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  • Samin Sabah Islam

Why Are There So Few Women In Economics?

In her 2018 Talk with TEDxCambridgeUniversity, Soumaya Keynes sheds light on the pronounced gap between the number of female and male economists and explores certain ‘clues’ that might explain the reasons behind it. She explains how this is a historical issue that continues to this date. George Stigler, a Nobel Laureate American economist and professor at the University of Chicago once addressed his class saying he would quit the day a woman was hired in the faculty because it would be a representation of a drop in quality of teaching. This was in the 1980s. In 2017, Shelly Lundburg from the Committee on status of women in the Economics profession found that women accounted for merely 9% of the tenured professors in the top ten American economics departments.

Keynes offered a framework of three possible reasons behind this gap. Firstly, it could be a preference issue - that perhaps women didn’t quite enjoy economics as much as men did, or were ‘put off’ by the maths. A second reason could be that women fell behind due to men having greater productivity, in terms of the quality and rate at which they can publish journals. Lastly, it could be that there is discrimination against women in the field that hinders their excellence. Keynes then presented some ‘clues’ to provide further insight into the matter. The first is that women drop out at a greater rate than men and this imbalance worsens higher up the career path. This couldn’t be justified by any firm reasoning. Furthermore, Heather Sarsons of Harvard University researched on the productivity of men and women in the field to uncover the answers. It was revealed that women had to potentially publish more papers in the same time frame as men in order to get promoted. Moreover, it was also revealed that in co-authored papers, women received less credit because they were simply assumed to have contributed less.

This, however, still couldn’t answer the question, as there could be a gap in productivity that is difficult to assess. In more research by Erin Hengel of the University of Liverpool, it was found that papers submitted by women economists were more readable than those by men, yet it took six months longer for their papers to be published. Women aren’t exactly credited for their papers being more readable, and at the same time are set back due to longer time editing the papers. Hence, the very measure of productivity sets higher standards for women. Keynes concludes by addressing that prejudice may be at least a part of the problem here. However, the bigger concern is that not only the issue, but the measures used to correct the issue also discriminate against women.

Link to Ted Talk:

Soumaya Anne Keynes is a British journalist, economist, the Britain economics editor at The Economist magazine, and the co-host of a podcast covering economic trade called Trade Talks.

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