Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Does studying economics make you sexist?

Economics has a gender problem. If you don't believe it, just watch this webcast of the session "How can economics solve its gender problem?", from last week's AEA meeting in Atlanta. Or the several posts I have written on the gender gap (see the list at the end of this post).

The question of whether economics is sexist is pretty much settled (the answer is, yes it is). The relevant question now, is why? Is it because studying economics somehow makes students more gender-biased (maybe because they encounter fewer female peers, or fewer female faculty members)? Or is it because students who are already more gender-biased (perhaps they have more socially conservative views) are more likely to study economics?

Another paper presented at the AEA meetings, by Valentina Paredes (Universidad de Chile), Daniele Paserman (Boston University), and Francisco Pino (Universidad de Chile) provides an initial answer to the question of whether studying economics makes students more sexist. They used survey data from 3228 Chilean students, of which about 26% were enrolled in 'Business and Economics'. Their sample includes both first-year students, and senior undergraduate students (Years 2 to 6), so they are able to see how gender attitudes differ between economics and other students, and how this difference changes between those just starting out as students, and those who are late in the university education (this is what economists refer to as a 'difference-in-differences' research design). They use several measures of gender-biasedness, including a composite score of all of their various measures. They report that:
For eight of the nine individual measures, we find that B&E students are more gender biased than non-B&E students, and five of the differences are statistically significant at the 5% level (in the specification with controls). The bias of B&E students appears to be particularly pronounced in the IAT-career score, hostile and benevolent sexism, and the gender roles-normative measure.16 The raw gap in the aggregate gender-bias score 0.19 standard deviations, and it falls to 0.14 standard deviations after inclusion of controls. In other words, the gap between B&E and non-B&E students is about one quarter as large as the gap between men and women. This is a sizeable difference.
So, there is more gender bias among Business and Economics students than among other students. But, is this a result of studying economics, or were they more biased to begin with? Paredes et al. report that:
The difference-in-differences estimator is positive for all measures (in the version with controls), but never statistically significant. Therefore the evidence in support of the training hypothesis is rather mixed.
I wouldn't call that evidence mixed. I'd call it unconvincing. It appears that students choosing to study Business and Economics are already more biased before they start their studies. However, there are some interesting gender differences:
For women, there is some evidence of selection: economics students are more gender-biased upon entry, and the gap increases at most moderately in subsequent years. For male students, on the other hand, we observe a moderate-sized but insignificant gap at entry, a large and statistically significant gap among upperclassmen, and a large and statistically significant difference-in-differences estimate.
So, it appears that studying economics might increase gender bias, but only for male students. Paredes et al. go on to look at some possible mechanisms that might explain the difference. The proportion of female peers doesn't explain it, and neither does differences in political ideology. However:
The share of female faculty has a strong and statistically significant association with the gender bias score for both first year and upperclass male students, but is almost unrelated to female students’ score. The difference-in-differences estimate for male students drops from 0.175 to 0.105, implying that about 40% of the B&E-non-B&E gap for male students can be explained by differential exposure to female faculty.
A substantial proportion of the effect of studying economics on gender-biased attitudes among students can be explained by differences in exposure to female faculty. In other words, this suggests that having more female faculty is a good thing for reducing gender bias in economics. However, as noted in the webcast I linked above, this leads to a chicken-and-egg problem - the solution to reducing gender bias is to have more female economists, and to have more female economists, we need less gender bias. And given that the key difference is between first-year students and older students, we need more female faculty teaching introductory economics (am I talking myself out of my current teaching allocation?).

Of course, there are some caveats to the Paredes et al. paper. Chile has a huge gender gap problem, as noted in the paper:
The raw gender gap in monthly wages is 31.7%. Even among full-time employees, the gender gap in hourly wages is 19.4%. The United Nations Gender Inequality Index ranks Chile 65th out of 188 countries (the U.S. is ranked 43), while the World Economics Forum Gender Gap Index ranks Chile 63th of 144, and only 117th in the Economic Participation and Opportunity subcategory.
That might contribute to the results in a way that makes them less representative for other countries where gender gaps are not quite as pronounced. There is also the problem that there is a gender bias only for female first-year students (but not males), which leads to the statistically insignificant effect overall when both groups are combined. There doesn't seem to be a good explanation for why female students would exhibit gender bias on entry to university, but not male students. So, there is definitely scope for more of this type of research.

[HT: Marginal Revolution]

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