Seeking: Female Economists

What are the causes, effects, and possible ways of curtailing the gender disparity in economics?

By Mithul Roy

Professor Esther Duflo’s recent Nobel Prize win for Economics has brought renewed attention to the jarring gender imbalance in the field. MIT’s Professor Duflo is only the second woman to win the prestigious award amongst 84 laureates in its fifty year history and the only living female Nobel laureate in Economics. Her win brings the percentage of female Nobel laureates to 2.38% of all winners and raises many questions about the challenges faced by women in the field.

The gender disparity in the profession starts early in one’s academic career, with male undergraduate economics majors outnumbering women two to one in the top 100 US universities, a ratio that has not improved in the past several years. In comparison, women make up over 56% of the undergraduate student body across all disciplines, a number that drops to about one-third in Economics. The gender gap only widens at the post graduate level, with two males for every female PhD, three males for every female assistant professor and associate professor, and six males for every female full professor. While the percentage of female full professors in PhD-granting departments has more than doubled from 6% to 14% across a 20-year period, there is still a long way to go; Harvard’s 43 senior economics faculty members only feature 3 women, two of whom have tenure.


This disparity perpetuates the problem; with largely male-centric language in textbooks, fewer female professors, and less exposure to female economists, young female undergraduates are less likely to opt into the field. Studies have shown that having more women on the faculty encourages women to pursue postgraduate positions in the subject. However, this may be the very root of the problem. According to the IDEAS/RePEc ranking of more than 50 thousand economists in the world, only 19% of registered economists are women, a number that drops further amongst the top ranked economists.The biased representations of fictional female characters and the underrepresentation of female business leaders, entrepreneurs and policymakers in Economics textbooks also accounts for the lack of female role models seen by undergrads. As such, it is important to emphasize classroom-to-real-world when teaching, which may have greater appeal for female undergraduates than abstract models. 

One reason for the gender gap in economics has been attributed to the higher drop-out rate of female undergraduates in the discipline. According to a 2006 study, women begin introductory courses more sceptical towards economics than their male classmates. The skepticism gap increased as the course progressed despite no differences in their aptitude in the subject. The emphasis on mathematics has also been suggested as a possible reason for women’s disinclination towards the subject. However, research on why women at Harvard disproportionately gave up economics after introductory courses found a weak correlation between mathematical aptitude and drop-out rates. Additionally, a 2015 British study could only attribute a sixth of the gender gap in applications to differences in math qualifications. Furthermore, the gender disparity is smaller in mathematics than in economics, despite women of equal mathematical ability usually rating their ability lower than their male peers. 

There seem to be other causes driving these drop-out rates. Studies have shown that women receiving below an A- in introductory economics courses were significantly less likely to major in the subject than those receiving higher grades. Their male peers, however, were far less likely to be dissuaded from pursuing the subject due to lower grades. Since economics is a rigorous and harshly graded subject, this is an important factor in exacerbating the problem, and one that needs to be addressed by a transformation in teaching methods rather than post-graduation incentives. Although female economics graduates earn more on average than creative arts graduates, and are more likely than any other major to lead an S&P 500 company post graduation, this has not incentivized women to continue with the subject. Considering women place less weight than men on financial return when choosing their area of study, other measures must be used to entice women to pursue the major, such as discussing the practical implementations of the subject.

Women face several additional hurdles in the field. An American Economic Association survey, composed of 9,000 responses from current and former members, found that only 25% of female survey respondents felt they were valued in the field of economics compared to 47% of their male counterparts. Merely 20% of women said that they were satisfied with the professional climate, as opposed to 40% of men. A troubling 48% of females said they have faced discrimination at work because of their sex, while a mere 3% of male respondents related to this concern.Women also felt less valued at their institutions and places of employment, and 69% felt their work was not taken as seriously as that of their colleagues (compared to 43% of their male counterparts). In addition, the survey reported that women economists were considerably more likely to be discriminated against based on marital status/caregiving responsibilities, age, place of employment, and research topics. They were also much more likely to report having experienced discrimination or unfair treatment as students in terms of access to research assistantships, advisors, quality advising, and to the job market.

The field of Economics is also dealing with pervasive sexual harassment. The AEA survey found that over the past ten years, 23% of female respondents reported that a colleague or peer had made unwanted attempts to establish a romantic or sexual relationship despite their best efforts to discourage it. 6% of female respondents reported attempted sexual assaults and 2% reported having been sexually assaulted while 13% reported other forms of touching that made them uncomfortable. A disturbing 43% of female economists reported that a colleague had displayed “inappropriate sexual or suggestive materials,” and made offensive remarks or gestures of a sexual nature. Clearly, there is a need for workplace behavioural guidelines and expectations to be implemented across the profession.

