A Female Economist? That’s Hard!

By: Buyi Wang

Study shows that women have been struggling in the field of economics.

Sarah is a student at a prestigious university. Having finished freshman year, she now starts to reflect on the subject she should major in. She loves economics and would like to pursue an academic career in it. However, as she stares at the male-dominated economic faculty page, she hesitates a little bit. Unfortunately, Sarah’s concern is not unreasonable. Women indeed have been struggling to succeed in the field of economics.

It’s no secret that female economists are rare. “According to information from university websites, about 20% of Europe’s senior economists are women. In America, 15% of full professors are women”1. Nevertheless, being the minority isn’t the only issue. On the undergraduate level, economics is less appealing to female students. Scholars at the American Economic Association discovered that  “the percentage of females at the undergraduate level in economics is well below the percentage of females in other social sciences, in business, in humanities and even below the percentage females in STEM fields”2. Moreover, female students are more likely to stop pursuing economics after introductory level courses. Professionally, female economists have  difficulties getting a tenure. “Women economists are 21 percentage points less likely to have a tenured academic job ”3  for 10 years after finishing their PhD. It’s worth noticing that such trends aren’t displayed in other academic fields such as statistics, political science or life science. In another word, economics is an out-lier.

Therefore, one cannot help but wonder about the factors negatively influencing the success of women in economics.

The fact that economics is and is presented as male-dominated might have discouraged female students from entering at the first place. In real life, economists are mainly male. The only female economists people can think of might be Janet Yellen of the Fed and Christine Lagarde of the IMF. Not to mention that out of all the winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics, only one is female. In textbooks, men dominate as well. A group of researchers have recently gone through eight major textbooks for introductory level economics, recording names mentioned in real-life examples and made-up exercises. They discovered that among the 2800 names mentioned, “a striking three-quarters were of men”4. The real problem is that this gender ratio doesn’t match with real life data. “For example, in America women owned 36% of businesses in 2012…In the books, however, just 6% of the real-world business leaders were female.”5 What’s worse is that in made-up scenarios, while men get to create important economic policies, women are associated with less prestigious fields of economics such as home economics. Such gender-biased textbooks are likely to give students the idea that economics isn’t a field for women to explore.

Once they decide to study economics and pursue an academic career, women face stricter standards when trying to get their articles published. For Econometrica, an influential academic journal, “average male-authored paper takes 18.5 months to complete all revisions; papers by women need more than half a year longer”6. Female economic professors also receive worse course evaluations. Even when students use the same textbook and receive the same grade, “the evaluations place female instructors an average of 37 slots below male ones.”7. Again, this would not be in women’s favor when they try to get a tenure.

Another potential factor that has catched scholars’ attention is the gender-neutral policy. Certain universities allow tenure-seeking academics to leave temporarily for the sake of child-care. Theoretically, this policy would reduce the pressure on female professionals. However , research finds that, “women’s chances of gaining tenure fell by 22 percentage points”8 after they have taken the leave to care for the baby. Men take the leave too, but see their chances of tenure rising. The reason? It turns out that women tend to have a larger share in child-caring. While women are fully occupied by the baby during the leave, men have relatively more time to continue their research and get published. This boosts their chances of receiving the tenure.

The fourth possible explanation might simply be that certain economic professionals are sexists. A recent research has studied conversations on Economics Job Market Rumors, a job-offering forum used by certain young economic professionals. The study reveals that when talking about a male economist, comments usually revolve around his career and professional skills. When evaluating a female economist, topics are more readily deviated to personal lives.  At the same time, female economists are more likely to be sexualized and the following words are only used when talking about a female professional: “hotter, lesbian, bb (internet speak for “baby”)…”9. Even Janet Yellen, one of the most powerful women in economics, has suffered from certain extent of sexism. When she was about to become chairman of the Fed, people worried that she lacks the “gravitas” to deal with the financial crisis and would be too soft-spoken, despite of the fact that Mrs Yellen has excellent backgrounds, has been at the Fed during the financial crisis and her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, is a soft-spoken chairman. Certain media outlets even as far as to hint at the idea that under Yellen’s leadership, the dollar would become “gender-backed”.

The under-representation of women could undermine the subject itself. Less diversity translates into narrowed view points. Research conducted at the American Economic Association reveals that male economists are more skeptical of government intervention. Also, “male economists express greater support than women economists for reducing tariffs and express greater opposition to linking trade openness to partners’ labor policies and greater opposition to mandating that employers provide health insurance”10 . A more diverse work-group would induce more discussion and better policies.

A good news is that action is on the way. On October 27th, 2017, the American Economic Association issued a statement, saying that it has created a committee to look at factors that decrease diversity within the profession. Having more female economists is not a political issue. It roots from the notion that diversity leads to more opinions which in turn creates more comprehensive policies that serve society better, especially in a field as important as economics.


  1. (2017, 19 Dec). Women and economics. The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21732699-professions-problem-women-could-be-problem-economics-itself-women-and
  2. Fleisher, C.,& Schoder, D. (2017, 8 Sep). The gender gap in economics. American Economic Association. Retrieved from https://www.aeaweb.org/research/gender-gap-economics-profession-interview-with-amanda-baye
  3. Ginther, D.,& Kahn, S. (2004). Women in Economics: Moving Up or Falling Off the Academic Career Ladder. Journal of Economic Perspectives, volume 18, number 3, page 193-214. Retrieved from https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/0895330042162386
  4. (2018, 17 Jan).How gender is (mis)represented in economics textbooks. The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2018/01/daily-chart-11
  5. Ibid
  6. Hengel, E. (2017 Dec). Publishing while female. Retrieved from http://www.erinhengel.com/research/publishing_female.pdf
  7. (2017, 21 Sep). Research suggests students are biased against female lecturers. The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21729426-how-long-does-prejudice-last-research-suggests-students-are-biased-against
  8. Wolfers, J. (2016, 24 Jun). A Family-friendly policy that’s friendliest to male professors. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/business/tenure-extension-policies-that-put-women-at-a-disadvantage.html?action=click&contentCollection=The%20Upshot&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article
  9. Wolfers, J. (2017, 18 Aug). Evidence of a toxic environment for women in economics. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/18/upshot/evidence-of-a-toxic-environment-for-women-in-economics.html
  10. May, A.,& Mcgarvey, M., & Whaples, R. (2013, 25 Feb). Are disagreements among male and female economists marginal at best?: a survey of aea members and their views on economics and economic policy. Contemporary Economic Policyvolume 32, issue 1, Pages 111-132. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/coep.12004/full
  11. Cover picture. https://www.executivegrapevine.com/uploads/articles/Why-women-in-finance-earn-less.jpg