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In a Friday New York Times op-ed, University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers expresses his concerns about “Why Women’s Voices Are Scarce in Economics.” Here’s the opening and Wolfers’ main conclusion (emphasis added):
For decades, the number of women studying economics seemed to be increasing, easing the persistent scarcity of professional female economists in the United States. But that progress has stalled. New data indicates that the share of women studying the subject in America’s universities has flatlined and the pool of prospective female economists may even be shrinking.
That pattern would be disturbing in any academic field but because economics has an outsize influence on public policy, it means that many important debates are likely to be dominated by men’s voices for years to come. At virtually every level of training and every professional rank within economics, women are a minority. And women are less likely than men to progress at each successive step along the career path, so this imbalance is more lopsided at senior levels. This situation has been called a “leaky pipeline” but as long as increasing numbers of women entered that pipeline, the number of female economists kept rising.
A new report from a committee of the American Economics Association provides a sobering picture, however. It shows that since the turn of the century, there has been no increase in the share of women entering the pipeline to become professional economists. Among first-year doctoral students studying economics, the share was 32% in 2017 — barely changed from 33% in 2000, according to the report. The imbalance is so great that in six of the “top twenty” economics programs, fewer than one-fifth of the incoming doctoral students were women.
The result is that women’s voices are underrepresented.
To start, Wolfers’ op-ed inspired these two comments on the Reddit Economics website:
- Female under-representation relative to what? Why is the baseline assumption that it must be 50/50? If women make up more than 50% of any given field through their own free will, then they must by definition make up less than 50% of another field or fields. Take veterinary medicine, where women have outnumbered men since 1985 (see top chart above). Is this a hotbed of anti-male discrimination? Was there something special about “old boys” networks in veterinary medicine that made them “allow” more than 80% women into the field today? Self-selection is not a complicated concept. The New York Times really should figure it out.
- Isn’t one of the points of economics that open systems tend to equilibria that are set by the preferences of their participating agents? If the resulting equilibrium isn’t to your taste, you can of course look to see whether there are coercive forces at work: cartels, oligopolies, conspiracies. To make a case for this you will, of course, have to explain why the patriarchy is particularly keen to defend chemistry and software engineering, to only somewhat gird its loins around economics and to cede territory in journalism and anthropology? Otherwise, you probably will need to accept that the outcome is the consequence of general statistical preferences between genders?
MP: In addition to the significant over-representation of women in veterinary medicine where they now outnumber men by more than 4-to-1 (see top chart above), the second group of three charts above show that women are now:
a) Over-represented for doctoral degrees overall in 2016 (and every year since 2009).
b) Over-represented in seven of the 11 major subject categories for doctoral degrees including “Social and Behavioral Sciences” — which includes Economics.
c) Significantly over-represented for doctoral degrees in fields like Education, Health Sciences, and Public Administration, where women outnumber men by a factor of more than 3-to-1 and Social/Behavioral Sciences (including Economics) where women earn more than 60% of the doctoral degrees.
d) Over-represented earning master’s degrees overall, receiving 57.4% of those degrees in 2016 (and a majority in every year since 1987).
e) Significantly over-represented for Master’s degrees in the fields mentioned above for doctoral degrees: Education, Health Sciences, and Public Administration where women outnumber men by a factor of more than 3-to-1 and Social/Behavioral Sciences (including Economics) where women earn more than 62% of the master’s degrees.
f) Significantly over-represented in overall graduate school enrollment — there were 135.3 women enrolled in a graduate degree program in 2016 for every 100 men (57.5% women vs. 42.5% men).
See this CD post from last September on this topic when the data for 2016 were first released by the Council of Graduate Schools.
Related: The bottom chart above shows 2017 Advanced Placement (AP) test results from The College Board by subject and gender. Each AP test is given a score from 1 to 5, where 5: Extremely Well Qualified, 4: Well Qualified, 3: Qualified, 2: Possibly Qualified, and 1: No recommendation. Any score of 3 or higher is considered passing. The table above shows the average scores by gender for each AP subject test and the male-female difference for each subject test. High school boys out-performed girls on 26 of the 36 different AP subject tests last year based on average test results, especially for many of the science and math subjects like physics, chemistry, statistics, biology and calculus; and both economics tests (Macro and Micro).
As would be expected, the share of boys achieving the highest exam result of 5 exceeded the share of girls for the subjects where boys had a higher average score, e.g., Physics 1 (6.7% of boys vs. 2.1% of girls), Chemistry (12.4% of boys vs. 6.3%), Macroeconomics (18.9% of boys vs. 12.5% of girls), Microeconomics(24% of boys vs. 16% of girls) and Statistics (16.4% of boys vs. 10.2% of girls).
Couldn’t one reason that explains the male over-representation in economics doctoral and master’s graduate programs be that they have either a greater aptitude for the subject matter, or are more motivated to learn and study economics than their female counterparts, which is reflected empirically in the greater male performance on the AP Econ tests?
Bottom Line: The concern about women being underrepresented in economics is another example of a commonly-expressed selective concern about gender imbalances in higher education that ignores the significant female over-representation (and male under-representation) in many other academic fields and for achieving college degrees at all levels (associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral). The fact that men and women naturally and voluntarily choose (self-select) different graduate programs means that perfect gender parity by academic fields is both unattainable and undesirable. Unless and until there is equal concern about the significant and growing male under-representation in higher education, it’s hard to take the selective concerns about gender disparities in certain disciplines too seriously. For example, where is the equivalent concern about male under-representation in graduate programs overall and male voices being so significantly scarce in so many important academic fields like public administration, education and health sciences?
And as the first Reddit commenter asks, why is a 50-50 gender ratio the expected natural outcome or desired goal for economics or any other academic field? Because women obviously and naturally gravitate towards some academic fields (veterinary medicine, education, health sciences, public administration) more than others (chemistry, engineering and computer science), that preference will necessarily result in female under-representation in some fields. So what? Isn’t it perfectly plausible that gender differences in academic programs result from the “revealed preferences” and self-selection of both men and women for the academic fields that reflect their academic abilities and intellectual interests, as the second commenter points out.
Overall, female success in US higher education is an amazing and under-reported story of great achievement and accomplishment that deserves greater attention and should be recognized and celebrated as an educational triumph. Perhaps we should give women greater credit for their educational choices and assume that their voices are being heard in higher education. Here’s what we might hear, from at least some women:
We are eager and motivated to go to graduate school and earn master’s and doctoral degrees, and we’re doing so in record numbers — we have earned more associate’s, bachelor’s and graduate degrees than our male counterparts for many decades (since 1981 for bachelor’s degrees). We’re perfectly capable of self-selecting the graduate programs we choose to pursue without any concerns others might have about unachievable outcomes like perfect gender parity for degrees by academic field. Thanks economists, for you selective concern about our under-representation in your discipline, but frankly, we’re ‘just not that into your profession’ as much as we are other disciplines; and we’ll continue to express our revealed preferences for graduate programs that we select and will continue to achieve great academic success on our own terms.
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