Friday, 16 February 2018

Could role models close the gender gap in economics?

I've written a few posts on the gender gap in economics (the latest one here). If the gender gap is a problem, then it is reasonable to consider how we might best go about closing that gap. First, we would want to know where the gender gap in economics arises, in order to identify where to target an intervention. Is it that female students are less prepared at high school for economics study at university? Some have argued that is the case. Or maybe in their first economics paper at university, we are turning female students off economics (or alternatively, we are doing the job of attracting female students into an economics major less well than other disciplines like accounting or marketing are attracting those same students into their majors)? Initial results from my Summer Research Scholarship student (which I will blog about soon) are suggesting that is the case. Or maybe female economics students are less likely to complete their major? Our results suggest that isn't happening.

So, let's say that the problem is in the introductory economics paper that students encounter in their first year at university. How do we better sell economics as a major to female students? Homa Zarghamee (Barnard College) has argued that the way we teach economics needs to change. However, we also need to make it clear to female students that there are career pathways in economics that are suitable (and indeed, attractive) for them. And one way to do that is through exposing female students to role models.

Moneyish reported last month on a new working paper by Catherine Porter (Heriot-Watt University) and Danila Serra (Southern Methodist University), where the authors assessed the impact of bringing past alumna to speak to economics principles classes, on how many female students later chose to major in economics. They first had two female undergraduate students interview (via Skype) and choose speakers from a short-list (which also included male alumni). They then randomised classes, so that some classes had the two selected alumna visit, where:
Each visit consisted of a discussion about the role model's experience as an economics major, a description of their career paths and achievements, and an explanation of how their specific major (economics) contributed to their success on the job.
The randomisation allowed Porter and Serra to test whether students in the classes that had the visits differed in whether they chose economics as a major, compared with students in the classes that didn't have visits. They found that:
...the role model intervention had a significant and large impact on both outcomes for female students, while having no impact on male students. Being in a class that received the role model visits increased the likelihood that a female student would take an intermediate microeconomics class the following academic year by 12 percentage points, and the likelihood that she would express the intention to major in economics by 7.8 points. This corresponds to a 100 percent increase in both variables.
Simply having a female role model visit the class and talk about their experiences and career path was enough to double the probability of female students choosing to major in economics (and had no effect on male students). That's astounding. The effect of the visits was greatest for the top female students (those with a GPA of greater than 3.7). Interestingly (to me), having a female professor had a significant effect on taking the intermediate microeconomics course (their indicator of being an economics major) in the semester immediately after the principles course, but was not significant when they also considered students who took the intermediate microeconomics course the following year. That's actually the measure my Summer Research Scholarship student is using, and we have (tentatively) found that the gender of tutor doesn't affect the choice to major in economics.

So, where to from here? I'm on the lookout for some excellent Waikato alumna to come and speak to first year economics students!

[HT: Development Impact]

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