Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Breaking the glass ceiling in economics

Sexism prevents women economists from working on a level playing field with their male counterparts

There is a disequilibrium deep inside the economics profession. Consider this: Elinor Ostrom is the only woman to have won the economics Nobel prize since it was instituted in 1969. As many as 78 men have won the prize. The skew is only one example of a problem that has profound implications for society as a whole.

Anna Schwartz, who jointly wrote the monumental A Monetary History Of The United States with Milton Friedman, did not share the Nobel with him. Joan Robinson missed the prize despite offering a powerful challenge to mainstream economics, though this was perhaps as much to do with her politics as her gender. Friedman considered her a worthy candidate. Such is the dismal state of the dismal science.

Amanda Bayer and C.E. Rouse, in their paper Diversity In The Economics Profession: A New Attack On An Old Problem, find that of 500 economics doctorates awarded in the US in 2014, only 157 were earned by women.

The problem isn’t limited to public recognition. Ann Mari May, Mary G. McGarvey and Robert Whaples found in a 2013 paper that their survey of 143 doctorate-holding members of the American Economic Association showed women economists more likely than their male counterparts to agree with the need for a more equitable distribution of income and linking import openness to labour standards. They were also more likely to disagree that the US government has unnecessary control over economic activity and that men and women have equal opportunities. With the help of experiments involving dictator games where a group of 164 undergraduate students were asked to divide a sum of money between themselves and the American Red Cross, Linda Kamas, Anne Preston and Sandy Baum find in their paper, Altruism In Individual And Joint-Giving Decisions: What’s Gender Got To Do With It?, that women tend to give more money than men. Therefore, an underrepresentation of women in economics—and the policy world—has profound implications for all of us.

The question is why economics as a discipline is not very accommodative of women, if one goes beyond the crude explanation that men have a biological advantage in mathematics. Various studies have shown that economics has a persistent gender gap in promotion and salaries that cannot be explained by productivity differences. This problem of sexism is a threefold barbed-wire mesh keeping women from a level playing field with men.

First is the problem of opportunity. Erin Hengel, in her paper Publishing While Female, finds that the review process for papers submitted by women to Econometrica, a leading journal, takes six months longer than men’s despite controlling for childbirth and motherhood, factors that take away time from writing.

Second is the problem of sustenance. Claudia Goldin, in her Gender And The Undergraduate Economics Major paper, uses data from Britain and the US to find that women dominate the undergraduate population. But, in the US, there are 2.9 men for every woman majoring in economics; 2.6 in Britain. The share of women choosing economics is falling. Women who earn a graduate degree in economics go into PhD programmes at the same rate as men and drop out at the same rate. But when they go on to seek tenure, they’re either pulled aside or pushed away; women have to face thicker glass ceilings.

Third is the problem of representation. According to an article in The Economist (, the faculty of the economics department at Harvard boasts of 43 senior economists, and only three are women. Moreover, women spend their maternity leaves in childcare at crucial stages in their careers, whereas men use the sabbatical/parental leave to work on their research, undistracted. This leads to gaps in professional progress and wages over lifetimes that discourage women from taking up technical courses like economics and steer them towards more gender-sensitive sectors, which may be termed “unconscious prejudices". Women are considered good fits only for stereotypical gender-sensitive areas, for example education and health.

Most of the work done on the discrimination against women in economics has been done in the developed countries. It is also important to turn the spotlight on India. There is no data as yet to come to any firm conclusions about institutionalized discrimination, but one good way to begin is by ensuring that some stellar Indian women economists get more recognition for their contributions to our understanding of theoretical economics as well as Indian realities—Krishna Bharadwaj, Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Devaki Jain, Jayati Ghosh, Utsa Patnaik and Indira Rajaraman, for instance. Few know that Padma Desai—whom Paul Samuelson described as an economists’ economist—jointly wrote the landmark 1969 study with Jagdish Bhagwati that was one of the first intellectual assaults on industrial licensing. Among the later generation of women economists are, for example, Gita Gopinath, Rohini Pande, Shamika Ravi, Ashima Goyal, Reetika Khera and Bina Agarwal. India needs more such women economists in academia and policy institutions.

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