Saturday, 10 June 2017

The gender gap in economics

I was interested to read recently the new paper in the Papers and Proceedings issue of the American Economic Review by Wendy Stock (Montana State University), entitled "Trends in Economics and Other Undergraduate Majors" (sorry, I don't see an ungated version anywhere). Stock used data on some 1.5 million degrees awarded in the U.S. over the period 2001-2014. To me, the key results start with this:
An average of 26,500 degrees were conferred to economics majors per year. Females earned just under one-third and minority students earned just over one-tenth of these majors...
Economics’ share of first majors remained flat at about 1.7 percent during 2001–2014, while its share of second majors grew from 3.5 to 4.6 percent... only a tiny and unchanging fraction of female and minority students (0.9 and 1.1 percent, respectively) first majored in economics during 2001–2014. Thus, although we have seen substantial growth over time in female and minority students graduating from college, the demographic mix of majors in economics has not mirrored these trends. However, from 2001–2014, economics’ share of second majors grew from 2.3 to 2.9 percent among females and from 1.8 to 2.8 percent among minority students.
Despite some increase in economics majors among female students, there remains a significant gender gap (and this is a point I have raised before). Stock's paper is relatively silent on the reasons for the gap. However, some earlier work may shed some light on this.

A 2012 paper by Tisha Emerson (Baylor), KimMarie McGoldrick (University of Richmond), and Kevin Mumford (Purdue) published in the Journal of Economics Education, suggested that:
...apprehension over the gender gap also includes suggestions that the absence of peers and role models may have a dampening effect on female interest in the discipline... Thus, the gender gap could be (partially) self-perpetuating.
Emerson et al. used data from nearly 600,000 students from the Multiple-Institution Database for Investigating Engineering Longitudinal Development (MIDFIELD), and investigated which students took introductory economics, which students progressed to an intermediate theory course, and which students progressed to an economics major. They found that:
...females and minorities are less likely to take an introductory economics course. Further, students with higher standardized SAT/ACT scores are significantly less likely to enroll in introductory economics courses. However, women with higher aptitude are relatively more likely to enroll in an introductory course as are female minorities...
At the intermediate theory level, we found significant differences in the probability of majoring by gender, which remain even after accounting for gender differences in the influence of aptitude and course performance...
...the probability that females major in economics is positively correlated with the proportion of women in their theory course. A 1-percent increase in the percentage of male students in their theory course actually decreases a female student’s likelihood of majoring in economics by 59 percent. 
They concluded that:
...course performance matters, and our grading practices and policies relative to that of other disciplines may either draw or repel students.
Which relates to a point I made in an earlier post this week. There may be good reasons for us to include more writing in introductory economics, in order to attract more female students into the discipline. Also:
...because once students commit to an economics major they stick by that decision, one possible channel for increasing the number of women who major in economics is to generate significant interest in the subject prior to their first course, perhaps through greater exposure to economics at the high school level.
This is something that we have little control over at university level. And the rise in business studies courses at high school, and consequent decline of economics courses, is likely to be a challenge for the future of the economics major at all universities. This may especially become a problem at Waikato from next year, where a greater proportion of students will have to elect their majors from the start of their first year of their degree.

The gender gap is not just apparent in U.S. data. In a 2015 paper published in the journal CESifo Economic Studies (ungated earlier version here) and authored by Mirco Tonin and Jackline Wahba (both University of Southampton), we see somewhat similar results for the U.K. They report:
...using administrative data for enrolment in 2008, we find that females represent 57% of those enrolling for undergraduate courses in all fields, but only 27% in Economics.
Tonin and Wahba have access to data from a 50% sample of all applicants to UK universities in 2008, being nearly 960,000 applications, from over 230,000 applicants. Once they restrict the sample to those who actually enrolled at a university, that leaves a little over 185,000 applicants. This dataset allows them to look at whether there is a gender bias in applications, offers, or acceptance of offers by students. They find:
...no evidence that females are less likely to accept an offer for a bachelor's degree in Economics, thus indicating that, conditional on applying, Economics is not lower in the ranking for females than for males. We also do not find evidence of universities discriminating against female applicants. What we find is that girls are less likely to apply for a bachelor's degree in Economics to start with, while they are over-represented in certain degrees that are associated with more female-concentrated occupations such as Nursing and Education... even among those who have studied Maths, females are less likely to apply for an Economics degree than males, suggesting that differences in the choice of A level subjects cannot explain the whole gap.
Again, it appears that part of the problem is occurring before female students even set foot on the university campus. Are female students simply less interested in economics by the time they apply for university?

Coming back to the Stock paper I mentioned first in this post though, she suggests something that might be worth consideration:
Encouraging combinations of second majors in economics with majors that are growing among female and minority groups may also increase gender and racial diversity among economics undergraduates.
Perhaps the most effective course of action at the margin is to make economics an attractive second major for students in other disciplines, or an attractive option as a minor or as part of an inter-disciplinary major or minor. Given the significant upheaval of the degree structures and majors here at Waikato, I look forward to reporting in the future on some of our developments in that space. In the meantime though, will shortly submit a proposal for a Summer Research Scholarship student to use our accumulated data on first-year economics students at Waikato, to further investigate the gender gap in economics. I look forward to reporting on that in a future post as well.

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