Women economists remain underrepresented in leadership positions across the academic world as well as in the private and public sectors. This column uses data from the 2020 edition of the Women in Economics Index (WiE) to document imbalances in the profession’s gender distribution, discuss what those imbalances reveal about the state of the profession broadly, and emphasise the importance of equal opportunity to the field’s future. Removing barriers in economics will not only facilitate workplace fairness but may also improve outcomes.
By Philip Hanspach, Virginia Sondergeld and Jess Palka*
Economists hold key positions of power across society – in universities, offices of government, international institutions, and research think tanks. Economists also tend to be overwhelmingly male, with the gender gap increasing with seniority of position. Focusing on the academic career ladder in the US, the ratio of men to women among PhD graduates is 2:1, increasing to 3:1 for assistant and associate professors, and 6:1 for full professors (Chicago Booth Review 2019). A similar pattern holds for Europe, where Friebel and Wilhelm (2020) find a lower share of women professors (24%) than of women as assistant (41%) or associate (36%) professors (see Auriol et al. 2019 for a summary).
This gender difference is especially large compared with other disciplines. In 2014, approximately 31% of economics PhDs in the US were awarded to women, far below other social sciences and even below other quantitative fields, such as the so-called STEM subjects (Bayer and Rouse 2016). The reasons and consequences of this gender imbalance are increasingly studied in economic research, including a recent book by VoxEU (2020).
In academia, for example, studies have documented a trade-off for women between their careers and having children. Investigating the productivity difference between women researchers with and without children, Joecks at al. (2014) find that only the most productive women researchers with children remain in research. Other barriers to economics careers that disproportionately affect women in academia include a lack of role models (Porter and Serra 2020) and different credit received for group work (Sarsons et al. 2020). As research on scientific careers in physics has shown, even with objective promotion criteria, promotions for women scientists are differently impacted by factors such as family characteristics, mentoring, networks, and research responsibilities (Mairesse et al. 2020).
Removing barriers and ensuring equal opportunities in economics is important not only for workplace fairness; it also has the potential to improve outcomes in at least two ways.
First, from an organisational perspective, unequal opportunities lead to direct inefficiencies. In hiring the right person for the right job, one should be aware of how decision-makers’ explicit and implicit biases may lead to sub-optimal outcomes, along with reinforcing gender inequality or discrimination. In policy-making, an increased representation of women in local parliaments increases their responsiveness to women’s policy preferences and needs (Baskaran and Hessami 2020). Second, reducing barriers to access for women may have positive spillover effects on other individuals in an organisation and the profession more generally. Considering academia again, the expanding time to complete economics PhDs has attracted growing interest (Stock at al. 2011). Curbing this trend could make it easier to reconcile career and family planning for all researchers. The impact would be particularly important for women since the evaluation period of junior researchers for permanent academic jobs (the so-called “tenure-clock”) overlaps with the years in which many people start a family.
What is the status of women in economics?
The WiE Index 2020 analyses the share of women economists in leadership positions across the academic, public, and private sectors. The indicators cover a wide range of positions within each of these sectors (referred to as “pillars”). We record the proportion of women in positions such as faculty members of economics departments, chief economists in private companies, and governmental economic advisors. The report contains a broad aggregation of the proportion of women, assigning a WiE index value between zero and 100 to each of the three pillars. A value of zero signifies complete gender disparity, while a value of 100 means perfect gender parity. Where possible, we further disaggregate the indicators by country or region to study geographical variations.
In academia, the WiE Index is computed from three indicators. The first is the share of women authors of economics literature, as ranked by RePEc. In the last ten years of publication rankings, we find five women among the top 100 authors (5%). The second indicator is the share of women as leaders of the highest-ranking think tanks according to RePEc. Within the top 25% of think tanks, we find that 21% of all leadership positions are held by women. Finally, among the top 25 economics departments from the QS World University Ranking 2020, we find 303 women (20%) among 1,513 faculty members across all levels. We summarise these numbers as a simple mean, compute the difference to parity, and scale it up to 100, for a total score of 31 for the academic pillar.