A number of obstacles also arise for women when it comes to getting published. One of which is that women find it harder to find co-authors. In 2015, Harvard researcher Heather Sarsons found that an additional co-authored paper on an economist’s resume correlated to an 8% increase in the probability of a male economist getting a tenured post compared to a 2% increase for female candidates. Interestingly, the gap decreased substantially if women co-authored papers with other women, although Sarsons found that women were 17 percentage points less likely to get tenure than men with similar publication records. Another study by Erin Hengel suggested that female economists’ papers took six months longer to peer review in top journals. This held true even after controlling for motherhood and childbirth as well as the researcher’s number of citations in the field. Hengel also found women authors to be held to higher standards, affecting the quantity of work they were able to produce. Their papers as a result had better readability pre- and post-publication and their writing improved more over time, while the men’s did not, with the average readability gap between genders growing 12% between their first and third papers. 


The overarching problem seems to be implicit bias in the peer review system. According to research by Mohsin Javdani, 82% of surveyed economists were of the opinion that content, not authorship should be focused on when evaluating a statement. This was in stark contrast to the actual bias exhibited towards female economists’ writing. A study of the top 30 American universities found that research papers by men in the field were published in more prestigious journals, with no statistical difference in the total publication count between genders. Another reason for the need for the push to improve gender diversity in economics is that more female economists in the field would lower the extent of the bias; female economists were 40 per cent less likely to be swayed by author names than their male colleagues.

An added reason for the gender bias in publishing could be that the alphabetical listing of co-authors of economics papers provides no scope for understanding the contributions of each co-author, and can feed into implicit bias towards women being perceived to have contributed less. One way to grapple with this problem is to have explicit descriptions of each author’s contribution to co-authored papers and to list the lead author first, a practise that is the norm in several other disciplines. Heather Sarsons notes that researchers in sociology face no co-authorship penalty as the lead author is listed first in papers. The male-dominated journal system with disproportionate concentration of female researchers, editors, and reviewers could be the driving force behind the persistent implicit gender bias in research publication and reviewing. To combat this, top publications and Journals like the American Economic Review, Quarterly Journal of Economics and Journal of Political Economy, should also try to hire more female editors and reviewers. These editors and reviewers should be already tenured, so as not to draw younger women away from their own research.

Additionally, women also tend to specialise in people-oriented fields within Economics (such as labor, education, health, and industrial organization) or like Professor Duflo, in development economics and less so to macro, econometrics, and finance than their male counterparts. This has raised concern from French economist Emmanuelle Auriol on whether the higher percentage of female economists in these sub-disciplines may cause the predominantly male journal reviewers, who are likely less familiar with such fields, to subconsciously consider these specialties less important. On the flip side, having too few female economists may mean that we are losing out on potential breakthroughs in these fields which can have broader implications on public policy determination. 

Discrimination against women in Economics manifests in various ways in teaching. Studies show that when women get tenured faculty jobs in economics, they get paid less than their male colleagues. Such discrimination may further dissuade women from remaining in the field in the long-term. Women are also more likely to be given teaching and un-promotable administrative duties at the cost of research time, which makes it more difficult to progress in the field. Even students have been found to rate online teachers more highly on their evaluations when they use male names than female names, regardless of the actual gender. The lack of formal hierarchies in the day-to-day job and lack of objective evaluation criteria further allows this discrimination to persist and effects tenure attainability. Despite female graduates in Economics going into and dropping out of PhD programmes at roughly the same rate as men, once they begin seeking tenure, women are harder to retain. Although it may be a conscious decision on their part to pursue other career paths, they might also be forced to leave due to difficulties in progressing in the field. 

The biological clock may also be a reason for the gender gap in teaching. Like most of academia, Economics is a profession where the only movements are either up or out. The expectation after an undergraduate degree is to spend a couple of years as a research assistant and then to pursue a PhD, which can take upwards of four years. As a result, many women who are on the same track as their partner and who want to have a family may often take a step back and become adjunct professors. The competition between the tenure clock and the biological clock leads to women having to make trade-offs and to fewer female full-professors in the field. Family leave policies also tend to favor men in academia; Although american academics usually have the choice of pausing their tenure clock when they have a child, female economists often use the extra time for child care while the men often use it for focused research unperturbed by teaching. This contributes to a 22 percentage point lower chance of getting tenure in a first job for women. Research by Donna Ginther shows that women have a 12 percentage point lower chance of obtaining tenure than men. The observation holds even after controlling for differences in family circumstances and publication record. Even after attaining tenure, disparity remains; in American universities the promotion rate between tenure and full professor within seven years is 29% for women compared to 56% for men. 

Though these issues persist in STEM as well, they are exacerbated in economics. While women in STEM have long faced a similar gender disparity, the percentage of STEM PhDs amounts to 56%, as opposed to below 33% in Economics. Prompt attention needs to be paid to the issue and for it to be brought to the forefront of conversation much like it has been for STEM. In most fields, including STEM, professors have up to three postdoctorates so that by the time they become an assistant professor, they already have children. This pushes tenure later in their life. Whereas in economics, postdocs are typically just one year, speeding up the race to balance pursuing tenure and a family. Although research by Ms.Ginther shows a significant and widening gap between the satisfaction reported by men and women with tenure or on the tenure track, she found no such gap in STEM fields. And unlike STEM, data from recent years shows a worrying lack of progress. 

