely to differ in many contexts.
To give one example of how experience matters, many men were truly shocked by the #MeToo revelations about how pervasive sexual harassment at work has been. I don’t think many women will have been all that surprised. Few men behave like that but many women experience such behaviour.
Another example was the switch under the New Labour government from Family Credit to the Working Families Tax Credit. The new system was seen as an improvement because it concentrated the money on lower income families and created a stronger incentive to work. But FC was paid to all mothers, while tax credits went mainly to men. Even wives and partners of well-off men value some income of their own. The switch ignored distribution and power within the household.
Economics is, after all, a social science. To the extent economists are not representative of their society, economics will be done badly.
3. Why is economics so biased?
As soon as you make the connection between economics and power, you have the start of an answer as to why economics is male dominated. In the former Soviet Union it was a female-dominated profession, not because the country was a socialist nirvana for women’s empowerment, but because the job involved setting prices for tractor tyre production in factories east of the Urals – it was a low status job.
But that’s a bit abstract. Why specifically in economics today – in the UK, US, France, Germany, China – do men make up 70% or more of the profession?
Some of the conventional explanations are obviously wrong.
It used to be said that the fact you have to be good at maths to do an economics degree puts girls off. There are indeed more boys than girls doing maths A level.
But not only are girls are doing better than boys in maths at school, but maths degrees also (slightly) outdo economics courses in their proportion of female undergraduate students (nearly 40% for maths compared to 30% for economics).
Some recent research indicates that economics departments make offers in the same proportions to boys and girls, and the girls have better A level results on average.
An old colleague of mine, Larry Summers, caused outrage when, in 2005, he asked whether different distributions of aptitude between men and women in maths might be part of the explanation for the under-representation of women in science and engineering. The two could be equally talented on average but the variation could be wider among men than women.
He suggested the sciences might put a premium on the most talented people, who would disproportionately be male if men’s innate talent was more widely dispersed than women’s around the average.
Some of the women present thought that an acceptable question to ask; others walked out. All of the men thought it was fine to speculate on this. None of the men, as far as one can tell, understood why some women were offended and outraged (NYT, 2005).
Another potential explanation is the absence of role models. This is harder to assess and perhaps it plays a part. A recent study found that in an experiment when students were randomly selected into introductory economics classes, those female students taught by women were more likely to continue with economics (Porter and Serra, 2017). On the other hand, it seems to me that there is low visibility for women in biology or medicine – thinking about the talking heads on TV – but those subjects still do better than economics.
Some economists will tend to say the imbalance reflects the fact that women on average have different preferences than men. We tend to like novels and paintings so we choose to do English Literature and Art History. Men like money and business so they choose Economics.
How patronising is this? Put to one side the fact that economics is about far more than money and business. The failure of this argument to recognise that choices are shaped by a gender-stereotyped society means its advocates should immediately be banned from practising as social scientists.
So what might the explanation be?
I think they fall into two, linked categories. The first concerns the character of the subject and the second the sociology of the profession.
Economics has a lot of critics, who have been very vocal recently.
Many of the criticisms are in my view wide of the mark. They say economics is too abstract and unrealistic, but really don’t know how much the subject has changed in the past 20 years. There are more valid criticisms of the fact that some textbooks haven’t kept up and still present an unrealistic version of the subject. Or the critics correctly note the way politicians and policymakers – who often learned their economics many years ago – use it for ideological purposes.
Yet there is an issue, and one I haven’t seen articulated clearly, about the style that’s valued in economics. I think this helps explain why the subject is in the same league as computer science and also philosophy.
There is immense value placed on a certain kind of brilliance – genuine brilliance, but also involving a kind of confidence and public display almost all girls are socialized out of early in life.
As Dame Athene Donald (2017) has put it, writing about the under-representation of girls in physics, we are described as, and admired for, being ‘hard working’, ‘conscientious’, and certainly not drawing attention to ourselves. Girls and women who are visibly brilliant will pay a price for it in unpopularity.
This takes us into the second aspect, the sociology of economics. Economics is relatively isolated from other disciplines, is more hierarchical and – some scholars argue – economists manifest a strong sense of their superiority compared to other social scientists, underpinned by their often being better paid. Economics is more insular, too: other disciplines cite economics papers but not much the other way round (Algann, Fourcade & Ollion, 2015).
