Missing women in economics: A new research project for CORE

By Homa Zarghamee, Barnard College and CORE USA | 21 September 2017

Recently many people have supplied opinions about the problem of “missing women” in economics – including Wendy Carlin, Sam Bowles from CORE’s steering group and myself. We recently published an article at The Conversation in which we calculate that the gender imbalance in economics means that roughly 300,000 women in the US alone are missing from the classrooms in which economics is taught, because less than 30% of undergraduate economics majors are women.

We can only guess what they might have contributed to our subject. To put this 30% figure into context:

  • Women are the majority of undergraduates (57%), so even a 50-50 split would under-represent women. The same pattern persists at the doctoral level, with women earning the majority of PhDs (52%) but only 35% of economics PhDs.
  • Countries like China and India that don’t have a comparable gender gap in economics education. For example, in India – a country far behind the US on most metrics of gender equality – women are over-represented in economics PhD programs: 45% of economics PhD students are women, while women are only 41% of all PhD students.
  • 30% is lower than the corresponding proportion for business (45%), mathematics and statistics (42%) and for all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) majors combined (39%).
  • During the same period of time that women’s proportion of undergraduate economics has been stuck at 30%, the proportion of female undergraduates in earth science has gone from 25% to 40%.

How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

A vicious circle

Social norms that go back a long time may dictate who studies what. For example, females are over-represented in health and education partly because, for a long time, the only acceptable forms of female employment in western countries were nursing and teaching.  This creates stereotypes about what women are fit to do, which may be internalized. This leads to ‘stereotype threat’ – heightened anxiety task-performance by individuals of a group that is believed to be underqualified at that task. This occurs even when individuals do not believe the stereotype is true or that it applies to them. 

This becomes a vicious circle, diminishing the proportion of women in economics. There are fewer of the same-sex mentors and role models who are vital for the success of women in male-dominated fields. We know that female STEM undergraduates who meet or read about a female expert in their field have higher self-concept and interest in pursuing careers in STEM.  Female math stars perform better on math tests proctored by women. Economics graduate programs with more female faculty have fewer female dropouts and faster female matriculation.

Sensitivity to feedback

Using 2009-2011 data from an elite liberal arts college (at which students can choose a variety of courses before settling on a major), Claudia Goldin found that a woman’s probability of taking a second course in economics is directly proportional to her final grade in introductory economics; astonishingly, no such relationship holds for men.

A 2005 survey of economics PhD students in seven top US universities found that female students were much more likely than men to have chosen to get a graduate degree in economics for ‘external’ reasons – they got into a good school, got good grades in undergraduate courses, or advice from undergraduate teachers. It’s as though men and women are starting with different null hypotheses: women assume they don’t belong in economics, and they only change their minds if they receive overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Rejecting theory bootcamp

We also know that men and women are studying economics for different reasons. The liberal arts college that Claudia Goldin studied asks incoming students to indicate the top three fields they are considering. She looked at eventual economics majors who hadn’t considered economics when they enrolled, men and women were equally likely to indicate government, but men were much more likely to indicate engineering, and women were much more likely to indicate psychology.

The distinction persists. The female PhD students in the 2005 study were more interested in policy and research published in applied journals, and had much lower interest in the contents of pure theory journals. Perhaps the amount of theory in economics teaching leads more women to regret their choice. Asked if they would choose to do an economics degree again 83% of the men, but only 60% of the women, said they would.

A 2007 survey of members of the American Economics Association found that female economists are more skeptical of market solutions, supportive of government intervention in markets, in favour of income redistribution, and concerned about gender inequities in the US labor market and within the profession. This particularly striking given that the women in this sample are ones who didn’t give up, and were working in the same institutions as the men.

How do we close the gap?

It’s one thing to diagnose the problem, but we want to do something to fix it. We believe that CORE can, and should, lead the way. In 2017-2018 we will be running a program called Missing women in economics. Our goal is to make economics education a more attractive option for female students, from school onwards. We will be investigating:

  • Breaking the vicious circle We will be doing our own evaluation of the numbers and the opinions of female students so that we can understand better their experience of economics education: their choices, what they like and don’t like about the subject, how they would prefer the subject to be taught. You might have already seen our blog ‘Inclusion and engagement in high school economics’ by Leith Thompson. Expect much more on this topic.
  • Are CORE courses inclusive? This is not just a gender issue. Are our examples diverse enough? Are there too many white men in our great economists and Economist in action videos?
  • Positive feedback We want female students and teachers to celebrate their own achievements, through this site and our conferences and workshops, and we want to pass on our positive experiences too. Please contact us if you have a story to tell, and we hope to provide a platform.
  • Representing all motivations We have tried to balance theory with applications, and to bring the real world into the classroom, because we believe it makes better economists. We’ll be looking for ways to take this further.

As a first step, I can recommend some ways to make teaching more inclusive, based on my research, which we will publish in the next blog.


If you are interested in helping, or want to share your experience, please contact us, with the subject line ‘Missing women’, and we will get back to you.