The gender gap in economics also has larger ramifications for society as a whole; According to research from the World Economic Forum, higher female representation has been found to be associated with increased levels of central bank independence, lower inflation, and lower intervention of the central bank in both banking and financial sector supervision. A study by May, McGarvey and Whaples of US economists found that male and female economists differ significantly in their approach to the fields of health, labour markets, taxation, environment, and government spending on welfare or military. In 2013, a survey of American economists found that men were more sceptical of regulation and high minimum wages, and less likely to favour redistribution, relative to their female colleagues. Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen has argued that a lack of diversity in economics may have contributed to the financial crisis because of the resultant homogeneity of thinking and way of viewing the economy, which allowed for blind spots and warning signs to be missed.

In order to tackle the problem of underrepresentation of women in economics and to make the discipline more welcoming towards women, there needs to be a shift in the culture surrounding the profession. Not everyone is convinced such a problem even exists. According to a 2014 study, more than 75% of men believed the profession favoured neither gender or favoured women while more than half of female economists believed the profession is favored men. The first step in dealing with the issue therefore is acknowledging the problem itself, and especially by male economists. Given its past track record, waiting for the problem to correct itself, which is unlikely to occur, should be substituted for active intervention to address the structural barriers faced by women in the field.

Rectifying the problem on an undergraduate level is an essential step to fixing the leaky pipeline that has contributed to widening disparity at the top. Exposing high-school students to the subject and the wide variety of career paths it offers could attract more women to pursue it at the undergraduate level. Initiatives like Harvard’s Undergraduate Women in Economics (UWE) Challenge attempt to support and encourage women interested in the subject to consider it as a major by providing career counseling, mentoring and information. Other universities, such as Chapel Hill hold Women in Economics club meetings to connect students with professors, future mentors, and speakers in the field. The Australian, UK and US central banks also have initiatives aimed at encouraging women to pursue the subject. Such initiatives, as well as the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, provide mentorship opportunities and help foster community support of women. Similar efforts could be replicated across campuses and professional institutions to recruit more women into the field.

Widespread reforms in the work environment could go a long way in encouraging women to remain in the field. Restructuring family leave policies so that they do not disadvantage women is one of them. Another is the redesigning economics seminars to be more equitable to all. A study by Alicia Modestino also found that female speakers at economics seminars had a greater share of their seminar time occupied by audience members, and were more frequently subjected to hostile questions. Startlingly, the Centre for Global Development found that male attendance at seminars run by female professors shrank drastically whenever gender was mentioned in the seminar topic. In addition, the AEA study found that 46% of women had not asked a question or presented an idea at conferences for fear of being treated unfairly (compared to 18% of men), suggesting that there needs to be an overhaul of seminar structures to create comfortable learning environments for all.

With only two female presidents in its 133 year history, the American Economic Association (AEA) has recently made conscious efforts to address some of the challenges faced by women in the field by establishing a guideline for industry best practices. These include the decision to no longer host job interviews in hotel rooms beginning at its 2020 annual conference. Other changes include an official code of professional conduct and formal policy on harassment and discrimination, and revocation of membership and other sanctions for members who violate policy. The association has also set up a new committee charged with finding ways to improve the professional climate and has designated an online “safe space” dedicated to the discussion of job market issues. AEA has also designated a new ombudsman to record complaints of discrimination and harassment, advise individuals seeking relief, and help the association further develop anti-discrimination policy.

Simultaneously, although the Federal Reserve too has only had seven female presidents of any of its 12 banks in its 105 year history, the institution has been making strides in promoting the advancement of women in the profession. Following the financial crisis, a clause in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 mandated the establishment of offices for minority and women inclusion in all of the Federal Reserve banks and that each of them supervise its workforce and supplier diversity. Between 2013 and 2019, the percentage of female board of directors grew from 26% to 38%. There have been further legislative calls for more diversity in Fed presidents; In January 2019, Representative Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) introduced a bill calling for at least one racially, ethnically or gender-diverse candidate to be interviewed for all presidential vacancies at Federal Reserve banks. Subsequently, Senator Kamala Harris introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

The problem of the absence of equal participation by women in economics matters not only in terms of an equity standpoint, but in ensuring that skewed viewpoints do not lead to ineffective policy decisions. Discernible efforts from the highest levels of the economics profession such as the AEA and the Federal Reserve, as well as Esther Duflo’s Nobel win, are important steps in providing young female economists with role models. They are crucial in improving the work environment so that the profession is able to attract and retain top female talent who have historically been held back from opportunities and pushed out of the field. The question remains, are these steps enough? □

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