Is economics a sexist science?

Victoria Bateman looks at the gender mix within economics and details her own attempts to encourage more women into the discipline

September 15, 2015

Economics has for a long time been known as the dismal science. A sexist science might, however, be a more accurate label.

Indeed, if we are going to push the boat out and refer to the subject as a “science”, it is worth noting that economics also suffers from the same deficit of female talent that regularly features in headlines relating to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. But, unlike these other subjects, the gender gap in economics has managed to go under the radar. Not only is this bad for women, it has also had serious side-effects on our economy. That means it has been bad for all of us.

Economics shapes the lives of every single one of us. Understanding the economy is vital to ensuring that everyone who wants a job has a job, that income and the standard of living rise year-on-year, and that people have access to decent healthcare and education. It is also central to politics and society, influencing everything from what goes on at the dinner table and in the bedroom to the nature of democracy.

Not only does economics matter for politics and society, but, in turn, politics and society feedback to affect the economy. This means that building a true picture of the economy requires being in tune not only with the goings-on of the business world, but also having an ear to the ground when it comes to life in communities – life outside of the financially-driven market. The kinds of things studied by academics in other disciplines, with whom economists are all too reluctant to make friends.

In order to build a true picture of the economy it is therefore crucial that economists draw upon different experiences. That includes the voices not only of men but also of women. Sadly, the lack of female representation in the subject has meant that economics has been slow to open its eyes, meaning that economists have built a model of the economy which tells only half of the story.

It is a model of the economy told through largely traditionally-male eyes, from a stereotypically male experience – and a relatively privileged one at that.

Economics has, for example, been slow to recognise the important role of society in a successful economy, the ongoing contribution of women’s unpaid reproductive, domestic and caring work, and the fact that real human characteristics and emotions are just as important for understanding the economy as the more robotic “rational”, cool and calculating types of behaviour most commonly incorporated into economists’ models.

The lack of equal representation in the discipline has also meant that economists have been slow to recognise the “dark side” of the market. Those in less privileged groups, under-represented in economics, often bear the brunt of poverty and market failures, and are therefore in a position to see not only the virtues of the market but also its ability to exploit.

Unless their voices are heard, economics will not only be one-sided but events such as the global financial crisis will continue to take economists by surprise, meaning that too little is done to prevent them in the first place. We all then suffer the effects.

While economists like to see their subject as gender-neutral, the truth is difficult to deny. I have in front of me a list of all Nobel prizewinners in economics. It includes famous names such as Milton Friedman, John Nash, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Shiller and Paul Krugman – and there is one thing these names all have in common: they are all white Western males. There are just a couple of exceptions in regard to race, including William Arthur Lewis, born in Saint Lucia, and Amartya Sen, born in India.

With regard to gender, there is in fact only one exception, Elinor Ostrom.

Here in Cambridge, and in line with other UK universities, only about one-quarter of academic economists are female. Furthermore, girls account for only one in four UK degree students studying economics across the country, a disparity that results from too few girls actually applying. It would be difficult to disagree with the observation that economics is a subject that sees the world through the eyes of a Western man – the eyes of the most privileged group of people in the world. How could it not?

In other words, economics is sexist. It is a denial of this fact – a presumption that economics is “gender-neutral” – that makes the problem particularly challenging to address. Most economists seem to simply take the view that it is women who need to change, and not economics itself.

The good news is that economics is now changing. In fact, in light of the criticism that the discipline has faced since the global financial crisis of 2007-08, economics has been under serious pressure to change. It is, slowly but surely, undergoing a revolution. However, not all revolutions bring about the desired effect.

If economics is to change for the better and not for the worse, it needs to draw upon new ideas and new voices, embracing experiences that differ from what has in the past been the “norm” and that can therefore offer something new.

It is for this reason that I have initiated the “Women in Economics Day” here in Cambridge at Gonville and Caius College, to which we will welcome a hundred 16-18-year-old girls from across the country this week. It is time to spread the word that not only do women need economics, but that economics needs women. Not only does economics offer one of the highest graduate salaries of any degree, meaning that girls are at present losing out relative to boys, it is also the most exciting time in over 50 years to be studying the subject.

Young women have more potential than ever before to contribute towards a new economics – a remaking of the subject that can hopefully help us to avoid the kinds of economic problems that have affected everyone, male or female, over the past few years. That’s something worth fighting for whatever your gender.

Victoria Bateman is fellow and director of studies in economics at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, a fellow of the Legatum Institute, London, and author of the book Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe.

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