Advancing Women in Economics is a Moral Imperative: Why Aren’t We Talking About it?

The field of economics has a problem with women. Unlike the gender gaps in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields that have catalyzed highly visible and widespread efforts to increase gender parity, the vast underrepresentation of women in economics has received relatively little attention. Given the outsized impact the field of economics has on social policies relative to any other academic field, the paucity of women in the field is a crucial issue. Decades of economic policies informed by economists, on both sides of the political aisle, have advantaged the wealthy over those from impoverished circumstances and have contributed to the U.S. becoming one of the wealthiest countries where millions of our residents live in poverty. The massively inequitable economic system in the U. S., one that has earned the U.S. the moniker of “the most unequal developed nation” from a United Nations Human Rights investigation, didn’t just happen. It is a system that was created by the economic ideas and research from a field the has been and remains dominated by white men.  Dr, Crystal HoytDr, Crystal Hoyt

Over the last few decades, the narrow perspective in economics has myopically attended to big business, corporate power, and deregulation with scant attention paid to rising inequality. Bringing a greater diversity of perspectives to the field of economics is essential for building national conversations and economic policies that can effectively address the record levels of inequality in the country. The policy-making elite in the U.S. need to shift perspective to center those least advantaged within the economic system. Women are more likely to bring just such a perspective when empowered within a political system. Women’s policymaking, relative to men’s, is more focused on representing those who are least advantaged in society, including women and ethnic and racial minorities, and working to increase general wellbeing. Women have less tolerance for inequality and are significantly more supportive of redistribution of wealth than men. Imbuing our policy making with these values and priorities will go far to foster prosperity. 

Working to advance more women in economics, however, will not be easy. Unlike the gender disparities in STEM fields, women’s underrepresentation in the field of economics has received limited research scrutiny from social scientists. We need to better understand, for example, why women earn a mere one-third of the undergraduate and doctoral degrees in the field. In recent research I conducted with my colleague Stefanie Simon, we identified one important barrier preventing women from seeking degrees in economics. The stereotypes that are associated with people in the field of economics are highly masculine, even more so than stereotypes of those in STEM fields. These findings suggest one path forward toward greater gender representation in economics might focus on creating a less masculine and more inclusive culture that is equally inviting to women and men. This, of course, is easier suggested than done.

The field of economics isn’t just unwelcoming to women, it is outright hostile to them. Accumulating evidence points to a culture that is inhospitable to women and racial minorities.  The discriminatory barriers that women face range from high levels of sexual assault and harassment to greater difficulties getting hired and promoted. This unfair treatment of women relative to men pervades all aspects of the profession, from seminar rooms where women are patronized and disproportionately peppered with hostile questions after presenting, to editorial offices where women have a more difficult time publishing and being recognized for their expertise.

Advancing a more inclusive field of economics is not only an issue of equity and justice it will also contribute to greater prosperity. With the same fervor that has been applied to dismantling the gender gap in STEM, we need to work toward greater gender parity in the field of economics. Economists have a vast influence on creating the policies that govern our economic system. When more women are featured prominently in the economic decision-making of the country, the broad array of perspectives in the United States will be better represented and there will be a greater focus on promoting the welfare of everyone, not just the elite, in society.

Dr. Crystal L. Hoyt is a professor of leadership studies and psychology and Thorsness Chair in Ethical Leadership at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Her research takes a social scientific approach to investigating questions of social inequities, including gender and leadership.