women in the economics profession

This is another reason for the existence of Econ Journal Watch, the online journal of critiques and commentary on academic economics. The current issue has an article on the topic of women in the economics profession by Christine Jonung and Ann-Charlotte Stahlberg. A while back, they wrote an article documenting the paucity of women in academic economics. 30% of PhD grads are now women, but, depending on which country you look at, 5-8% of full profs are women. There were responses, and now they published a rejoinder.

The rejoinder is interesting, because it’s skeptical about many offered explanations:

  • Yes, there are measured cognitive differences between men and women, but that doesn’t settle the issue. Though cognitive ability has more variance for men (ie, more geniuses and duds), women and men are relatively strong in different traits that’s you’d imagine would be useful for academic work. Also, there’s some national variance in the mean difference between men and women. Some countries have men and women equal, while others have one gender scoring higher than the other. So aside from the variance differences, evidence of gender differences are not strong, nor convincing. Finally, I’d add that there’s a threshold effect issue. Sure, you may need X level of IQ to be an academic, but it’s not clear that higher ability, by itself, gets you anything extra. If it’s one thing that research on achievement shows, ability is just the beginning.
  • Socialization/preference arguments are not strong. Some folks think that women avoid economics as a profession because they are discouraged from math intensive occupations, dislike the macho atmosphere of economics programs, or prefer occupations that are more compatible with family life. The last two explanations are tough to support because other demanding academic professions – like biology and the law – now have many, many women.
  • Jonung and Stahlberg do note that there are gender related differences in risk preference, at least in experimental work. Some people suggest that risk preferences might translate into career choices. However, academic economics is a remarkably low risk occupation, compared to the rest of academia. A PhD who fails to get an academic job can easily earn $100k in the private sector as a consultant or analyst. Economists can also work in the Fed and other well paying gov’t institutions. It’s not at all like getting a PhD in philosophy or the humanities, where failure in the market can mean completely abandoning the career or accepting miserably paying adjunct work. If it’s about risk, then women should be flocking to economics like they flock to medicine and the law (both hard fields with many women).
  • I don’t think that J&S succeed in dismissing the hypothesis that there are gender differences in the desire to pursue math. Nearly all math intensive academic occupations have female PhD rates of 10-20%: engineering – 12% women, physics and astronomy – 14%, computer science 17%. Mathematics itself is an outlier – about 30% female PhD in the early 2000’s. I have an explanation below for this anomaly.
  • J&S also ask: what’s the big deal? Who cares about gender balance? If the whole science is just about utility maximization, then who cares about the biology of the person doing the equations? They have a plausble answer: mixing men and women means different applications of the same tools to wider phenomena, which can only enrich the field.

I was also surprised that there wasn’t an orgtheory/sociology answer: perhaps women don’t have the same access to the networks of elite academic economics. Economics appears to me, an outsider, to be a fairly closed social system. Top jobs go to people from top departments who have sympathetic advisers. Top papers are often vetted at the “right” panels and the NBER, which is determined, of course, by the top people. Publication can depend on making a single expert in the field happy with your paper. While this is true in all academic fields, that elites set the agenda, it seems to be unusually strong in economics. The career is extremely path dependent in economics, to my eye. You don’t see too many outsiders in the field rise to prominence in top econ departments. So if women are not invited as often to working groups in graduate school, or whatever, then it could have a real impact on placement and eventual promotion.

After reading this, and my own knowledge of the academic system, I’d timidly offer the following model about gender and academia. (a) In non-physical science fields, the end of institutional discrimination in the 60s and 70s quickly lead to a big boost in grad school enrollments and professorships by women. Basically, all the humanities, the social sciences, biological and health fields, and many other areas have been desegregated by gender, relatively speaking. (b) The story is different for anything that has math. First, people really seem to differ in their desire to do math, but the evidence doesn’t tell us if it’s socialized differences or not. Second, many of these fields make it difficult for people not plugged into elite networks to get and keep top jobs. (c) Math itself is an exception because of it’s unusually open culture. This is not to say that people aren’t snobs, but math is not a field with professional norms that revolve around elite networks. Anyone may submit to journals, advisors don’t take all credit, etc. It’s very possible in this system to succeed even if you don’t have the best connections.


Written by fabiorojas

January 22, 2009 at 2:40 am

Posted in economics, fabio

14 Responses

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  1. Yes, there are measured cognitive differences between men and women … Though cognitive ability has more variance for men (ie, more geniuses and duds

    The fact that people were grasping at this reed to explain gender differences in rates of PhD granting is pretty strong evidence that economics as a field does not lack for cognitive duds. Similar arguments come up periodically with respect to Philosophy, another technically demanding and competitive field. I blogged about it a few years ago.



    January 22, 2009 at 3:07 am

  2. Good point, Kieran. Here’s food for thought: According to this website (, in the 1990s, philosophers were 20% female. The rest of the humanities had 41% women. If you believe my theory, you might chalk it up to increased formalization of the field. Not just analytic philosophy, but symbolic logic, a form of math, which is now a requirement for many degree programs.

