Harvard professor Claudia Goldin, who won the 2023 Nobel economics prize © REUTERS

Nikita Sharma is an economics editor and writer based in London

More than once, Milton Friedman expressed regret at interventions to promote women in economics. Worried that preferential treatment would result in adverse selection, the Nobel laureate believed that “in the long run numbers do not matter but quality does”.

The long run is here, but gender equality is a long way off. In the UK, the share of women in economics is 25.7 per cent. Progress has stalled of late, with diversity trends bad if not worse than in other STEM disciplines . The Royal Economic Society has called it “one of the most adverse disciplines for women”. Given that the gender pay gap decreased by only 1 per cent between 2012-2022 and will take 100 more years to close, it very well might be. 

While women economists are often paid less than their male counterparts, the pay gap is largely a product of women economists holding only a small fraction of senior jobs. The UK illustrates economic academia’s “leaky pipeline” problem, with women representing only 36.5 per cent of lecturers, 26.3 per cent of readers, and 18.3 per cent of professors.

Numbers do matter — diversity among economists implies diversity in questions one even thinks to ask. So why are there fewer women economists at senior academic levels? 

The short answer is women are held to higher standards. The long answer involves systemic gender biases at every step along academia’s path to seniority — the tenure track. (And no, it is not just about women wanting to start families.) 

Tenure demands publishing research, raking in citations, building collaborations, and navigating the dark slimy world of academia. All of this feeds into each other. You write more papers, you rise in citation rankings, the more you get to collaborate, and the faster you attain tenure. 

For women economists, the tenure track (like much of the world) is not the same and is fraught with gender stereotypes stacking the odds against them. While papers, citations and co-authors, may be collectively propelling male economists towards tenure, the systemic gender biases attached to each mix into a toxic cocktail that pulls women economists back. 

What the growing strand of literature examining these gender biases in economics tells us is that “every rock we look under reveals yet another way in which existing institutions are biased against women”.

To start, gender stereotypes have pushed the bar higher for women-economist-authored papers. When published, women-authored papers get 25 per cent more citations and are 1-6 per cent more readable compared to similar male-authored papers. 

One would think getting more citations (a proxy for research quality) and writing well would clear the path to publication success. Yet, women remain underrepresented in top-five economics journals. From 1990-2015, only 11 per cent of authors were women. (In 2015, their share was only 15 per cent). For several years, the top five journals published zero exclusively women-authored papers.

Before publication, if it happens, women-authored papers languish for three-to-six months more in peer review. Instead of starting new research, the time of women economists is spent addressing “lower quality, harder-to-implement, and/or less relevant feedback” for their existing work to satisfy a biased referee viewing their paper as “riskier”. 

Being held to stricter standards to publish and having to work more towards it, is a drag on women economists’ efforts who on average then produce an estimated 20 per cent fewer publications and 43 per cent fewer publications in top-five journals. This directly affects their tenure success, which rewards having more and prestigious publications. If women co-authored more like their male peers, the gender output gap would fall by 18 per cent.

In addition to concerns about the rigour of women economists’ work, doubts about the significance of their contribution in academic group work also abound. For instance, a co-authored paper increases male economists’ tenure chances by 7.4 per cent but only 4.7 per cent for women (higher when women co-author with women). These differences add up. If women economists were credited just as their male peers in co-authored research, the gender gap in tenure rates would close by a calculated 40 per cent.    

In a losing game, any winning strategy is bound to be ineffective.

The prime force pulling women economists into defeat is a lack of recognition — of their abilities, of their work, of their contribution to the discipline. This could be a possible manifestation of misogynistic undercurrents in economics that perpetuate the male dominance it stems from. 

Other symptoms include how women are talked to publicly and talked about privately. Seminars and talks are important opportunities for economists to present their work, gather feedback, and build networks. Since these bring together everyone from senior academics and fledgling PhD students, the potential for role model effects is also in the air. But during 2014-2019, only 22.8 per cent of invited talks were given by women and only 0.5 per cent by women from under-represented minorities. (These were largely the talks organised by the Committee on the Status of Women in Economics, whose efforts Friedman expressed regret over at the beginning of this post.) 

And when they are invited to economics seminars, women economists are treated with more patronising and hostile behaviour. They are asked 12 per cent more questions than men and interrupted more often and earlier. Perhaps at this stage, it might not even surprise the reader that during presentations by women economists, men give more comments than ask questions

Under anonymity, the undercurrents of misogyny become raining waves. Analysis of an online portal popular among economists revealed women are systematically trivialised and sexualised, and were discussed in 196 per cent more non-professional terms. In more private recommendation letters, women are praised for their ‘hard work’ while their similar male peers are commended for their ‘brilliance’. Seemingly harmless, yet research has shown it pushes women back by 5-8 per cent in post-PhD career success compared to their equivalent male counterparts.  

Can economics change? Can more women economists succeed?

A recent study unveils a glimmer of hope — economists can overcome gender differences in recognising the work and contribution of their peers. Analysis of fellows being selected for the Econometric Society between 1933 and 2019 shows that while the chances of women economists being chosen were negative (compared to similarly successful male counterparts) until 1979, they became positive (but not significantly so) from 1980 to 2010 and for the last decade, were overwhelmingly positive and even double. This might have been inspired by a 2012 mandate to nominate more women — showing how change can happen once doors are opened.

Success still demands more from women in economics, but it doesn’t stop them from attaining it. The win of the latest noble laureate, Claudia Goldin, coincided with the release of her study on “why women won”. Seeing as she is the first solo woman economist to win the prize in its 55-year history, it is hard to believe that women really won. But as with change, Goldin answers, it is with time.

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