Lady Economists in an Economan’s World

Lady Economist is excited to be featured on Chronicle Vitae, a new website of the Chronicle of Higher Education, as columnists! Our first post is on lady economists and is cross-posted below. Check out Chronicle Vitae for our bi-monthly columns and other great writing related to academia.


6141634886_bbaa2e5ac1_zEconomics isn’t the most ladylike academic field. Its practitioners, by and large, like to argue with each other, think they know it all, and have a penchant for wearing ill-fitting grey pantsuits. Their forefathers are, by and large, men—only one woman has won the Nobel Prize in Economics, and she was technically a political scientist.

Then there’s the fact that modern economics has a heavy mathematical focus. As Lawrence Summers (remember him?) and Teen-Talk Barbie like to remind us: For women, math is tough.

The economist Gary Becker once went so far as to say that women who spent their time and energy in fields generally dominated by men, like economics, were “deviant.” (He wrote this in “A Treatise on the Family,” which was published in 1981—not 1951. Just over a decade later, he went on to win a Nobel of his own. But I digress.)

With role models like those, is it any wonder some women feel like they aren’t particularly adept at quantitative fields? Or that many of them still think it’s more ladylike to study nursing, education, or other “caring” professions?

Despite such unwelcoming attitudes, women have a long-running history as economists. You just wouldn’t necessarily know it: People have largely forgotten or disregarded their very real contributions. A recent campaign at Cambridge University, for example, had students holding up signs that read “I need feminism because … ” One student wrote “because there are still no famous female economists.” This was at the same university where the patron saint of Lady Economist—Joan Robinson, a member of the renowned “Cambridge school” of economics—lectured! (It may be worth noting, too, that Robinson was not awarded the rank of full professor until 1965, despite having taught at Cambridge since 1928.)

So the problem is really twofold: Women have been discouraged and excluded, and those who make an impact anyway have had their contributions discredited. Add these together, and economics has a long history of being a macho science as well as a dismal one.

So that’s the state of play. That said, women have made huge gains in the field over the past 40 years. According to the American Association of Economics’ Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP), 35 percent of new economics Ph.D.’s are women, up from about 7 percent in the 1970s.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the signs are less encouraging. For one thing, the proportion of women shrinks as you go up the academic ladder. Currently just 28.7 percent of untenured assistant professors in the field are women. Women make up only 21.9 percent of tenured associate professors, and a mere 12.8 percent of full professors. (In 1997, when CSWEP first began collecting such data, women held 6.5 percent of full-professor positions in economics.)

A disproportionate number of women remain stuck in certain subfields. In 2006, a study by the UK-based Centre for Economic Policy Research found that there is a great deal of path dependence in economics: Women are drawn to those areas where they are already better represented. So while there are pockets of female economists within certain subfields, there’s still a major disparity across the field as a whole.

This is particularly noticeable at conferences. At a sports-economics panel I once attended, the proportion of women in the room was even lower than the proportion of full-time female professors in the field (perhaps 5 percent of the people in the room were women). When I visited the panel on gender and development in the next room, the proportion of women jumped to a level more representative of the proportion of women in economics as a whole.

Female economists tend to study topics that are more socially-oriented and, therefore, coded as “feminine”—such as labor economics and development economics, which focuses on ways to improve conditions in third-world countries. Their male counterparts, meanwhile, often work in more math-laden, purportedly masculine topics, like physics-envy-style modeling and financial economics. According to a 2006 study by researchers at American University, women are turned off by the notion that economics is oriented toward business rather than social justice.

That’s hardly surprising given the 20-odd years of socialization that women undergo before entering grad school. Women are often subtly, and sometimes overtly, taught to channel their energy toward family and community, so it’s natural that those who excel at economics would merge their social identity as women with their inclination for the dismal science.

That’s all well and good. And I should point out here that I myself am a stereotype of a lady economist! I love to do ladylike economic research. My undergraduate advisor was a female economics professor who specialized in women’s labor history, my dissertation advisor is a woman who specializes in labor economics, and I specialize in labor economics and feminist economics. I wonder how much my inclination for labor economics and feminist theorizing is a function of path dependence in economics.

I’m not going to deny that it’s more comfortable for me to be around like-minded women, but I’d like to think that I could hold my own against any male economist. Here’s the problem, though: The so-called “feminine” subfields are often considered less methodologically rigorous or theoretically sophisticated than their “masculine” counterparts. And economic theory is often judged these days by its quantitative rigor—regardless of how much that theory can be applied to the real world.

I’ve seen this play out in publishing—two of the five highest-impact economic journals are the quantitative-specific Econometrica and Journal of Financial Economics, while the other three are more focused on general economics, rather than on person-oriented subfields—as well as on the job market. Job listings for economics professors always seem to call for people who can teach econometrics, for example.

In the coming months, I’ll write more about what this all means, for women and for the field as a whole. For now, I won’t delve too deeply into my experiences as an openly feminist economist and the eye-rolls I get from some of my peers whenever I suggest we hold more lectures and classes on feminist economics. Discussing that subfield just opens up a whole other can of worms, except yuck, girls don’t like worms.

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Categories: Economisses, State of the Field

1 reply

  1. I recently decided to pursue an M.A. in Economics, with a very specific interest in gender studies. After looking at women’s studies programs, I realized that most of the substantive research was coming from economic programs. However, I know very little about feminist economics and I’m spending the weekend doing research on possible programs (which is how I came across your website). I’m currently finishing core classes at a local university (my undergrad was in English). However, despite expressing my interests to academic advisors, they keep trying to push me into areas such as health economics and finance. I’m not budging. The majority of women are still employed in “pink collar” occupations that offer low pay and low mobility. We continue to make excuses for wage differentials, such as occupational segregation and overcrowding, while ignoring statistics that resist these theories, such as nursing shortages and increasing child care worker shortages. Also, there is very little scholarship on secretaries, despite it continuing to be the top occupation for women. This is very important research — it’s time for “Economan” to open his world to the other half of the population.

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