Addressing gender representation in economics at Mac and beyond

Gracie Ellsworth

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Today, over half of all undergraduate students in America identify as female, an encouraging statistic for future gender equality. However, some sections of the country’s higher education institutions remain disproportionate. Women currently make up less than one third of economics majors across all colleges and universities and 39 percent of Macalester’s economics majors.

Macalester’s student organization Women in Economics (WIE) seeks to address the gender discrepancy in the field by acting as a space of encouragement and offering practical help with job opportunities and networking connections. The club is currently lead by co-chairs Millie Baker ’20 and Meera Singh ’19, who work to create a community for female-identifying students interested in pursuing economics at Macalester.

The relationship between gender and economics begins in institutions of higher education and extends into the professional field after graduation. Researchers have called this progression a “leaky pipeline.” This term “refers to the fact that women make up smaller and smaller percentages of the total number of people in economics the higher the level of economic study or faculty position,” Sarah West, professor of economics and chair of the economics department at Macalester, explained.

“Fewer women major in economics compared to the number who take Principles of Economics, and there are a smaller percentage of women tenured professors of economics in academia given what we would expect given the number of women in economics Ph.D. programs,” West said.

One of the primary issues within this “leaky pipeline” is a difference of grade-sensitivity among male- and female-identifying students. To whether she believes this dynamic plays out among economics students at Macalester, Baker responds emphatically, “I absolutely do.” All economics majors at Macalester are required to first take Principles of Economics. Through her interactions with economics students, Baker has noticed a stark difference in how female-identifying students approach the difficulty of the introductory class as opposed to male-identifying students.

“A lot of times when those students are female, I will hear them say ‘I’m not doing too well in this class’ and ‘I’m realizing that I’m not cut out for econ,’” Baker recalled. Meanwhile, she has witnessed male economics majors who, as she puts it, say, “‘Oh yeah I really struggled in Principles [of Economics], but I kept on at it because I liked it or I felt I could keep trying.’”

“It seems that female-identifying students are more likely to be dissuaded from taking more economics classes when they get lower grades in Principles [of Economics],” Amy Damon, an economics professor at Macalester agreed.

“I really feel like I’m witnessing that disparity in how men versus women react to econ culture,” Baker said of this stark difference in grade-sensitivity across genders. This disparity can perhaps be traced back to a dissimilarity in how men and women are influenced before coming to college. For instance, Baker feels she has witnessed the effects of a society which encourages men to internalize a mentality of entitlement whereas women are taught accommodation and hesitancy. In Baker’s experience, this means “Men come into Macalester with the toolkit to be comfortable or forge a place of comfort within the econ community. Women really don’t come in with much of that toolkit,” explained Baker. “I see one of my roles within econ to facilitate that toolkit.”

Gender discrepancy is not unique to economics. As of 2015, women make up only 35 percent of students earning a bachelor’s degree in a STEM related field. As economics relies heavily on quantitative analysis, it may contain many of the same factors which contribute to gender disparities of both economics and STEM subjects.

Baker witnessed a difference in how young male and female students were encouraged to pursue their interest in math related subjects throughout her early education.

“I’ve done math competitions, since I was about ten, and even just starting at the middle school level, it is very male-dominated,” Baker said.“When I got into high school that was even more pronounced.”

This feeling of being one of few women in an environment is common among female-identifying students and professionals in economics as well as STEM fields. “It can be isolating to be the only woman in a professional context,” West said.

“As much as I try not to let that affect my behavior, I can’t help but be conscious of it,” Baker agreed.

Being a woman in a male-dominated field can also act as a practical burden. Like many other fields, networking is an important part of the economic environment. Forming professional connections is vital in furthering one’s career, and this can be a gender-specific barrier.

“There are a lot more opportunities for men and a lot more male-dominated spaces where men can feel comfortable going to network and that’s not as accessible for women,” Baker said.

WIE addresses the lack of gender proportional networking environments by hosting alumni networking events. In these spaces, female-identifying economics students can connect with other female alumnae now working in the field. Baker spoke of a previous networking alumni event hosted by WIE which involved a panel of graduated economics professionals and opportunities for current students to build relationships with them. WIE considers it one of the biggest achievements of the student organization and a “real success.”

Yet, WIE also faces the difficulties of operating in such a broad field as that of economics.

“There are all sorts of different life paths intersecting in the econ department, so it’s hard to balance all of that and provide resources that are amenable to all those different types of people,” Baker said.

“But I definitely think that it’s a worthwhile endeavor to try to do that. I feel like a community that’s based off of all those different things can ultimately make us stronger.”

West views the variety of topics included as a facilitator for increased demographic diversity in economics. “One step towards greater inclusivity that economists are starting to take with greater frequency is to do a better job explaining the breadth of things that economists study, and the way in which we study them,” West said.

“Economics is a tremendously heterogeneous field; there is something in it of interest to nearly everyone, but we don’t always do a good job making this clear,” she continued.

Looking ahead, West hopes that Macalester can continue towards equitable representation among its economics majors.

“I won’t attempt to forecast what will happen to the gender proportions in the field and at Mac,” West said, “but I can predict that continuing to work on making the field and major more inclusive will be a permanent part of our agenda.”

Baker feels optimistic about the future of gender in economics, both at Macalester and beyond. She finds hope through the very nature of the field. “Economics research is about looking at the way social institutions and economic resources are set up and finding the causal links between those things,” Baker said. “So we are in a unique position to study our own flaws in regards to gender and study the material factors that lead to those and the material factors that break through them.”

In order to do so, Baker calls on all those involved in economics to name what is wrong and push for change within the field.

“The number one thing that we need is to take this issue seriously,” Baker emphasized. “We, especially as women in the field, need to stand up and say ‘There are flaws with our culture, and because we love economics, we want to make it a place where everybody can be welcome; where really anybody who wants to do the work can do so without fear that their gender will be an impediment.’”