How long until another woman wins the top economics prize?

Not nearly enough women are entering the economics profession, owing to biases all the way through the system

October 10, 2018
Elinor Ostrom is the only women to have won the Economics Nobel. Photo: Rainer Jensen/DPA/PA Images
Elinor Ostrom is the only women to have won the Economics Nobel. Photo: Rainer Jensen/DPA/PA Images

Donna Strickland, an academic at the University of Waterloo in Canada, shared the recently-awarded Nobel Prize in physics. That brings the number of women awarded the physics prize since it started—Marie Curie was the first—to three. Much to celebrate there, even if progress is too slow. But only one woman, the late Elinor Ostrom—has ever won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Admittedly the Economics Prize was only established in 1968, and Ostrom had won numerous top academic prizes for her work before the Nobel. Nevertheless there are few signs that another woman will follow soon. It is widely-understood that women still face barriers in economics that men do not. But where precisely does the problem lie?

We know that it starts early: the field of women economists is too small to begin with. In the UK only 26 per cent of economics undergraduates are women. There are lots of reasons put forward for that. The mathematics requirement may be a barrier: in 2015 only some 18 per cent of girls taking A-levels did maths compared to 37 per cent of boys, for whom it is the most popular subject. In further maths the figures were 7 per cent for boys and just under 2 per cent for girls.

Looking at work done by various bodies, including the Institute of Education at UCL, the underlying perception that maths is a “masculine” subject is not shifting fast enough. Concerted effort is needed to change those perceptions—and at an early age if the inflow of girls into the economics profession is to increase.

On the positive side there are increasing signs that new emphasis on behavioural economics, which combines economics with principles from psychology, is resulting in more women entering the subject. But the lack of female role models doesn’t help. The Economist has calculated that only 20 per cent of Europe’s senior economists are women. And a recent study co-authored by Catherine Porter of Heriot-Watt University and Danila Serra of Southern Methodist University found that a crucial factor in female university students enrolling in higher-level economic classes was whether they themselves had contact with women who were successful in the field.

The way economics is still taught at many institutions may also be a factor. More needs to be done by the universities themselves. When I was joint head of the Government Economics Service we went round universities explaining that the over-emphasis on maths was obscuring the types of economic thinking needed to assist in policy-making, how to conduct evaluations, how to quantify unintended consequences and more.

That is now changing. Economist Diane Coyle runs the new Cambridge Institute for Public Policy and Wendy Carlin at UCL is heading the international CORE project to reform the undergraduate economics curriculum. But the penetration of women economists in academia remains poor. A look at the US reveals that amongst full professors of economics, women make up only 15 per cent of the total. By comparison to other academic subjects, even technical ones, women’s progression seems to be slower.

It also takes longer for women in economics to acquire tenure. Studies suggest that even if female lecturers’ and researchers’ productivity is the same as men’s in terms of numbers of academic papers published in learned journals, their advancement tends to take more time. And if they produce a joint paper with a man, the man’s chances of promotion increase considerably faster than the woman co-author's. Not a good omen for the next generation of female Nobel-Prize contestants.

Vicky Pryce is author of Why Women Need Quotas, with Stefan Stern (Biteback)