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Economics has a women problem, which means it has a real-world problem

The mosaic in New York's Woolworth Building depicts the goddess of commerce.

The mosaic in New York's Woolworth Building depicts the goddess of commerce.

December 4, 2017   4 mins

In the lobby of New York’s Woolworth Building – one of the city’s earliest skyscrapers, built on the retail fortunes of the Woolworth family and a monument to American capitalism – you can find a dazzling golden mosaic. It is of the goddess of commerce, flanked by two male helpers, on their knees, offering the ships and the railroads that enabled capitalism to ‘go global’.

You won’t, however, find many ‘goddesses’ in modern day economics.

When I first studied economics, as a sixteen-year-old at Oldham Sixth Form College, I was one of only three girls in my class. When I got a place at Cambridge, I was, again, in a female minority. Things are little different today. For every three men studying economics at degree level in the UK, there is only one woman. In the US, where only 13% of economics professors are female, it is little better. And, unlike in the sciences, things are not improving with time. In fact, the proportion of women studying economics here in the UK has been falling rather than rising.

Does the gender disparity in economics matter? Isn’t a good economist a good economist, regardless of whether they are male or female? Many economists, after all, presume that economics is inherently ‘gender-neutral’ and that the lack of women hasn’t caused a problem. The assumption is that the problem is not with economics; it is with women. That women are just not interested.

The evidence otherwise, however, is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore – the problem is not with women, it is with economics. And the implications go way beyond the gender balance; it’s skewing the way we see the world. More women in economics could make the study of economics much more relevant to the real world.

A subject that is so heavily male dominated has neglected things that are essential to a complete understanding of the real-world economy but are predominantly concerns of women

The lack of women blinds economics to critical issues

Male and female lives have historically been very different. So it’s inevitable that a subject that is so heavily male dominated has neglected things that are essential to a complete understanding of the real-world economy but are, at least historically, predominantly concerns of women. Unlike production and paid work, the vital role of reproduction and care, along with the reality of dependency, have been under studied.

Economists divide the world into two spheres – the market and government. It is an over simplification that misses vital human behaviours. While economists have been happy to take an imperialistic tone with sociologists, applying economic models to explain society, from marriage to crime, they have learnt little in return about the way society might affect the economy.

Life outside of markets – life in the family, community and society – can have powerful effects on the economy, but has been largely neglected. And areas of study that were traditionally included in economics, such as history, society and ethics, have long been pushed to the side as either unnecessary or too ‘soft’. In these terms at least, economics was in a better state in the hands of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, two centuries ago. It has moved backwards rather than forwards.

Economics has an image problem 

Economics has gone wrong in part because the cumulative lack of women in economics has resulted in crucial dimensions of life being left out of economists’ understanding of the world. If the profession is going to attract more women, and thereby provide a more accurate view of the world, it needs to deal with the behaviours and perceptions that put women off.

Online discussions about female economists contained 43% less professional content and 192% more personal or physical content than discussions about male economists

Recent research by University of California student Alice Wu, which applied a sophisticated algorithm to analyse over a million online comments posted on a website commonly used by young economists, found that the words most used in relation to female economists included “hotter”, “hot”, “sexy”, “pregnant”, “gorgeous”, “beautiful”, “tits”, “lesbian”, “date”, and “horny”. These discussions about female economists contained 43% less professional content and 192% more personal or physical content than discussions about male economists.

The sexism does not surprise me. Not long after I first started teaching, I had a problem student. I discussed it with a senior teaching colleague, who told me that the issue was that I was a young woman teaching mostly male students. The problem was, in other words, me. For being female. Is it any wonder women are put off?

Even aside from the sexism, economics has a serious image problem. The profession is seen as the natural home of greedy and selfish people who are interested in one thing: money. You know, the kind of people with dreams of becoming mega rich through careers in banking or at the top table of global corporations.

Yet the reality is that economics is about so much more than that. It asks and, more importantly, seeks to find the answers to, big questions that affect all of our lives: Why are some countries, and some people, rich whilst others are still poor? What are the causes of boom and bust? What is the role of government? How much should we all be taxed? How should schools and hospitals be funded? How do we reconcile our desire to consume with the health of the planet?

The questions go on. The idea that women are ‘just not interested’ in economics could not be more misguided. The problem is more that economics conjures up a bad image, an image that it desperately needs to shake off.

I have been trying to do what I can to help turn things around. Back in 2015, I introduced an annual ‘Women in Economics’ day, held at the University of Cambridge, aimed at young women between the ages of 16-18. Female leaders from across business, policy and politics have supported the initiative, including Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI; economists Kate Barker and Vicky Pryce, Labour MP Yvette Cooper and couture fashion designed Jenna Young.

For years economics has devalued anything that has traditionally been seen as ‘feminine’ and revered all those things traditionally seen as ‘masculine’. It has been obsessed with production, paid work and government, ignoring reproduction, caring activities and society. It has been happy to assume reason always trumps emotion, and that we are each free and independent, when in reality dependency and social constraints are a fact of life for many. And, it has valued maths above every other approach to the study of the economy, including what history has to tell us. Until this macho hang-up changes, economists’ models of the world – models that inform the decisions made by policymakers, and in turn affect all of our lives – will continue to be half-baked.


Dr Victoria Bateman is Fellow in Economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. She writes regular economic commentary for Bloomberg View and CapX, and is known for her stance on Brexit and for using art to explore perceptions of the female body.


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