Ladies have made serious inroads in economics over the past few decades, but we still got a lot of room to grow. In 1970, women were awarded 7% of economics PhDs, and as of the late 1990s that jumped to 30% of economics PhDs. (That’s faster progress than the gender wage gap in the years since the Equal Pay Act.) According to the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP), in 2011 about 35% of new economics PhDs were women. But the overall increase of the proportion of women in economics obscures gender gaps that still remain within the field.
First, there appears to be a glass ceiling in economics, just like almost everywhere else in the labor market. While 35% of new PhDs in economics are ladies, the proportion of women steadily decreases up the academic job ladder. 28.7% of untenured assistant professors are women, 21.9% of tenured associate professors are women, and only 12.8% of full professors are women. However, the proportion of women full professors did jump from 6.5% in 1997 when CSWEP started collecting data on the topic. So that’s definitely something. CSWEP is committed to implementing mentoring programs to support more women in the field to work up the job ladder, so hopefully this upward trend will continue.
Second, lady economists like to do what lady economists like to do. Or in other words, certain research fields in economics are persistently “female,” like labor economics and welfare economics, while others tend to be persistently “male,” like game theory and business cycle theory. A 2006 study from the UK-based Centre for Economic Policy Research has found that there is path dependence within economics, so that women are more likely to concentrate in fields within economics where there are already other women present. Another 2006 study from American University shows that the perception of economics as math heavy and business-oriented, rather than social welfare-oriented, turns ladies off, where it does not for men.
Guys, math is scawy!! But actually, telling women that women are bad at math or may not enjoy studying economics might actually be why they choose not to study economics or focus on certain topics within economics. A 2012 study published in Pyschological Science demonstrated that gendered beliefs about performance in math influences how women and men, or girls and boys, actually perform in math. Likewise for certain fields within economics, where women may believe that overall women don’t excel in certain male-dominated fields – perhaps a reasonable assumption if they don’t see other women excelling there – women will internalize this belief and prefer to avoid economics or focus on research topics in economics that they think they will be better at because it is more “female.”
The silver lining around this is that these gender gaps are surmountable. If more women are encouraged to study economics and concentrate on “male” research topics within economics, they will increase their representation and excel at the same rate as men do. CSWEP definitely has made this its mission, albeit within the confines of the conservative mainstream of economics. Other profession associations like the International Association for Feminist Economics also create a visible presence for women in economics and support young women in field with a more radical slant. But ramping up these efforts among all departments and professional associations, not just those that are intended for this purpose, would probably really tip things in a more equal direction.