The emphasis on individual brilliance is reflected in the fact that economics papers are less often co-authored than those in many other social science subjects, although the incidence of co-authorship has been increasing (Henriksen, 2016).
It isn’t a surprise to learn, of course, that co-authorship works against women. When men in US university economics departments get tenure it’s regardless of whether they’ve written co-authored or single authored papers. Women are half as likely to get tenure full stop, and less likely still if they co-author; when men and women co-author together, the men get the credit (Sarsons, 2017). The same research found this was not the case in sociology.
Other recent research found that women are more likely than men to co-author. Women also seem to work with a more senior co-author. One explanation is that this is a less risky approach than solo authorship, possibly because of innately less love of risk among women, but also possibly because women know they face a more challenging publication environment (Ductor et al, 2018).
Within economics, there is further gender sorting. There are few women specialising in macroeconomics, finance, theory and econometrics. Female economists are far more likely to be in applied areas such as health or education economics, or economic development. The former areas are fruitful for the demonstration of brilliance. The latter areas are far more likely to involve teamwork and even collaboration with other disciplines. Economists in these fields more often end up in education or geography or politics departments.
These factors make for what can be a brutal everyday culture in economics departments. It isn’t that individual male colleagues are hostile – far from it. There is relatively little crude misogyny on display in modern universities.
But the EJMR language is not an accident. While few grown-up male economists would dream of saying such things themselves, they have created and collude in an aggressive intellectual culture that patronises female colleagues. The minority feels authorised to use such language because it is an exaggerated version of behaviour they observe.
To an extent unimaginable in many other fields, economics seminars are hostile occasions for point-scoring and aggressive challenge; presenters hardly ever get to the end of their first slide without being interrupted. Students and junior women hardly say a word. There is a huge premium on bombast and confidence.
The sexism is deeply embedded. Papers written by women are routinely held to higher standards and take longer to get published — in an academic world where publication is everything for career prospects (Hengel, 2017). Women’s published work is better, but it takes them far longer to get the number of publications they need to progress their careers.
Peer review rewards peers, and they are mainly men. Reviewers are anonymous but authors are not.
To amplify the institutional sexism, economics has an unusually narrow funnel for career progression. All academic disciplines promote and reward people essentially on the basis of their research – nobody gets poached by top universities for their teaching ability (although if they did, it turns out female lecturers get systematically worse ratings from students (Mengel et al, 2018).
Some academic journals carry more weight than others. In economics there are only five journals that really count. They are general journals – in other words, they don’t specialise in the applied fields women tend to opt for. Competition to get a paper into one is extraordinarily intense. This interacts with the general failure of academic institutions to make allowance for the fact that the publication race coincides with women’s childbearing years. The time allowance made for a birth is a year or two, as if a three year old doesn’t still need a lot of parental time.
We’ve certainly moved on from the days when Paul Samuelson, in his bestselling influential textbook felt free to write, “There are always a few women and soapbox orators who are longer on intuition than brains.” Indeed, when he was admonished – many years later – by a female economics student, he replied: “You’re absolutely right. Mea culpa PS: Do study economics. Perhaps the best economist in the world happens also to be a woman (Joan Robinson). There are too few women in this profession.” (Via Cherrier, 2018)
But we haven’t moved far enough. There’s no arguing with the figures. There is no intrinsic reason why in any subject, but especially a social science, only one in five of its practitioners are women. Economics departments and professional societies need to tackle this – and urgently. There is no excuse for not acting now.
4. What to do?
So what should a well-meaning head of department, or President of the Royal Economic Society do?
One place to look for lessons is the Government Economic Service.
My first job was in the Treasury in the mid-1980s. In those days papers were circulated with a list of people intended to read them all listed as Mr, Mrs or Miss. As a stroppy feminist, I requested being listed as Ms Coyle. My head of department refused. So I asked instead to be listed as Dr Coyle. It turned out my immediate boss and I were the only PhDs in our division, and the only women.
I didn’t last all that long in the Treasury hierarchy.
The GES is now pretty much the best employer for women economists, at least in the sense that 30% are female. This proportion has increased over time thanks to a sustained long-term Civil Service effort to address the institutional biases women faced in general. This has included ease of part-time work, job sharing and flexible hours. There have been paternity leave campaigns to ensure men take time off to share the care of their children.
It also involved high profile leadership from senior men such as Gus O’Donnell and Martin Donnelly.
