Universities are making an effort to recruit more women to the discipline. But the intervention should start earlierby Sarah Smith / May 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Economics as an academic discipline is hotly contested. Some economists claim we need to rip it up and start again; others point to huge changes that have been made in what is taught in universities and how it is taught. But, beyond this debate about the nature of the discipline, there is a bigger concern: who is studying the subject in the first place.
Economics students are predominantly male and more likely to come from a private school than the average student. STEM subjects have made huge strides in improving their appeal to women and now have a 52 per cent female share at undergraduate level. Economics stands at less than one-third and, if anything, the trend is going in the opposite direction. (The fact that the share of women in economics is now behind maths puts pay to any argument that women don’t study economics because of the maths content).
The lack of diversity in the economics student body matters. Economics students go on to be professional economists in governments, central banks, the private sector and NGOs; they pronounce on public policy and offer expert advice on decisions that affect millions. This makes it crucial who economists are, and who they represent.
A recent survey of European economists found that men and women hold different views on a wide range of issues, with men more likely to favour market solutions over government intervention and women more likely to think that opportunities in society are unequal. The gender mix of economists could therefore affect the nature of policy advice that they provide.
Why do boys choose economics?
Why is it that boys, particularly privately-educated, are so much more likely to choose to study economics?
One reason is that they are more likely to be offered economics A level—which is the main route into an economics degree. While the subject is not required for studying economics at university (many universities require maths, others do not specify any subjects), more than 70 per cent of students taking economics at university took it at A-level. In state, single-sex schools 81 per cent of boys are offered economics A-level compared to 55 per cent of girls. The private-state school gap is even more striking.
Even if everyone were offered A-level economics, however, there would still be a gender…