Faculty, graduate students discuss scarcity of women in economics department

The Academic Quad is pictured at sunset on Feb. 13. Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily

There are fewer women than men among both professors and students in the economics department at Tufts, according to Professor Dan Richards, chair of the Department of Economics. Richards told the Daily in an email that 35 percent of undergraduates majoring in economics or quantitative economics at Tufts are women.

On Feb. 2, The New York Times published an op-ed, “Why Women’s Voices are Scarce in Economics,” by University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers. According to the article, the national proportion of economics majors who are women has declined from its peak of more than 40 percent in the mid- to late-1990s to just 35 percent in 2016, according to estimates from the American Community Survey reported in the op-ed.

Richards noted that at Tufts, this statistic has held steady over the past five to six years, unlike the trend at other schools or nationwide.

“We haven’t seen a downturn that some other places have seen. I think that is partly because if you look at our faculty, among economics departments, we have a very high proportion of female faculty members,” Richards said in an interview.

In the op-ed, Wolfers also cited multiple causes for this trend, such as women economists being held to higher standards and not being given credit for their work. Professor Lynne Pepall explained that female students may be disheartened by the difficulty of studying economics, resulting in greater attrition.

“When I go to graduation and I watch all them march go across the podium, I’m going ‘Where are all the women?'” she said. “Part of it is that it is a discipline that for some women is very discouraging because they do not excel right away. It is a hard discipline, very demanding conceptually. I think that makes women, our women students feel intimidated.”

Professor Margaret McMillan concurred with this sentiment.

“People think economics is common sense, so all the classes should make sense, but really it’s like learning a foreign language that gives you tools to have deeper insight into the way the world works. So people should not think that [they] cannot do it, if they don’t get it the first time,” she said.

Richards said that female students may hold themselves to higher standards in Tufts’ introductory economics class.

“Men, because they have maybe been thinking of a business career from the start, they might get a C- in EC 5, but they still want to continue, while women may get a B+ in EC 5 and think they are terrible at this. It is an amazing difference, there is something quite different about the response. We do try and encourage those who get a B or B+ in [EC] 5 to continue,” he said.

Pepall spoke to the efforts of the department to try and reverse this trend.

“The Chair [Richards] has been very sensitive [to] trying to think of ways we can encourage women to stick with it and the women who do very well. I dislike seeing women thinking they are not well suited,” she said.

Nonetheless, the young women who become economics majors do very well. Richards reported that over the past five years, women made up 38 percent of economics and quantitative economics majors graduating with summa honors and 36 percent of magna honors.

He added that women have also made up a significant proportion of winners of undergraduate awards in the economics department over the last six yearsCharles G. Bludhorn Prize and Linda Datcher Loury Award recipients are 40 percent female, Daniel Ounjian Prize recipients are 44 percent female, while the Marion Ricker Houston Prize recipients are 66 percent female.

Girija Bahety, a first-year Ph.D. student in economics and public policy, shared that she and other female economics students have many role models within the department who they can aspire to emulate.

Pepall recounted that she had the same experience from her first day at Tufts, before serious conversation about the representation of women in the field even began.

“When I came to Tufts, there were already other women here, which made a big difference. When I joined the team, it was almost like we had achieved a critical mass, and from there it just became easier and better. I have had a very atypical experience,” she said. “Tufts was very fortunate … to [have] been proactive on attracting women before it became a cause.”

First-year PhD student in economics and public policy Marina Ngoma remarked that knowing other successful women has also encouraged her to pursue further study of economics.

“In my point of view, having success stories, women sharing these stories, can influence how we can attract more women in the field. When I was in high school, I would read women success stories and I think it really inspired me to keeping dreaming, take my hopes higher,” she said.

Belinda Xian / The Tufts Daily

The op-ed reported that women made up 14 percent of full professors in departments with doctoral programs. At Tufts, there are 11 women — 44 percent — out of 25 full-time faculty, including 10 out of 23 tenure-stream faculty, according to data provided by Richards.

Pepall spoke to the importance of having greater gender diversity among economists.

“Generally, just having women at the table changes the conversation, just the tone, the manner,” she said. “It’s subtle. Diversity of any kind is good for thinking.”

Bahety emphasized the integral part that women have played in the advancement of economic research.

“From a development economics perspective, there is a paternalistic attitude about what works and doesn’t work, and that has been breaking. There is a new angle. Plus, you have more equitable study. Now, there are so many studies about women and that would not have happened without women,” she said.

Pepall noted that, given the outsize influence of economics on public policy, it is imperative for there to be even more female voices in the field.

“So many of the important policy issues that your generation will be facing — income equality, environment, immigration — every one of them has a big economics piece and to not feel empowered in that piece, I think that really limits you,” she said.

McMillan said that knowledge of economics will help female students make better sense of the world around them.

“I would like to tell young women that whatever you want to do … having an economics major helps. Helps raise your salary, helps you understand how the way things work, gives you tools to help you read things and understand them, such as policy. It’s not that hard, but if you don’t have the background, you can’t understand it,” she said.

Bahety hopes that more women will choose to study economics despite the current gender disparity.

“Never get intimidated, you’ll face a gender imbalance in parts of your life, so let’s just face it and see what it does — facing it rather than falling to it,” she said.