'Sobering' gender and racial gaps in economics are hurting everyone

Federal reserveFlickr / Federal ReserveMembers of the Federal Reserve Board in 1917

The world of economics is especially male and white, even for America’s patriarchal standards, according to a new study, which suggest this trend harms society as a whole given the elevated role economists play in policymaking decisions.

Just wander into any economics or finance conference and the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming — women and minorities are few and far between. But new research offers astounding detail as to how rampant discrimination remains among academic economists.

“The economics profession includes disproportionately few women and members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups, relative both to the overall population and to other academic disciplines,” according to the new paper by

Amanda Bayer and Cecilia Elena Rouse, professors of economics at Swarthmore College and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, respectively.

The mistreatment of women in economics came to the fore recently after another research paper looked into an economics job forum message board and found widespread use of repulsive and aggressive language toward women. That work was an award-winning senior college thesis by Alice Wu, who is starting her doctorate at Harvard next year.

As University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers recounts, “the 30 words most uniquely associated with discussions of women make for uncomfortable reading.

“In order, that list is: hotter, lesbian, bb (internet speak for ‘baby’), sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated and prostitute.

“The parallel list of words associated with discussions about men reveals no similarly singular or hostile theme. It includes words that are relevant to economics, such as adviser, Austrian (a school of thought in economics) mathematician, pricing, textbook and Wharton,” Wolfers writes in the New York Times.

A separate survey from the American Economics Association has found that less than 15% of full professors in US economics departments are women.

Janet Yellen made history in 2014, when she became the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve after more than 100 years of the central bank’s existence.

“This underrepresentation within the field of economics is present at the undergraduate level, continues into the ranks of the academy, and is barely improving over time,” Bayer and Rouse write. “It likely hampers the discipline, constraining the range of issues addressed and limiting our collective ability to understand familiar issues from new and innovative perspectives.”

In an interview published by the AEA, Bayer said “gender was not really a big part of my identity before being surrounded by economists — finding myself as the only, or one of only a few, women in the room. And that alone does not bother me. I don’t mind being different. But when it started to affect my productivity, that I did mind.”

She also said there a “huge misconception” that it’s economics’ heavy emphasis on maths that’s keeping women away.

“That’s actually not the situation. About 45% of maths majors at the undergraduate level are women. So, women major in maths at a higher rate than they do in economics.”

“Implicit attitudes and institutional practices may be contributing to the underrepresentation of women and minorities at all stages of the pipeline, calling for new types of research and initiatives to attack the problem,” the authors conclude in the paper.

The gender gaps in tenure and promotion rates are much wider in economics than in the social sciences overall, the paper says. It cites another report that finds a 20% gender gap in achieving tenure and a 50% gap in promotion to full professor among economists compared to 12% and 25%, respectively, in the social sciences overall.

“More sobering, economics boasts the largest (or only) gender gaps in tenure rates, salaries, and job satisfaction compared to other maths-intensive fields,” Bayer and Rouse write.

“Minority academic economists are even rarer. While about 30% of the US population is black or Hispanic, only 6.3% of tenured and tenure-track economics faculty is identified as such.”

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