Missing women in economics: A more inclusive classroom

By Homa Zarghamee, Barnard College and CORE USA | 22 September 2017

In a recent Conversation piece, Wendy Carlin, Samuel Bowles and I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to estimate that there are as many as 300,000 women missing from undergraduate economics study in the US. In a previous blog post, I outlined some of the explanations for the under-representation of women in economics, including the importance and paucity of female role models, the misalignment of economics course content with what attracts women to the field, stereotype threat, and women’s greater feedback-elasticity.

But while we wait for stereotypes to change and for the number of female role models to increase, those of us who are economics instructors can do plenty to promote gender inclusivity in the classroom today:

1. Start with social issues and use theory as a tool

Women are more attracted to applied economics and less to pure theory than men. Many traditional introductory texts start each chapter with a real-world economic phenomenon as motivation, but then fairly quickly turn to theory models, often without returning to the motivating example. Further, standard introductory courses don’t mention the important social dilemmas of our times like income and wealth inequality and climate change – the very topics that are bringing socially-minded students into the economics classroom; they often show up at the very end of standard textbooks.

This de-humanisation of economics hits women particularly hard. It’s not that theory doesn’t matter to women or that they can’t handle it. Data from all 2008 incoming UK undergraduates showed that, conditional on applying to economics programs, women performed better on economics A-levels (the UK equivalent of the US Economics AP exam). Women are attracted to economics as a social science, yet the social dimension is often de-emphasised in the classroom.

Theory is a tool to understand economic phenomena, so present a phenomenon of interest and use it as the example through which theory is introduced. You’ll find that the more socially and historically contextualised the material is, the more rigorous the theory you can successfully introduce. My Barnard colleague Rajiv Sethi and I just taught the model of production-technology choice and isocosts (Unit 2 of CORE) in the second week of an introductory course. And the students were riveted because it was prefaced as an explanation for the Industrial Revolution and escaping the Malthusian Trap – a story rife with 19th century textile workers, coal prices, colonial expansion, discussions of the limits of technological progress, and current fears of robots replacing human labour…not just abstract Ks and Ls, with technology captured by f() and nothing more.

2. Incorporate behavioural and experimental economics

Female economics students are interested in psychology, and many of those that end up majoring in economics considered majoring in psychology first. Luckily, it is quite easy to incorporate insights from behavioural and experimental economics into introductory courses. Often, these insights are beneficial to all students – not just to those interested in psychology – because they focus students’ attention closely to the assumptions made in economic models, and give them an appreciation of the relationship between assumptions and predicted outcomes. When introducing the assumption of rationality, it is easy and impactful to engage students with questions that will likely lead them to violate these assumptions. For example, ask who would prefer $10 today to $11 tomorrow; then ask who would prefer $10 a year from today to $11 a year from tomorrow – many students will prefer $10 today and $11 in a year. Or ask students if they tend to do their grocery shopping differently when they’re hungry versus when they’re full, or if they ever procrastinate studying or doing their work. These can lead to intriguing discussions of projection bias and the psychology of intertemporal discounting.

More involved experiments can be even more illustrative. CORE’s teaching resources include the materials for various in-class experiments, including a public goods game that can be used to discuss varieties of motivation other than selfishness. Another great resource is Veconlab, which has a thorough set of experiments to have students participate in online and includes the real-time generation of outcome plots and graphs. Asset-market experiments illustrate the bubbles for students of Unit 11 and how easy bubbles can be to get caught up in even when they are anticipated.

3. Don’t assume your treatment of students is unbiased!

I highly recommend the list of best practices for instructors and departments at Amanda Bayer’s Diversifying Economics wiki. In it, she provides recommendations and links to the research the recommendations are based on. I will bring to your attention a few highlights about inclusive communication.

  • Seemingly harmless language like calling women ‘girls’ has been shown to discourage women in the classroom and lead to a perception of being taken less seriously.
  • Do not call on the first hand raised. This is often going to dissuade students – often women – who already feel out of place in an economics classroom. It also reinforces the unhelpful idea that academic success is determined by innate talent and cannot be cultivated. In fact, research has shown that the optimal time to wait after asking a question (in terms of generating better responses and improving subsequent test scores) is three seconds. On average, professors only wait a quarter to a half that amount of time, and often even less for female students.
  • Use a randomisation device to call on students. This can correct for any implicit biases you’re not even aware of, or for gender differences in volunteered answers.

4. Highlight the achievements of female economists

In her short list of proposed interventions at Undergraduate Women in Economics, Claudia Goldin suggests ways to improve mentoring for students in ways that would be helpful for women. One is to highlight how alumni apply economics in their jobs.

An additional approach might be to point out the work done by female economists as it comes up in class. Many of the ‘Economist in action’ videos highlight research by female economists, as do some of the great economists.


We will be continuing to research this issue throughout 2017-18. If you are interested in helping CORE’s ‘Missing Women in Economics’ project, or want to share your experience, please contact us, with the subject line ‘Missing women’, and we will get back to you.