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Economics

Women in Economics: a Tortuous Path

Women in Economics
Reading time: 5 minutes

Cues from prominent scholars

Women are under-represented in the Economics profession worldwide. What are the key reasons of this phenomenon and its consequences? We relied on the knowledge and experience of Academics promoting Gender Equality, including two Bocconian excellences: Professor Alessandra Casarico and Professor Paola Profeta.

It is not newness that women are under-represented in the Economics profession worldwide. Even if most Bocconians have not experienced yet the hard world awaiting researchers after the Phd, they surely have heard about the claim “Cleacc/Bemacc is full of women, Clef/Bief and Cless/Bess lack them”, which proves to be true.

To investigate in depth the underlying reasons of this phenomenon and its consequences, we relied on the knowledge and experience of Academics engaged at the forefront to promote gender equality in their profession. Pushed by the starting points extrapolated in the framework of our participation to the Gender Mentoring Session at Econometric Society World Congress (ESWC), which was held by Xiaohong Chen (Yale University), Janet Currie (Princeton University), Nezih Guner (CEMFI), Marina Halac (Yale University) and Nicola Fuchs Schundeln (Goethe University Frankfurt), we decided to deepen the topic, interviewing two Bocconian excellences in the field: Professor Alessandra Casarico and Professor Paola Profeta, who is the coordinator of the Dondena Gender Initiative (DGI). This center promotes research in all areas of gender economics, policies and diversity management and keeps in contact with policymakers, informing them about the advantages of implementing new strategies in favor of women’s inclusion. DGI has already contributed to important achievements in Italy, such as the quota system, the paternity leave packet and retirement measures.

The Benefits of more Women in Economics

According to Alessandra Casarico, the interest to have more women in the Economics field can be drawn on two perspectives. “From an individual point of view, the Economic disciplines have a higher return on the labor market, both in terms of employability and wages”. In other words, a higher participation in this field immediately boosts women’s empowerment in the society. This is peculiarly significant now, with the pandemic setting back gender equality in the job market.

On the other hand, she added that “from a collective perspective, in contexts where diversity is greater, different group dynamics and different views on the relevant topics are generated. These aspects favor an enrichment of the profession, with the consequent development of more relevant and solid knowledge and policy”.

Research shows that, even within Economics, some sectors appeal to them more than others (graph 1). “Female researchers tend to be more interested in Labor and Development Economics, while Financial, Theory and Monetary keep being male-led . Also, women focus specifically on gender issues, even if the theme is becoming more and more relevant among men too”, Professor Profeta said.

Women in Economics - Difference between Share of Women and Share of Men in Particular Fields of Economics
Shelly Lundberg and Jenna Stearns, “Women in Economics: Stalled Progress” in ournal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 33, Number 1—Winter 2019

Professor Casarico explained that Economics is often presented just as banking and finance and this may discourage women to start their studies in the field: “Luckily, awareness on this issue is increasing and actions are being taken to promote a more balanced but also a more correct view on what economists do and what economics is about”.

The Trend nowadays

“Women in Economics: Stalled Progress”, by Shelly Lundberg and Jenna Stearns, included in the Journal of Economic perspectives (Winter 2019), covers the trend in the United States, on a 25-year basis. It highlights that the progress in the field has slowed compared to that in other disciplines in the STEM. Although the general trend is increasing, it keeps on a low level: from the mid-2000s to now, around 35 percent of PhD students and 30 percent of assistant professors were female.

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In Italy, the situation is less alarming. However, the data published by the Italian Society of Economists (SIE) show remarkable differences along the study path. For undergraduate students, the parity has nearly been reached (women are 42% over the total, in 2017-2018). But then there is a leaky pipeline (graph 2).

Leaky pipelines in Economics in the Italian universities 2018
Cineca (SIECON – Società Italiana degli Economisti), “Leaky pipelines in Economics in the Italian universities 2018”

Prejudices, Implicit Bias and other Difficulties Faced by a Female Researcher

So, if women’s talents are distributed equally in the first years of studies, what are the main obstacles faced by a student in the path to become a researcher?

Firstly, there are many implicit biases, i.e. discriminatory behaviors that people unconsciously manifest. “Economics traditionally has a competitive and aggressive dimension. For example, there is evidence that, during the presentation of papers, female speakers are more subject to pressing questions by the audience, with the intent of hinder them”: Paola Profeta highlighted. Many institutions are trying to solve this issue by introducing new rules, such as not allowing questions for the first ten minutes or giving the speaker the right to choose the moment in which they want to take questions.

Another interesting point is the higher bar faced for publishing their work: only 11 percent of papers published in top-five journals since 1990 are female-authored. Hengel’s investigation (2019) showed that women are held to higher writing standards in academic peer review. Card et al. (2020) added that men’s citations rise when they collaborate with women, while the opposite happens for the latter: when they publish their works in collaboration with men, they tend to receive less recognition for their work.

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In addition, the lack of an established system of mentoring and of role models is impactful. Observing that there are so few women who reached positions of leadership, i.e. currently filling the role of full professors, one may feel discouraged, believing that a job requiring so many sacrifices and involving so much stress may not give the desired pay-offs.

This is connected to the difficulty for the underrepresented sex to create networks. Like in any other environment, interpersonal relationships are extremely be important in this job as well; even if it may be taken for granted, a woman having different interests and hobbies compared to men may have less occasions to build networks.

How to Balance Personal and Academic Ambitions

The job of an Academic is invasive, as it absorbs completely the life of a young researcher. Furthermore, it is hard working, little remunerative and full of uncertainty, since it does not contemplate “permanency”, especially at the start of the career. Basically, daily achievements are extremely important; and each stumble can influence their future in the field.

Furthermore, PhD studies exactly overlap the “10-year clock”, that is the period of life when people start thinking of having children. Even if many universities are starting to offer more flexibility and support to welcome researchers’ personal life goals, this often is not a sufficient incentive.

In fact, even if this tends to be forgotten, Economists are human beings with their goals, both for their job and their private life, and they face important difficulties in reaching the position they aim to.

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Janet Currie, pioneer in the Economic analysis of child development, faced a lot of negativity about her research agenda: “People said to me directly in the face: “What you are doing may be of interest to somebody, but it is not Economics”. I chose to ignore these comments and now you can find a whole research area that covers essentially what I do. Indeed, I believe that it is important to evaluate the advices you receive and decide if you want to follow them or not”. The Princeton scholar admitted that, when she had children, she found it difficult to accept that her job would have not allowed her to entirely respect the expectations from society to be a “perfect mother”.

Paola Profeta experienced a similar difficulty twenty years ago, when she discussed her PhD thesis at the 7th month of pregnancy: “At that time Economics was even more full of men than nowadays. People just did not understand my choice and told me: “For 5 years from now, you will do nothing in this profession because you will have to dedicate to your family”.  These obstacles were the prompts for my interest in gender studies: I fight to demolish the prejudices that assimilate all women and hinder the possibility of female talents to establish themselves”.


Article taken from Tra i Leoni n. 92, October 2020. You can read the whole edition here.

Author profile
Deputy Director | francesca.cocco@studbocconi.it

Deputy Director and intrepid reporter. Currently studying International Economics and Management

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