We further analyse the data at a geographically disaggregated level and find substantial variation across regions. In African countries, we find that 16% of the top 100 academic economics authors and 35% of faculty members are women, far above the average of the global rankings, which are dominated by North America and Europe. In Latin American countries, 28% of faculty members are women, while North American faculties trail the list of continents at 18%. A closer look at Scandinavian and German-speaking countries finds that 9% of top authors are women.
Figure 1 Share of women among the top 100 ranked authors, leaders of top ranked think tanks, faculty members of the highest ranked economics departments according to RePEc
Private sector pillar
For the private sector, we use the Fortune 500 ranking to identify the share of women employed as chief economists at the largest banks (20%), insurance companies (9%), and the largest companies by revenue (22%). We use publicly available information and reach out to all companies in our sample to confirm our findings. Again, these results are summarised as an index value, for a total score of 35 for the private-sector pillar. Supplemental statistics on regional variation in the private sector are available in the publication.
Figure 2 Share of women as chief economists at insurance firms, banks, and the largest private companies by revenue of the Fortune 500
Public sector pillar
For the public sector, we consider four indicators: The share of women among central bank governors (8%) and ministers of finance (11%) in 179 different countries, as listed by the Bank for International Settlements. Furthermore, we record the average share of women among economic advisory councils advising national governments (25%). Finally, we consider 20 key international economic institutions, including the Interamerican Development Bank, the International Labor Organization, and the World Trade Organization, finding that 32% of chief economists (or their equivalents) are women. The index value in the public-sector pillar based on these four indicators is 38.
Figure 3 Share of women as governors of central banks, finance ministers, members of economics advisory councils, and chief economists (or equivalent) of international economic institutions
Identifying actions for change
The results of the WiE Index 2020 motivate new research questions. What are the reasons for the low representation of women across sectors and regions? Is there a fundamental difference between international institutions, the private sector, and academia that lead to systematically different opportunities for women? Can we identify best practice policies for ensuring equal opportunities? We plan to approach these questions together with the WiE Research Team through both qualitative and quantitative investigation of institutions that succeeded in reducing barriers for women in economics, and to identify promising policies to replicate elsewhere.
Take a look at the WiE Index 2020 and our other initiatives to learn more about our work. By informing yourself about the current state of gender quality in our profession, you are taking the first step towards being an agent of change.
*About the authors:
- Philip Hanspach, PhD student in Economics, European University Institute; Co-founder and Head of Research, Women in Economics Initiative
- Virginia Sondergeld, PhD student, DIW Berlin; Co-founder and Chair of the Board, The Women in Economics Initiative (e.V.)
- Jess Palka, Doctoral student, University Duisburg-Essen and WiE Chief Editor
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Baskaran, T and Z Hessami (2020), “Women as policymakers do make a difference”, VoxEU.org, 18 February.
Bayer, A and C E Rouse (2016), “Diversity in the Economics Profession: A New Attack on an Old Problem”, Journal of Economic Persepctives 30(4), 221–242.
Friebel, G and S Wilhelm (2020), “Distribution by Hierarchical Levels (as of 18 January)”, Retrieved 28 November.
Goldin, C, V Guerrieri and A Voena (2019), “Why are there so few women economists?”, Chicago Booth Review, 29 May.
Joecks, J, K Pull and U Backes-Gellner (2014), “Childbearing and (female) research productivity: a personnel economics perspective on the leaky pipeline”, Journal of Business Economics 84: 517–530.
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Mairesse, J, M Pezzoni and F Visentin (2020), “When there is no gender discrimination in promotion in science: An econometric case study”, VoxEU.org, 13 December.
Porter, C and D Serra (2020), “Gender Differences in the Choice of Major: The Importance of Female Role Models”, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 12(3): 226–254.
Sarsons, H, K Gërxhani, E Reuben and A Schram (2021), “Gender Differences in Recognition for Group Work”, Journal of Political Economy 129(1).
Stock, W A, J J Siegfried and T A Finegan (2011), “Completion Rates and Time-to-Degree in Economics PhD Programs (with comments by David Colander, N. Gregory Mankiw, Melissa P. McInerney, James M. Poterba)”, American Economic Review 101(3): 176–188.
The Women in Economics Initiative e.V. (2020), The Women in Economics Index 2020.