Economics textbooks go out of their way to be sexist

Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Economics textbooks are many things: didactic, theoretical, traditional, and, to some, boring. New evidence suggests they may also be out of touch on gender.

In a study of eight leading introductory economics textbooks, Betty Stevenson and Hanna Zlotnick of the University of Michigan found a gender mix that favors men even more than reality does. The duo tallied 2,858 people—economists, business leaders, policy makers, celebrities, and fictional characters—across the eight books, categorizing the gender, role, and setting of each. They found that just 18% of people in the textbooks were female, far lower than the 57% of college students who are, and still lower than the share of women (51%) in the US.

The imaginary and celebrity

Authors have more creative license with fictitious and ordinary textbook characters, so it’s not surprising that the gender gap there is the smallest. Even so, characters created purely to illustrate economic principles—farmers, small-business owners, widget manufactures, and the like—are largely male, with women making up just 35% of the group.

What’s even more troubling is the textbooks’ treatment of real people, who are often used to make the material interesting and relatable. In the introductory texts studied by Stevenson and Zlotnick, 76% of celebrities mentioned  are male, most of whom are athletes. (A 2016 Hubbard and O’Brien text, for example, uses baseball player Zack Greinke to illustrate marginal revenue). Female celebrities are most often singers, movie stars, and entertainers.

Economists and leaders

Only 7% of economists referenced in leading introductory economics textbooks are female. While economics, at every stage, has a problem attracting women, this share is still unrealistically low. In real life, about a third of doctoral candidates in economics are women. Since 1990, women have authored close to a fifth of the articles published in the top four economics journals.

Mentions of female business leaders are pretty paltry, too. Thirty-two women made the Fortune 500 list in 2017, but only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs in textbooks are female, and not one of the eight texts mentions a top-five Fortune 500 woman.

Only 8% of policymakers in the textbooks are women, in part because the US has never had a female president. Excluding mentions of past and former presidents raises the female share of policy leaders to 15%. Discount Janet Yellen, the first female chair of the US Federal Reserve, and other prior Fed chairs from the analysis, and the share dips even lower, to 5%.

While it’s hard to identify an appropriate gender baseline for policymakers, women have since 2000 made up 27% of the US cabinet and constitute 19% of the 115th Congress. As of the end of 2017, one in five mayors of large US cities was also female.