The Alphabet

E is for Economics and Sexism

wim stem

As I was lining up to accept for my economics degree earlier this year, two things struck me:

1. I was graduating with an economics degree; and
2. I was graduating on International Women’s Day with a degree in the most sexist field within academia.

To many this may just be a coincidence and not really something to put much emphasis on it, but for me it means a lot.

As I sat whilst the vice-chancellor was calling out the names of those who graduated with a different degree, I counted how many women graduated with the same degree as me. Including myself, there was 19 women compared to 53 men.

It’s not surprising that in my cohort, men overwhelmingly dominated the number of women graduating with an economics degree. In the UK, one in four UK degree students are female.

It’s probably academia’s worst-kept secret. Maybe we should start calling economics is the “sexist science” as well as the “dismal science” within academia.

Fun fact: out of the 49 winners who have been awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences, only one has been awarded to a female economist (Elinor Ostrom in 2009).

In 2011, 25 per cent of bachelor degrees in maths intensive fields in the USA were women. That still leaves a whopping 75 per cent of degrees being held by men. 7 to 16 per cent of full professors in the geography, engineering, economics, maths and physics (GEEMP) fields were women, leaving 84 to 93 per cent of full professorships being held by men.

In The Economist’s 2015 list of the 25 most influential economists, all of them were males, despite there being no shortage of brilliant female economists. I’ll let University of Michigan professor and New York Times columnist Justin Wolfers point out some of the brilliant female economists.


It can be argued that a possible reason for the gender gap within the maths-intensive fields is how we perceive occupations and how occupational preferences play a role. Women tend to prefer organic fields that involve living things; men tend to prefer fields that involve symbol manipulation. And given the 4 and a half years I spent studying economics, trust me when I say that economics is more symbol manipulation than organic fields.

But like Justin Wolfers wrote, unconscious bias may also be at play in how we envision economists to be.

“Close your eyes for a moment, and picture an economist. Odds are you pictured a man (Chances are, he was also white, most likely middle-aged, and probably fairly confident). This same reflex makes it easier to recall those who fit this pre-conceived idea of what an economist looks like.” Wolfers wrote.

It’s not just within economics that there seems to be this problem. We find it in any subject that is maths intensive. We also find that women are more likely to leave engineering than science jobs. In a 2014 academic paper “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape”, Stephen Ceci, Donna Ginther, Shulamit Kahn and Wendy William’s found that the higher the concentration of men in that field, the more likely women will exit that field.

“Economics is an outlier, with a persistent sex gap in promotion that cannot be readily explained by productivity differences,” said Ceci, Ginther, Kahn and Williams.

Even a study in the Harvard Business Review showed that within the STEM fields, around two thirds of women had to provide additional evidence of competence than others to prove themselves within that particular field.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something we can fix over night. We still have a long road ahead when it comes with dealing with sexism within various different academia fields but surely recognising the appalling sexism within these fields is a start, right?

Also, the next person to express disbelief about sexism within academia fields is going to get a polite, passive-aggressive “fuck you” with links to an article or two.

About the author

Sophia van Gent

Sophia van Gent is a Perth-based writer who grew up in a family of strong women and speaking two languages interchangeably. Her favourite things in life are reading books, baking family cake recipes, watching Doctor Who and the sweet, sweet combination of Swedish Cinnamon Scrolls (kanelbulle) and coffee.

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