The Gender Problem in Economics: How Did We Get Here?
Ann Mari May, PhD
The American Economic Association and indeed the public at large are slowly awakening to the realization that the gender problem in the dismal science is profound and measurable.
Women are underrepresented in all stages of the academic hierarchy. They receive only about a third of doctorates in economics, they are less likely to be promoted to full professor after receiving tenure, and their papers take an average six months longer to get published.
Whereas other so-called STEM fields have made progress toward gender balance in doctorates over the past ten years, the same is not true for economics. The proportion of women doctorates in economics remains well below that of the geosciences, atmospheric and ocean sciences, engineering, physics and astronomy, and mathematics and statistics. Even more embarrassing is the gender gap in economics doctorates compared to other social sciences. Well over twice the proportion of women are receiving doctorates in psychology, anthropology, and sociology as economics.
Even more embarrassing is the gender gap in economics doctorates compared to other social sciences.
The gender problem in economics has a long history. Anne Carter reminisced over her experiences entering the profession in 1945. She remembers that the chair of her department at Harvard University welcomed her with the statement, “We get a lot of little girls who come here with good grades, but they don’t last.”
Carter cites many instances of unequal treatment—such as when she was recruited by Wassily Leontief to join his Harvard Economic Research Project only to learn that her “trailing spouse,” who was allowed to join his wife at Harvard to make her move possible, was being paid $1,000 more a year than was she. When confronted, Leontief simply remarked, “I thought you’d like it.”
How did we get here? What factors contributed to the lack of women in the field, and what might explain the problem that women continue to face?
Not surprisingly, it began with a lack of access to graduate programs. While several elite universities in the early part of the twentieth century excluded women from their graduate programs, many state universities had, often out of necessity, moved on, accepting women in their graduate programs. However, gaining acceptance as a consumer of knowledge would prove to be much easier than gaining acceptance as a producer of knowledge. Apart from the critically important role that women played as faculty in women’s colleges—a role that provided many women their only access to the halls of ivy, women lacked the institutional affiliations necessary for full participation in the burgeoning new profession.
However, gaining acceptance as a consumer of knowledge would prove to be much easier than gaining acceptance as a producer of knowledge.
Many universities had what were referred to as “marriage bars” that prevented married women from being hired or, if already employed, called for their firing once their marriage was discovered. Thus, in 1935, Carolyn Ware (who had kept her maiden name upon marrying) was not allowed to fulfill her summer teaching contract at the University of Wyoming when it was discovered that she was married. When national attention was brought to the incident, the university reported that the rule was to “spread employment.” Ware, not surprisingly, pointed out that the university was an educational institution and “not a work-relief organization.”
When “marriage bars” went out of style, anti-nepotism policies stepped in to limit the hiring and facilitate the firing of women whose husbands were also academics. These university policies prevented women from obtaining positions as “ladder faculty”: faculty who experience the full benefits of academic employment and can serve on graduate student dissertation committees among other benefits.
Of course, these policies and practices kept women from becoming faculty in a variety of fields, not just economics. What may have made economics a uniquely tough nut to crack is the role that free market competition plays as a dominant ethos in the discipline. As anyone who has ever taken a beginning economics course knows, competition is central in economic dogma, and perfect competition (albeit rare) is the pinnacle construct in economic theory. This adherence to the notion of competition encourages economists to see labor market outcomes as the result of choices made in free markets. If women are not present in economics, it is because (the story goes) they don’t want to study economics.
What may have made economics a uniquely tough nut to crack is the role that free market competition plays as a dominant ethos in the discipline.
It seems quite possible that a discipline such as economics might be most likely to value competition as a personal attribute as well. As anyone who has ever attended the American Economic Association meetings (or a departmental seminar) will observe, individuals present “arguments,” which are typically attacked by “discussants,” followed by questions that often are not really questions at all, but statements intended to demonstrate the intellectual prowess and status of the questioner.
Studies that track the behavior of seminar participants find that women receive more questions and more questions that are rated as “patronizing and hostile” by impartial coders. Is it any wonder that a significant proportion of women graduate students consider the conduct of others during departmental seminars as overly combative and somewhat hostile? This kind of masculinist culture may provide a signal to women that results in a lesser sense of belonging and less attachment to the discipline.
The difficulties encountered by women in the early years allow us to gain a deeper appreciation of the ways that work was viewed as a gender-based privilege and how this view affected women’s lives. They also provide an important window into challenges still facing women in the economics profession today.
Ann Mari May is a professor of economics with courtesy appointments in history and women’s studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She is the author of Gender and the Dismal Science: Women in the Early Years of the Economics Profession (July 2022) Now available for pre-order.