Women academic economists in retreat?

Heather Joshi, the Chair of the RES Committee on Women in Economics, reports on its fourth survey on gender balance in UK university departments of economics.

The Society’s survey of gender balance in the economics departments of UK universities in 2002 has come up with an unexpected finding. The slow advance of women into employment in university economics in Britain, which has been charted in RES Biennial Surveys since 1996, has gone into reverse. Even if this is only a blip on a long march towards greater participation of the minority gender in this sector, it presents an unfavourable contrast of organizations such as the BBC, currently congratulating itself on having more that 50 per cent of its Board female.

The Survey, run for the RES Committee on Women in Economics by Jon Burton, ISER Essex, approached departments of economics, departments teaching economics in business and management schools and research units employing economists, all in British universities, about their staffing as of November 2002. 88 responses were received. Within them, the proportion of the full-time staff who were female was 19 per cent, down from 20 per cent in the similar survey in 2000. As shown in Figure 1, the falling proportion applies to almost all grades, especially fixed term lecturers. The proportion of economics professors who were women fell back from 7 to 6 percent (still about half the proportion of females among professors in all subjects across the University sector as a whole).

The picture of falling proportions of females is not an artefact of changing composition of responding departments in successive surveys. Figure 2 compares responses for the 51 departments who were in both 2000 and 2002 surveys, and hence measures change in the same institutions. The finding of falling female proportions is confirmed and more consistent.

The change can be accounted for partly by an influx of men to the hitherto relatively female preserve of fixed term lecturer contracts, perhaps reflecting a general ‘casualisation’ of the sector. Otherwise, the survey reveals, the drop is not due to a fall in the female share of new hires or promotions. Outflows from the sector is the main source of the change. Among standard (non-research) grades, the proportion of staff leaving between 2000 and 2002 who were female was higher that the proportion of staff joining in that period, and also higher than the proportion either leaving or joining between 1998 and 2000. These women leaving academic grades are concentrated among lecturers, permanent and fixed term. Are they retreating, or advancing on pastures new?

Although it may be tempting to leap to the conclusion that attrition of young women is to be expected, and explained, as part of their family-building biographies, I would suggest this may well be a mistake. Why should the phenomenon increase at a time when the birth rate has fallen? There is abundant evidence from other sources, including the Millennium Cohort Study of UK children born in 2000-1, that graduate mothers in the twenty-first century seldom interrupt their careers for more than maternity leave. It is therefore possible that the women economists who have disappeared from academic departments have found work in other sectors, such as the Government Economic Service, City, consultancy or local government. Both males and females may find better pay in these sectors, it is possible that women may be especially attracted by a more family-friendly employment regime in some of them, particularly the GES. Factors which may contribute to the academic sector not being ‘family friendly’ include the scarcity of part-time posts (most of which are held by double-jobbing men), the restriction of parental benefits in many universities to the statutory minimum, limited nursery places and the ‘long hours culture’ induced either by the competitive pressures of the RAE or our own intellectual commitment.

A detailed report of the survey’s findings is posted on the Women in Economics page of the RES website — www.res.org.uk/women — under Biennial Reports. It also contains details of the gender composition of postgraduate students (still around one third, but falling for PhDs and part-time masters ), and the composition of academic economic employment by ethnic group. Blacks are still under-represented.

These findings should be of concern to the Society as the under-representation of women, and some ethnic minorities, is likely to represent under-utilisation of skill and may suggest inequality of opportunity and poor human resource policies in universities. The relative lack of interest in economics shown by half the British population might also be something to consider in the Society’s debates about the public image/human face of economics.

The Committee would appreciate comments on the report and its interpretation as they plan a further publication and to propose new initiatives of data collection. Please send them, by: February 14, 2004 if possible to hj@cls.ioe.ac.uk

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