The question seems simple enough: In an era when women have made inroads
into the most demanding and financially rewarding professionslike
law and medicine and businesswhy 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,
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.