Economics has a woman problem

Image: Reuters/Fabian Bimmer
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I did not enjoy getting a PhD. I often think it was just me. But then I speak to anyone else who went through it and I am reminded that the misery is a universal experience.

Still, I think I was especially unhappy as a young woman in a competitive economics department. Professors were cold, and some were flat-out mean. I felt like I had to fight to prove I belonged there. And those were the good days. Most of the time, I went days without speaking to anyone, alone in a library solving very hard math problems.

Economics has a woman problem. Women are under-represented at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Following scandalous research that laid bare the “cesspool of misogyny” on the popular Economics Job Market Rumors website, the profession has done a fair amount of self-reflection about how it can be more welcoming to women. Economics attempts to explain how the world works, after all, so more diverse representation in the field is important to gain a more complete view of the economy.

Although economics gets lots of attention for gender imbalances, other fields are even worse. A lack of women is pervasive in academia, especially in elite STEM programs. The figure below was compiled by a team of sociologists (pdf) based on doctorates earned in the US between 2003 and 2014. The researchers estimated the share of women that would need to switch to a field for a gender-balanced department; negative scores indicate a shortage of women, positive scores an over-representation of women.

Image for article titled Economics has a woman problem
Image: Weeden et al (2017)

The study also looked at gender representation by program ranking. The researchers estimated that women are generally under-represented at elite PhD programs in 27 out of 41 fields, even in normally female-dominated fields like English. Only four subjects are female-dominated in top PhD programs: Spanish, biomedical engineering, materials engineering, and geography). Elite economics programs showed one of the worse gender disparities at top universities.

What goes on at elite programs may be the source of the problem across the whole industry. There is evidence that, at least in economics, a lack of female role models discourage young women from studying in the field (and by extension, pursuing graduate study). Universities of all quality tend to recruit from the top departments, so more women serving as faculty role models will require more women enrolled at the top departments.

This may be hard to achieve, even if elite programs become more female-friendly. A large share of elite PhD students, especially in STEM fields, are foreign born, and many are married. Women who get into top programs may feel pressure to go to lesser programs to accommodate their husbands’ work.

Slowly, the numbers are improving. More women, albeit not enough, have faculty positions and the younger generation of award-winning economists features many women.

Another issue is the nature of many STEM PhD programs, which require hours of isolation. Studies of high-achieving women have found that women who are talented in math also tend to be equally strong in verbal and social skills. Rather than double-down and spend years of their life alone in room solving math problems, many prefer to make use of the breadth of their skills.

Even so, more can be done to give PhD programs better balance. I can only speak to economics, which has an aggressive and often gruff culture. When I started a PhD program straight out of college, it was a big culture shock. Few professors were kind or encouraging; I constantly considered dropping out. (To be fair, many of my male classmates felt traumatized too.)

An economics PhD was one the most difficult and rewarding things I’ve ever done. I didn’t stay in academia, but instead went into other industries that have their own, arguable worse, issues with women (finance and media). The quantitative skills and self-confidence I gained from surviving graduate school has given me the tools to deal with it.