Shah: New Thinking and Possibilities

Gender gaps begin — and can end — during our undergraduate education.

by Rachna Shah | 3/27/18 12:15am

When you think of a typical economics major, who comes to mind? One of the predominant stereotypes is the “econ bro.” A glance around an economics classroom during my Dimensions experience last spring provided evidence of a gender imbalance in the major, a suspicion that was reinforced while taking economics courses my freshman fall and winter. Economics is Dartmouth’s most popular undergraduate major. As the gender gap in economics fails to shrink in graduate education and in the workplace, it needs to be addressed at its roots.

The gender gap in undergraduate majors has begun to close in fields ranging from biology to business. Women make up 57 percent of biology majors and 42 percent of business majors in the top 100 universities that offer bachelor’s degrees in these disciplines. Closer to home, between 2007 and 2011, 28 percent of Dartmouth’s bachelor of engineering degrees were awarded to women; in just five years, in 2016, Dartmouth made history by graduating a majority-female undergraduate engineering class at 54 percent. Joseph J. Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering, attributes this success to the College’s engineering courses that focus on design and real-world applications. In addition, the Women in Science Project (WISP) employs intervention strategies ranging from mentoring to early hands-on research experience to help women succeed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

However, economics is one area of study where the gender gap has not been closing, both at Dartmouth and across the country. The share of female economics majors was at its height in the 1990s and has declined ever since; today, for every one female economics major, there are 2.9 male economics majors nationwide. At the University of California Berkeley, it is 1.47; at Harvard, 1.83, and at Dartmouth, 2.32.

This gender imbalance leads to economics being a field viewed through a male-dominated lens rather than the neutral one it ought to be. Gender diversity is correlated with viewpoint diversity among economists, thus expanding the knowledge base. A liberal arts education succeeds when it brings as many perspectives as possible to a classroom, just as a workplace thrives by bringing as many voices as possible to the table. Compared with their counterparts, companies with low gender diversity are 29 percent more likely to underperform.

Some studies argue that the reason behind the gender gap is that women prefer work in different fields, such as health, education and social work. Harvard professor Claudia Goldin, who has led extensive research in gender dynamics in economics, believes that the field’s focus on formalism and lack of emphasis on human dynamics could partially explain the gender gap. Other studies have shown that women display a greater degree of aversion to competition than men do. However, a purported behavioral gender difference is unlikely to be the sole cause for why female undergraduates are less likely to pursue a Ph.D. in economics than male undergraduates.

There are many proposed reasons behind this occurrence, and the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge works to address many of them. The Challenge is a randomized control trial at 20 academic institutions that encourages greater female undergraduate participation in economics. Interventions include freshman orientation videos that provide information about college-to-career pathways in economics, female mentors and role models, student faculty counseling, guest speakers and videos from alumni female economics majors. These interventions are valuable given that just two 15-minute visits from female role models in a class could have significant impacts on female enrollment in future economics courses and can influence women to major in economics.

Implementing a few of these intervention strategies could make a large and positive impact among undergraduate students at Dartmouth. As Clara Staarsjo, a second-year student in the U.K. interviewed by BBC, said, “For the moment economists have only looked at the world around them through male eyes and this only provides us with half the story. And with only half the story how can we get results that will help the whole population?”

Shah is a first-year intern with the Women in Sciences Project.