    I also re-read your post and I like the explanation of “little hits.” It’s quite hard to continue in any discipline with such a drag one’s self. It appears in much qualitative research on academic careers, but hasn’t been tested much in the “large N” studies of academic careers.



    January 22, 2009 at 3:19 am

  3. Err…physics?

    Kieran, you crack me up. One day, we’re going to discover cold fusion and you’ll be all, “I knew about that way back in ’05.”


    Jenn Lena

    January 22, 2009 at 3:25 am

  4. Jenn: Can you elaborate about physics? I wasn’t clear about your point from the comment.



    January 22, 2009 at 3:33 am

  5. Sorry, Fabio. I meant to point toward the Times article in which Physics is singled out as the discipline with the worst record of gender parity. It reports that less than 6% of tenured, full professors in physics are women. It also relates some of the same, and some addition (and contending) hypotheses for these patterns.


    Jenn Lena

    January 22, 2009 at 4:09 am

  6. Jenn: Physics is the worst in this respect. From what I understand, advisers take major credit for *any* work done by students. Would be very easy for advisers to shut out female students. It’s also an equipment heavy field, so it’s easy to imagine that this increases the power of incumbency for men. Uggghhh… glad I never did physics.



    January 22, 2009 at 4:15 am

  7. Do take a look at this recent paper in Science about gender bias in NIH grant applications. In particular, the first figure has some data on the proportion of women at different career stages in medical schools over the last 12 years.

    At every stage (say, professor), women’s proportion in 2007 was (still) below what it was in 1996 for the previous stage (associate professor). That’s a pretty amazing time lag!



    January 22, 2009 at 10:12 am

  8. It wasn’t too long ago that men were the dominant gender in law and medicine. But now, as you allude to, women make up the majority of law and medical students. And I think it’s common knowledge by now that there are more women than men in higher education generally. Give it a few years. I suspect we’ll have gender parity in the STEM fields in the not-too-distant future, thereby rendering this whole discussion moot.


    Blue NY

    January 22, 2009 at 2:40 pm

  9. Economics is not a very friendly discipline, and it’s not because of the math. If anything, at the higher end of theory, there is a bit more equality, at least in terms of professional respect. But for the average “dull” economist, that doesn’t matter. They’re listening to Rush Limbaugh on the way to teach Macro (yes, always macro). And those yahoos are the ones recruiting (or not) students for majors, and into graduat programs, and voting on hires and promotion.

    But, the problem is multi-sided. When we have humanities majors which are 80% female, then we’re not going to have high propotions in other fields. Seduction into the humanities and the soft ends of the social sicences creates a substantial female brain drain. They can do the math. They can do the science. They’re just doing something else. And, it’s hurting women and the sciences, since many women who could make scientific advances are instead playing around with low-level cultural production in the humanities (where they often have limited talent in a talent rich field).



    January 23, 2009 at 2:21 am

  10. “I was also surprised that there wasn’t an orgtheory/sociology answer: perhaps women don’t have the same access to the networks of elite academic economics.”

    Fabio, Your claim and reasoning sound plausible, but it doesn’t match my econ grad school experience. We had lots of women in our grad program. They had the same advisors as the men. And the profs would push whomever they thought was best, whether male or female. So I didn’t really see any systemic pattern within the grad program. Moreover, I know of many departments who go out of their way to include women in their hiring short-lists in an attempt to improve the sex-ratios.

    Of course, I am one data point from a short period in grad school. And something so systemic as you describe could have been at work outside of my obsevation So, I cannot say you are wrong; it just doesn’t match my experience.


    Mike McBride

    January 23, 2009 at 4:06 am

  11. Another issue (not discounting the other explanations) is just the simple fact that it takes time for gender/group balance to occur if we think about promotion as time-imbedded process. We can think about this in very simple terms of entry, promotion probabilities, and exits. We will find that if there is a significant gender imbalance at the top positions (e.g. full professors, partners at law firms, etc.) at the initial time point, and promotions, exits and hires are equal for both groups, it will still take decades for gender balance to occur at the top level. This should be exacerbated by other factors mentioned, as well as the fact that academia seems to generally have relatively high exits, low tenure probabilities, and small incoming cohorts.



    January 23, 2009 at 2:52 pm

  12. […] women in the economics profession « […]


  13. […] women in the economics profession « […]


  14. Note that the gender imbalance is generally much greater at the most elite levels.

    I think the preference argument is strong. Fewer women want to work 80 hour weeks. Fewer women find the idea of utility maximization aesthetically appealing. Fewer women are interested in money. Fewer women enjoy cutthroat competition.

    The fact that there are more women in law and medicine and the humanities is not proof that the only thing stopping women in economics and engineering is equal access. On the contrary, those graduate programs are siphoning off brilliant and ambitious women leaving fewer women to go into economics and engineering.

    Now, I’m NOT saying that biology is responsible for all of these differences in preferences (though it is probably responsible for some). I’m NOT saying that there is never bias. I’m NOT saying that we can’t ever improve the gender balance in these fields. But I don’t think the gender balance will ever be equal in every field nor do I think we should be too worried about that fact.


    Afraid of Judgment

    February 6, 2009 at 4:28 pm

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