But even given these changes in the wider environment in the civil service, the economics profession in government is going to have to work harder given the narrower and diminishing pipeline of women among the UK’s economics graduates.
So what could be done?
Sustained leadership, by men, will be essential. Every department head, every chief economist in the City, the leadership of the professional bodies, will have to indicate by what they say and what they do that this is their priority.
And although I’ve been talking about women in economics, the same points apply to people who are not white and not middle class. The subject is not only male dominated but also posh, and with people from other ethnic backgrounds under-represented. Increasingly it’s private schools that teach economics and put it on pupils’ radar, while state schools increasingly opt for business studies.
To repeat, a social science that is too far adrift socially from its society will fail to ask important questions, will not observe accurately, has no legitimacy and will ultimately become irrelevant.
So it’s time for the high profile leaders in economics to take this question of representation seriously. For the most part, they haven’t done so, and many senior men still don’t.
We can look forward to welcoming Rachel Griffith as only the second-ever female President of the Royal Economic Society, and she will have the opportunity to make a difference.
Different outcomes will require contentious changes in the institutions of the academic profession – what papers are published where, how peer review and research funding operate, for instance.
All professional domains make it difficult for young women to progress, whether that’s universities or the private sector. They can all learn from the civil service about what hiring practices, promotion disciplines, working patterns, and everyday cultures in the workplace will change that.
There is an immense amount of practical knowledge about how to increase diversity, for organisations that want to do it. Many still don’t.
For economics itself, every economist can be alert for all the aspects of institutional prejudice I’ve been describing, and call out certain kinds of behaviour or language. Many don’t think this worth the aggravation; after all, it requires confrontation with colleagues.
But – as an economist – I can’t help thinking the best lever will be money. There’s no insuperable reason seven out of ten of the students doing economics degrees are male, and those young people when they graduate will become the economists of the future. Universities get substantial amounts of money from taxpayers. Taxpayer money can reasonably come attached with strings about minimum standards.
It’s no excuse to say only the best research should get funded or published, and it’s no business of the government to make those decisions. I would have to believe women’s research isn’t as good as men’s to buy that, and I don’t. If male economists don’t change, I can’t see any alternative to change being imposed upon them.
Even the least patronising male economist is complicit if their response is to do nothing.
The reputation of economics is already tarnished, even a decade on from the financial crisis; all the evidence of entrenched discrimination and lack of diversity will not improve matters. In fact, I think it will intensify the criticism.
During the Brexit referendum campaign, Anand Menon went on a roadshow to put some of the relevant research evidence to different audiences. He was talking about the possible impact on GDP when a women in the audience heckled him: “That’s your bloody GDP, not ours!”
There are already many people who think, That’s your bloody economics, not ours.
This is not a women problem, it is an economics problem. It is deeply embedded in the discipline’s culture and norms, and the profession’s senior men need to take it seriously. It’s an existential issue for economics.
Yann Algann, Marion Fourcade and Etienne Ollion, 2015, ‘The Superiority of Economists’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(1)
Beatrice Cherrier, 23 March 2018, https://twitter.com/Undercoverhist/status/977303031472705538
Diane Coyle, 2012, ‘The Public Responsibilities of the Economist‘, Tanner Lectures on Human Values
Diane Coyle, 2017, ‘Do it yourself Digital: the production boundary and the productivity puzzle‘, ESCoE Working Paper 001
Sam Dillon, 2015, ‘Harvard Chief Defends His Talk on Women‘, New York Times, Jan 18
Athene Donald, 2016, ‘Do You Want to be Described as Hard Working?‘
L Ductor, S Goyal and A Prummer, 2018, ‘Gender and collaboration’, Cambridge-INET Working Paper No. 1807.
Erin Hengel, 2017, ‘Gender differences in peer review‘
Dorte Henriksen, 2016, ‘The rise in co-authorship in the social sciences (1980-2013)’, Scientometrics 107(2)
F Mengel, J Sauermann and U Zolitz, 2018, ‘Gender bias in teaching evaluations’, Journal of the European Economic Association
Catherine Porter and Danila Serra, 2017. ‘Gender differences in the choice of major: The importance of female role models‘, Departmental Working Papers 1705, Southern Methodist University, Department of Economics.
Heather Sarsons, 2017, ‘Gender differences in recognition for group work‘