A recent New York Times piece highlighted the problems women continue to face in the economics profession. The article in question discusses the harassment experienced by female economists and touches on several related issues like the low number of women PhD economists (especially at senior ranks).
This is hardly news to any of us in the dismal science. There have long been articles, both in the popular press and academia, about the underrepresentation of women and the challenges they face. Recently there was a particularly upsetting piece on the horrific language used by budding PhDs to describe their female colleagues. It makes for very depressing reading.
The real question, of course, is why economics is so (white) male-dominated? A number of hypotheses have been forwarded, including…
- Women don’t like math: Economics is relatively math-heavy and for many years that’s been the excuse for the lack of female representation. But, while that might have been defensible twenty years ago, the relative success of the STEM fields suggest that this is no longer true. Today, for example, 56% of PhDs in STEM fields go to women, but it is still < 33% in economics.
- Women are scared away by low grades: It has been argued, too, that women in intro econ classes—accustomed to earning As in high school—are frightened off by the fact that a good grade might be a B or even a C. But, again, this is equally true in STEM fields.
- Lack of female role models: Again, STEM! They, too, had this problem, but were far more successful in overcoming it. There must be something else.
- Women are inherently less interested in economics: You probably think I’m going to say “STEM” again, but I’m not. I actually think this one is closer to hitting the mark. The problem, however, is not some quirk on the part of women (and minorities, by the way) in terms of their spheres of interest, but how irrelevant economics has become to them (or perhaps always was).
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Consider this. The core explanation of the determination of wages in the typical economics classroom centers on the idea that your salary equals some objective measure of your actual contribution (in econ talk, the wage rate is equal to the marginal product of labor). If you earn $5/hour, that’s sad but it’s what you deserve. And if women earn less than men even in the same profession, then that’s simply the objective, scientifically-valid judgement of “the market.”
Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker explained it thusly. For whatever reason (the “reason” is deemed to be relatively uninteresting by economists–figuring that out is what the soft sciences like sociology do), women tend to be more responsible for things like housework and child rearing. This is tiring work. Hence, women voluntarily choose less demanding—and lower-paying—jobs. Furthermore, even in the same job they will typically have less experience because they have been busy with housework. Both of those translate into justifiably lower wages. It’s a result of voluntary, conscious choices and free market processes.
To be fair, your econ instructor may then add some additional factors as perhaps being important. Maybe some people have a “taste for discrimination,” for example. Of course, over time this should go away, too, since the employers without such an irrational taste will hire better workers and outcompete the bigots. Yay for the market! Regardless of any addenda, however, the core theory one learns in most intro microeconomics classes is that your contribution determines your remuneration. Low remuneration? Low contribution.
Now stop and think about it: who among the members of an introductory-level economics class is this likely to attract? For whom is “you get what you deserve” likely to strike a chord? Women? People of color? White males? I’m sure I don’t have to answer that.
Of course, if economics’ explanation of the way the world works is accurate, then fair enough. But it’s not. Social and cultural factors are terribly important to economic outcomes and should not be outsourced to another discipline. Take as just one quick example recent work on the Mexican labor market, showing that wealth was highly correlated with skin color (three guesses who gets paid more!). This was after correcting for the fact that many of the indigenous (i.e., darker-skinned) people live in resource-poor regions. They found that “race is the single most important determinant of a Mexican citizen’s economic and educational attainment.” Not “an” important determinant, “the single most important determinant.”
Now imagine instead an intro econ class with the insights of that paper as the inspiration for the core theory that is laid out (rather than as something tacked on to “you earn what you deserve”). I suspect that you would get a very different audience. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of thing the Diversifying Economics web site suggests. You want women and minorities to major in econ, earn econ PhDs, and rise up the hierarchy of the economics discipline? Talk about things that matter to them (things that should matter to all of us).
This raises a related question: if economics tends not to discuss those issues more relevant to women and minorities, why not? First and foremost, it was (white) men who created modern economics. When they thought to themselves, “What are the important economic issues to be explained?” they quite naturally focused on those that affected them. I’m sure there was some outright sexism involved, too (“What men do is more important than what women do”), but it’s not strictly necessary to get the same outcome. What if no NFL statistics existed and we asked quarterbacks to come up with the most important ones? “Let’s see, ‘completion percentage,’ ‘touchdown passes,’ ‘passing yards,’” etc., etc.
Even the very concepts of modern economics–competition, exploit, and survival of the fittest–have what some economists have called a masculinist bias to them (Hewiston, G.J. (1999), Feminist Economics: Interrogating the Masculinity of Rational Economic Man, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar). Is there any logical reason why economics–the study of human provisioning–could not have included non-market activities and the role of cooperation in producing goods and services? Of course not. Furthermore, some have even suggested that economists’ fascination with mathematics (their physics envy) is a macho thing. “Look how clever I am, I can invert a matrix!” And lest you think there is something inherently leftist about any alternative to mainstream economics, bear in mind that Marx’s theories, too, have many of these same problems (see for example Hartmann, H. (1981), “The unhappy marriage of Marxism and Feminism,” in L. Sargent (ed.), Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, Boston, MA: South End Press, pp. 1–41.).
This is a very complex and deep-seated issue that deserves a far more nuanced and well-documented argument than I can possibly give in a blog post. But none of these are my ideas, anyway. MANY others have been writing on these issues for years. However, the economics discipline continues to be blind to the fact that its core theories, not some peculiarity of women (lack of math skills, fear of Bs, or scarcity of role models), is the primary problem.
Until that changes, which would then generate a genuine wave of diversity into our classrooms (both at the front and in the seats), I really doubt if any of the issues raised in the New York Times article can possibly be addressed.