The Region

Where are the Women Ph.D.s in Economics?

Women and Economics: A special Economic Literacy Symposium Caucus debated issues of gender and economics.

Kathy Cobb - Associate Editor

Published June 1, 1999  |  June 1999 issue

The question seems simple enough: In an era when women have made inroads into the most demanding and financially rewarding professions—like law and medicine and business—why don't they have a bigger presence in academic economics? Women made up 41.6 percent of medical school graduates in 1996-97, 46 percent of first-year law students in 1998 were women, and women are likewise represented in M.B.A. programs across the country. But in 1997 only about 20 percent of Ph.D.s in economics were women. Why?

Like most simple questions, the answer isn't so obvious. Sixteen women and a few men gathered late into the evening of May 13, the opening night of the Economic Literacy Symposium, to discuss that question. The Women's Caucus was co-chaired by Claudia Parliament, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Economic Education and professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, and Arthur Rolnick, senior vice president and director of Research at the Minneapolis Fed, and board chair of the Minnesota Council. Caucus participants were sent briefing material prior to the meeting, but hardly needed prompting when it came time to discuss ideas for women's absence from the economic ivory tower.

But before describing that discussion, let's begin with the Caucus' draft statement, which was read at the start of the meeting:

Women and minorities are under-represented in the economics profession. This may be because they are too often not encouraged to pursue theoretical, mathematical or scientific fields of study.

Current solutions therefore lack input from the insights and skill sets of these underrepresented groups, input that could make policies more effective. Women and minorities do not necessarily experience the world or approach problems with the same paradigm often used by white males, and they are often concerned with issues that do not get on the agenda because they are underrepresented.

Following the presentation of that statement, discussion immediately began around the distinction between "theoretical" economics and other academic pursuits that require economics coursework, like applied economics, public policy and environmental economics. If those degrees are considered, then women likely make up a fair portion of economics students, according to Jeanne Hogarth, senior analyst at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington. Mariam Chamberlain, founding president of the National Council for Research on Women, agreed, arguing that undergraduate women majoring in economics often move into business programs and public policy areas.

Regardless of how many undergraduate women get bachelor's degrees in economics, only 6 percent of tenured professors of economics are women, according to a report of the American Economics Association Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. And Peter Bell, executive director of the New York Council on Economic Education, said there are likely two reasons for that showing: what's being taught and who's teaching it. On average, only one to two pages in economics textbooks deal with gender and minority issues, Bell said, and, secondly, there are few role models for women to follow.

"What do I do with economics?" is a question raised by both male and female high school students, said Sandra Peterson, co-president of Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union.

Deborah Owens, Moneyworks Inc., said many young girls are still pointed into a secretarial track at an early age and that little is expected of them as they progress through school, especially in the area of mathematics.

All participants agreed that there's little glamour in economics, and maybe that's part of the issue. "You can't be what you don't dream about being," said Judith Brown, president of JNBA Financial Advisors. Also, a woman graduating with an engineering undergraduate degree can earn $50,000 right out of college, said Gwen Reichbach, executive director of the National Institute for Consumer Education. That's a tangible reward for going into a man's field.

Erica Whittlinger, president and CEO of Whittlinger Capital Management, said that while she was encouraged to go to graduate school in economics, she was also told that her career options would be teaching or working for the government. Neither appealed to her, so she chose "the money, power, action."

The lack of role models was an issue for many participants. For girls watching "L.A. Law" or "ER" on TV, there are role models for law and medicine, said Arva Rice, program director for Girls Incorporated. "Where is the economist role model?"

While some pointed to the mathematics skills required for economics, others felt this was a flimsy argument. More likely it's the lack of role models and lack of understanding about what economists do, many said. "What do they wear? What do they do?" are questions young girls ask, said Owens. And what is the relevancy? They want to feel like there's something in it for them, Owens said.

Patricia Elder, vice president for Economics International with the National Council on Economic Education, suggested that the goal should be to get more women to use economics in their lives, thus opening them to a possibility of a career in economics. On that same note, Rice said that women need to be shown that economics is something they can do, that there are things to accomplish. Women need mentors and girls need to know that there is a variety of jobs involving economics, she said.

"What's in it for a person who chooses to take this track? What can they impact?" asked Owens.

And on the question of incentives, Chamberlain wondered if the economics profession offered enough of a payback. "If women are looking to income, they won't find it in economics," she said. But Rolnick disputed that argument, saying that the same would also hold true for men, and yet men are still drawn to the field and must have adequate income incentives to do so.

Hogarth also suggested that economics, with its emphasis on self-interest and its attempt to take a cold, hard, analytical view of human behavior, may be a "turnoff" for women.

In the end, Caucus participants agreed on the following reasons for women's lack of participation in theoretical economics:

  • The emphasis on mathematics and the propensity for girls to "fall out" of math studies as they progress through school.

  • Lack of role models.

  • Economics is too narrowly defined. It doesn't resonate, doesn't have real world appeal.

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