The Region

Do Women's Economic Decisions Differ from Men's?

Recap of a conference on economic decision making in women's lives and careers.

Kathy Cobb | Contributing Writer

Published June 1, 2001  | June 2001 issue

Why do some women marry at a young age and others continue their education?

Why are only 6 percent of tenured full professors of economics women?

Why does 2 percent of venture capital go to women-owned firms—when women own about 38 percent of U.S. businesses?

The Minneapolis Fed, with its ongoing interest in economic literacy, was one of the sponsors of a May symposium that attempted to answer—or at least explore—these questions and others related to economic decision making by, and on behalf of, women.

Critical Junctures in Women's Economic Lives drew speakers from around the country versed in subjects that included financing women's business endeavors, women in poverty, financial planning and investment decisions, gender and racial discrimination, child care and family leave—and public policies that would effect change.

The notion of making economic and financial matters relevant to women's daily lives isn't new—similar topics were covered by participants at a women's caucus during the Minneapolis Fed's economic literacy seminar just two years earlier.

However, a number of these issues remain under debate and reappeared at the May symposium. Heidi Hartmann, director and president of the Washington, D.C., Institute for Women's Policy Research and symposium keynote speaker, made the point that most women college graduates start at the same salary as their male counterparts, but studies done over time show that men's salaries peak at a far higher point on the scale than do women's. Women with low-wage earning jobs don't fare much better. Hartmann said that men in similar low-wage earning jobs tend to earn about $3 more per hour than women.

"Women as Professional Economists: How Are We Doing?" was the topic of a presentation by Robin Bartlett, professor of economics at Denison University and past chair of the American Economic Association's Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP). Her answer: Not very well. Despite assurances from the AEA in 1971 that "economics is not exclusively a man's field," Bartlett said, since the formation of CSWEP that same year, the data show that few women are tenured full professors of economics at the top 10 Ph.D.-granting universities. While the number of women in the profession continues to grow, they are not equally represented on faculty at these schools, Bartlett said. "The higher the prestige of the school, the fewer women you find [in tenured positions]."

Partly in light of these data, Larry Singell, department of economics at the University of Oregon, tracked the careers of AEA members from 1960 to 1989 and found that women's opportunities in economics have improved over time. Women entering the job market were placed in lower-ranked schools than comparable males; however, this placement differential disappeared by the mid-1980s. Moreover, in the last 40 years, he said, "the proportion of female economists has increased from 3 percent to 25 percent. In 1999, women comprised 34 percent of new Ph. D economists."

Regardless, as the Minneapolis Fed raised at its 1999 conference, relatively fewer women are entering graduate programs in economics than law and medicine. A study by Betsy Jensen and Ann Owen indicates that women might be better represented in the field if they went into their first college economics course with stronger math skills or had more confidence. The Hamilton College professors surveyed 1,776 students and 67 instructors in introductory economics courses at 34 coed liberal arts colleges, seeking an explanation of why women are under-represented in economics. Other factors that might deter women from continuing in economics include: different interests and career aspirations already in place; a lack of female role models; and teaching techniques and methods of evaluation that are less suited to women's learning styles. For example, women generally respond better to group problem-solving activities rather than the lecture style of teaching that is typical of an introductory economics course.

At the end of the two days, the 80 or so attendees proposed ideas for further research and action, and they all dovetailed to the original question: How can women make better economic decisions in their lives?

The symposium was organized around issues raised by focus groups conducted with 88 Minnesota women of various ages and ethnic and educational backgrounds, who identified the factors that affect their economic decisions and, ultimately, their well being. The Center for True Economic Progress, a year-old Twin Cities think tank devoted to women's economic issues, was the architect of the focus groups and ensuing conference.

For more on the Minneapolis Fed's economic literacy measures, see December 1998 and June 1999 issues of The Region.