Women in Economics, where are they?

At the European Economic Association conference, women in Economics (or the lack of women) was the focus of one session, the bottom line being that women are largely under-represented in the discipline.

Economics is a discipline that suffers significant gender imbalance, with about 30% of academic economists in the U.S being female, one panellist reported.

So, what are the barriers to women pursuing research careers in Economics? What can be done to help encourage greater equality? And what are the benefits of greater gender equality across Economics research professions? We spoke to panellist, Janet Currie, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University to hear her insights.

From Janet Currie

Photo credit: Denise Applewhite

“Women are under-represented in Economics relative to men, with about 30% of academic economists being female.”

This figure has not changed very much since the late 1980s, even though female representation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) has continued to grow. This lack of progress for women in Economics relative to other technical fields has captured people’s attention.

“One of the important barriers is that the fraction of women in undergraduate Economics programs has not increased.”

People used to think that this was because “women didn’t like math.” But that cannot explain why female enrollments in other relatively math intensive fields have been going up relative to Economics. Similarly, factors such as a lack of role models seem like they cannot be the whole story.

“It may be that Economics is not presented in a way that is appealing to the average undergraduate female student.”

Still in the U.S. only a small fraction of undergraduate Economics majors go on to graduate school in Economics, so only a small change in the fraction of undergraduates going on to a PhD would make a large difference. Yet the fraction female in Economics PhD programs has also remained flat.

Assuming women make it through to the Assistant Professor level, there is a gap in tenure probabilities between males and females in Economics which does not exist in STEM fields. And assuming women are promoted to Associate Professor, they stay at that rank longer than men before they are promoted to Full Professor.

It seems that the pipeline “leaks” all along the way and different factors are likely to be responsible at different stages.

“Women and fair-minded men need to continue to combat explicit bias, which unfortunately still exists.”

People also need to be aware of implicit biases that may work against women. For example, experiments where names are randomly assigned to C.V.s show that women as well as men tend to give more favorable evaluations to people they think are male, in various settings. Presumably the women are not explicitly discriminating against female candidates but share the same implicit biases as other evaluators. Institutions can also try to avoid placing disproportionate service burdens on female faculty members.

“It could be useful to pay attention to lists of editors and authors […]”

Thinking about what publishers could do to help, it could be useful to pay attention to lists of editors and authors and to try to make sure that a wide variety of candidates is considered. That is, asking why there are no women on a short list often results in several credible female candidates being considered.

“Women have skills and talents that are not being fully utilized”

I think equality of opportunity is an important goal for society, and that societies with equality of opportunity are better for everyone. But there is also an efficiency argument for improving opportunity for women, which is that women have skills and talents that are not being fully utilized.


Janet Currie is the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University and the co-director of Princeton’s Center for Health and Wellbeing. She also co-directs the Program on Families and Children at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She has served as the Vice President of the American Economic Association and is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and of the American Academy of Art and Sciences. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the Society of Labor Economists, and of The Econometric Society, and has an honorary degree from the University of Lyon.