July 2019 newsletter: Women leaders in economics

16 Jul 2019

The theme of this year’s RES women’s committee Conference Special Session was ‘Women Leaders in Economics’. It was chosen in part to mark Rachel Griffith becoming only the second female RES president in the Society’s 120 year history (and the first for forty years). It also seemed appropriate when there is an unprecedented number of women economists occupying positions at the very highest levels, nationally and internationally.  Sarah Smith, Chair of the RES Women’s Committee, reports on the discussion.

The unprecedented number of women economists in senior positions struck home when I started putting together a photo montage of women leaders in economics ahead of the Conference session. The search for Mark Carney’s successor at the Bank of England has sparked another round of ‘where are all the senior female economists and women in finance?’. In reality, many are already in charge of public and private sector institutions — Gita Gopinath (chief economist, IMF), Penny Goldberg (chief economist, World Bank), Sam Beckett and Claire Lombardi (joint heads, Government Economic Service), Laurence Boone (chief economist, OECD), Beata Javorcik (chief economist, EBRD), three Fed Board Presidents (Mary Daly, Esther George, Loretta Mester), Janet Henry (chief economist, HSBC) and Catherine Mann (chief economist, Citigroup). And I am sure I have missed many more.

Economics is still a long way from gender parity. At this year's AEA Conference, Betsey Stevenson chaired a panel discussion on ‘How can economics solve its gender problem’ with Susan Athey, Marianne Bertrand, Janet Yellen and Sebnem Kalemli-Özcan.  The fact that economics has a gender problem was not disputed; instead the discussion focused on what caused the problem — and what to do about it. Aggressive seminars and a competitive environment were seen as key factors, also a widespread scepticism of discrimination (‘discrimination would be competed away’, Susan Athey was told). Preliminary results from the AEA’s climate survey published in March revealed widespread experiences of discrimination and harassment by female economists.  Studies by Heather Sarsons and Erin Hengel  have provided detailed insights into how female economists are treated differently — and more harshly — than their male counterparts in promotion and publication processes. Recognising and discussing these issues openly in this way is a hugely important first step towards tackling the problem.  

Most of the debate on economics’ gender problem has been US-focused. We have less evidence for the UK, but the status of women in academic economics in the UK is very similar to that in the US. In 2016, women made up 14 per cent of economics professors in the UK (compared to 14 per cent in the US); 24 per cent of associate professors/ senior lecturers/ readers (24 per cent in the US) and 34 per cent of lecturers (28 per cent in the US). Most worryingly for the future, we are singularly failing as a discipline to appeal to a diverse range of students. Only one-third of economics undergraduate students are female, and students from private schools are heavily over-represented.

When the RES published its new strategy last year, promoting greater diversity was one its four objectives. Since then, the RES executive committee has published a draft code of conduct for consultation and is planning its own survey in order to get a clearer picture of professional conduct and culture in UK economics. The RES women’s committee ran a mentoring scheme for junior academic economists at the start of this year’s RES conference — offering advice and support to 27 PhD students, post docs and lecturers. The RES also launched ‘Discover Economics’ offering funding and support to academics at eight universities to organise outreach events for state-school, female and BAME students.

Promoting a more diverse image of economics is crucial for attracting currently under-represented groups of students. Ask students what economics is about and they will say it is about money; Ask them to describe an economist and they will tell you it’s a man in a suit crunching numbers. Changing perceptions of economics — and economists — is key to tackling economics’ diversity (and gender) problems in the longer run.  For this reason, it was great to see that one of last year’s box office hits, Crazy Rich Asians, featured an economics professor (into game theory) as its female romantic lead. Rachel Chu takes us a long way from the image of a man in a suit crunching numbers and, together with the non-fictional women leaders in economics, helps to promote a different — and more positive — image of economics. As much as we have to acknowledge and tackle the gender and diversity problems that remain, we should also shout as loudly as we can about the women who are leading the way.