Fraser Forum

The gender question in economics

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The Montreal newspaper La Presse—which isn’t actually a newspaper anymore but rather a newsscreen, since it comes out on weekdays only in a digital version—observed International Women’s Day by asking why there aren’t more women in economics. And it quoted the percentage of profs in Montreal’s university economics departments who are women—University of Montreal, 17 per cent; Concordia, 31 per cent; University of Quebec at Montreal, 18 per cent; and McGill, where I taught for 40 years, 15 per cent.

That 15 per cent for McGill represents six women in a department of 35. I’m proud to say that in six years as chair or acting chair of the department, I had a role in hiring two of the six—though in our department, like most, hiring is very much a group effort and whom to hire a group decision. On the other hand, I also had a role in the hiring of four men, so I helped improve our female/male ratio only marginally.

Why aren’t there more women in economics?

It’s a very good question that, in fact, economists have been debating for some time. Two quite thoughtful responses have been provided recently by Justin Wolfers, professor of economics at the University of Michigan and regular contributor to the New York Times, and by The Economist magazine, which routinely offers thoughtful responses to an astonishingly wide variety of questions.

An economist, male or female, is bound to break the problem down into demand and supply. Are (generally predominantly male) economics departments not demanding female colleagues? Or are females not supplying themselves to the profession, and if not, why not? Could the lack of supply be partly because women think they won’t be demanded?

Wolfers notes that although female enrolments in many fields have been increasing steadily, to the point where women are now the majority in many undergraduate programs, in economics in the United States, female enrolments have been stalled at around 35 per cent since the early 1980s. Not every undergraduate goes on to get a PhD and teach in a university economics department, of course, but without a greater flow coming out of the undergraduate pipeline, a 50 per cent female share of PhDs and eventual profs doesn’t seem likely.

So why has female enrolment in economics stalled? Is it the subject itself, which even economists recognize is often a little peculiar, with its (until recently) overriding emphasis on rationality and math? Is that peculiarity inherent to economics? Or is the problem the way the subject is currently done by men? Are university departments and their usually majority male teaching staffs not sufficiently welcoming to women? We certainly don’t provide an abundance of role models—though other subjects where women are now a majority of undergraduates also don’t yet have a majority of female professors.

As a male who spent his career in a majority male department I’m probably not the most helpful witness on this subject. So I’ll just say two more things. First, I don’t actually recall comments or acts of outright sexism in my years at McGill, though admittedly my memory of events from four decades ago is a little dim and, as a more or less typical male, I may not have been sufficiently sensitive to such things. That we engaged in more subtle forms of sexism is entirely possible. It’s only in recent years, for instance, that at the “hiring zoo” at the annual meetings of the American Economic Association, we have as a matter of policy done our interviews in a hotel suite, rather than a hotel room, so that female candidates don’t have to talk to the largely male hiring committee in a room with a bed. (In fact, though inadvertent, maybe that sexism wasn’t so subtle.)

But, second, these days most economics departments I’m familiar with are actually eager to hire female colleagues. There’s a political payoff to doing so within the university, as universities themselves are eager to increase the proportion of female profs, and often now impose pro-active hiring procedures, such as compulsory short-listing of women, though not yet outright hiring quotas.

Beyond that, many male profs—even male econ profs—are feminists themselves and are at least as committed as, say, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. These are universities we’re talking about, after all. Economics departments are usually more conservative on a wide range of matters than other departments, but they’re still made up of university profs. Given strong demand, why aren’t more women being hired? One problem we face is precisely that female candidates from good schools with strong research agendas are in very high demand. Departments make offers but often get turned down. Given those market conditions, however, it’s important we not reject less-than-stellar female candidates while hiring less-than-stellar males.

Which brings us back to the problem of getting more women into undergraduate economics. As non-economists we meet often learn to their dismay, we economists are proselytizers for our way of thinking. We want everybody to love economics. In that regard, we really don’t need to be persuaded that inclusiveness is a good thing.  


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