Maths key to lack of women studying economics, says study

The small number of women taking maths at A level may explain why only about a quarter of economics students are female, a new study says.

October 29, 2014

Only per cent of economics students are women, despite them making up 57 per cent of the undergraduate population, according to researchers at the University of Southampton.

The shortage of female economics students is likely to be linked to low numbers taking A-level maths, with only 10 per cent of women enrolling at university with an A level in maths, compared with 19 per cent of men.

“This underrepresentation of women [with] economics degrees could have major implications in policy making,” said Mirco Tonin, lead author of the study.

“Economists have an influential role in thinktanks, ministries, central banks and international organisations, like the IMF and the World Bank.”

Previous studies have shown that women favour different policy decisions to men, with men more likely to see the costs associated with government interventions in the labour market, for example.

According to the researchers, the lack of women with degrees in economics could also be contributing to the gender pay gap, since economics graduates tend to receive relatively high average earnings.

Using a random sample of administrative data covering all university applications in 2008, the researchers found no discrimination against women in the university application process; once they have applied, women are as likely as men to receive an offer of a place on an economics course.

There is also no gender difference in the likelihood of an applicant accepting or rejecting an offer.

Rather, the data show that female applicants are far less likely to apply to study economics than their male counterparts, and this could be partially due to the choices they make when choosing A levels.

“Girls are less likely to have A levels in maths than boys, and this could represent an impediment to applying for an economics degree,” says Dr Tonin.

“However, even among those who have studied maths, females are still less likely to apply for an economics degree than males, suggesting that differences in the choice of A-level subjects cannot explain the whole gap.”

But those women who do apply to study economics tend to have a stronger maths background and better grades at A level than male applicants – 46.4 per cent of women get an A grade, compared with 43.6 for men.

The study, which will be published in the CESifo Economic Studies journal, highlights other studies that suggest the gender gap in mathematics disappears in more gender equal societies.

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Reader's comments (3)

'A' level subjects and degree courses requiring skills in maths, perhaps might consider teaching maths using relevant examples within the economics subject itself. Similarly some Engineering students for example, also commonly struggle with maths taught for naturally gifted mathematics students, and may adopt this approach.
Contrary to W Speedway: I suggest that teaching maths around an economics syllabus is part of the problem with economics. W. Speedway would be well advised to listen to Steve Keen talk about maths & economics. To do as W. Speedway advises leaves the student with a few mathematical tricks but no understanding of underlying mathematical principles. I suggest this is the opposite of what a degree course should be looking for. Students should be taught to model from first principles. They need the fundamentals of maths to do that.
My experience suggests appropriate student mathematical competency can be achieved by very skilfully teaching the underlying necessary mathematical principles supplemented through worked examples specific to the technical or vocational subject. The maths teacher is likely to be more successful as a fully embedded supportive member of staff, rather than the student attend a maths course for maths students. Clearly this cannot be done on the cheap.

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