Op-Ed: Pursuing economics: A call for active engagement

A recent article discussed the scarcity of women in the economics department and the comparatively good female faculty representation at Tufts. The article stated that the conceptual demands of the discipline cause significant attrition. Although the presence of female faculty is undoubtedly a strength of the department, this characterization fails to advocate for what is really needed: active institutional support with the gender disparity in economics, rather than a hope of increased enrollment rates as something to automatically follow representation.

There are three things that can be done:

  1. Integrate more female thinkers and feminist economics into the mainstream academic curriculum. The idea that motherhood is unpaid labor should not be a radical concept emerging in niche, upper-level American Studies classes.
  2. Bring more applied discussion into the classroom, perhaps by supplementing models of economic growth with a description of past financial crises and the effectiveness of different historical approaches. Offer institutional support and flexibility for minority students who want a more interdisciplinary experience with the major.
  3. Create initiatives, panels and research opportunities targeting female and minority students. We cannot just wait for individuals to self-select into a biased system. We have a responsibility to show them that we have the demand to meet their supply.

Discussing this particular disparity requires a more thorough examination of why female students may be disheartened by economics. Attributing this to conceptual difficulty misses the issue. The article alludes to a broader socialization problem wherein women who might even get better grades than men still feel like they are doing poorly early on in the curriculum. Yet even this doesn’t tackle the root of the matter: Students are faced with disheartening expectations of the major from the get-go. Reshaping its structure is critical.

This raises a broader question regarding the diversity within the department and curriculum as a whole. While departments obviously face constraints, economics at Tufts is upsettingly confined to highly theoretical neoclassical approaches. Why is there room for Behavioral Economics (a class that integrates psychology to interrogate basic economic assumptions) but not for an anthropological take on development (which is discussed in the classroom with little to no mention of historical colonialism and the disproportionate harms accrued to women of color)? There is room to discuss individuals like Rosa Luxemburg, a feminist and Marxist economist who offered a controversial but historically influential view of growth. A liberal arts approach should welcome a discussion of such perspectives, better allowing students to form their own critical opinions of very pertinent issues. Tufts’ limited exploration of economics disincentivizes broader, pressing conversations surrounding inequality and power.

Learning economics is not important simply to understand how things work. It is a language of power that can change the status quo, but only when there is room to have critical conversations about issues like gender inside the classroom. We should absolutely encourage more women to enroll in the major. Yet this approach alone is insufficient. Teachers and the university at large have a responsibility to open the curriculum and discourse of economics to the many groups of people who have been historically sidelined by the field.