Economics has a gender problem—and it starts at school

Universities are making an effort to recruit more women to the discipline. But the intervention should start earlier

May 14, 2018
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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 gap. When economics A-level is available, girls are less likely to choose it than boys; when they do, they are still less likely to carry on and study it at university. And the main reason? Boys find economics more interesting than girls do.

I recently surveyed 15-17 year-olds attending economics outreach events. Most had just started studying economics at school, but the boys were more likely to be thinking about economics at university—in roughly a 2:1 ratio. When asked what they thought about a range of different subjects, the clearest gender difference was that boys thought that economics would be more interesting to study than all the other subjects asked about, while girls did not. (There was little gender difference in how they rated economics in terms of job prospects and difficulty relative to other subjects).

It's not about the money

Those who have attacked what they perceive as the narrowness of university teaching might claim that lack of interest in the subject confirms the problems with the academic discipline. But dig deeper into students’ thinking and the issue is not that economics is perceived as viewing the world through a narrow lens; it is that economics is perceived to have a specific focus, one that most economists would not recognise. Ask 15-17 year-olds what they think economics is about and they mention a few core concepts (demand, supply, markets) but the most common word—by a huge margin—is “money.” When boys say that economics would be really interesting (and girls do not) this is the image of the subject that they are talking about.

Debates about the academic discipline are likely to continue. Many universities will respond to the criticisms and make changes to the curricula. But to improve the diversity of the student body this is not enough. We also need to reach out to 15-17 year olds (and younger) and show them that economics is about so much more than money and is about understanding the causes of things that matter to peoples' lives. Even then, not everyone will find economics interesting—but chances are that getting across the breadth of issues that economics is about will give it broader appeal. This should be something that all economists agree on.