Can ‘Yellen Effect’ Attract Young Women to Economics?

The nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve is an important milestone. But will her appointment as the central bank’s first female chief draw more undergraduate women to the field of economics?

Yellen’s emphasis on the human toll of recessions, along with her humanity, brilliance and intellect, could spur a greater number of women to become economists. But if history is any guide, there still is a long slog ahead.

Economics is an extremely popular major -- for men. Ten to 20 percent of all male undergraduates concentrate in the field at the top 100 universities and top 100 liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.

Nationwide, however, for every female undergraduate in the major, there are three males in the major, adjusted for relative numbers of bachelor’s degrees by sex. Among the top 100 liberal arts colleges, there are 2.6 males for every female economics major; there are 2.5 males for every female at the top 100 research universities.

Worse, these differences have widened over the last two decades.

Students often realize too late in their undergraduate studies that an understanding of economic concepts, modeling, statistics and econometrics is a helpful career and life tool. Many initially believe economics is only valuable for those who want to work in the financial and corporate sectors. (This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, , are Eugene F. Fama, Robert J. Shiller and Lars Peter Hansen, men whose work focuses on financial markets.)

Wide Application

Many young women don’t seem to understand that economics is also for those who have broad intellectual interests and for those with research and policy interests in health, education, poverty, inequality, crime, obesity, the environment, terrorism or infectious disease. All students should be aware of the broad applications of economics when considering an undergraduate major.

Gender parity across all majors isn’t a realistic goal, but reliable information with which to make decisions is. Given my findings from data on universities and colleges -- and many years of teaching some of the finest undergraduates in the world -- accurate information, confidence-bolstering and general encouragement will embolden women to pick economics as a major and stay with it.

My research on the undergraduate economics major shows that:

-- Compared with women, men disproportionately choose to study economics before entering college and they disproportionately stick with the major as undergraduates.

-- Women who thought they would major in economics often become discouraged when they don’t get sufficiently high grades in introductory courses. Men are far less likely to be discouraged by similar grades. In other words, the gradient of major choice with respect to grades in the “gateway” courses is steeper for women than for men. The same pattern has been found among engineering students.

-- The claim that men are far more likely to pick economics because they are better at math is unfounded. Capability isn’t the issue. The average female undergraduate who concentrates in economics, according to the data I have examined, has a higher college-entry math score than her average male counterpart. The math-ability differences between men and women upon college entry are small and, in many cases, nonexistent or in women’s favor. The alleged difference in math ability has almost no effect on choice of major. What matters most is the way men and women respond to similar levels of math ability.

Encouraging Women

Many women don’t major in economics because they have less confidence in their abilities; others avoid the field because they don’t know the range of careers that it enables. Many men, on the other hand, arrive at college with a desire to learn economics. They don’t drop the major even if they do worse than their female peers in economic principles and math. Women may be less committed than men to a career on Wall Street, but there are many other professions that require the lessons of economics.

How can we encourage women to major in economics? The first step is to emphasize that economics is a valuable life skill. Make the economic principles courses more issue-oriented, using concrete and exciting applications. Convince freshmen that economics is not just for those who want to pursue jobs in finance or the corporate sector. Provide better encouragement when a student does poorly on an exam or a problem set. Provide a better sense that math is important in economics (as it is in most things) and that the average female undergraduate is just as well prepared as the average male undergraduate.

Yellen’s ascension at the Fed will show more women that economics isn’t an exclusively male field. A lot more needs to be done.

(Claudia Goldin is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University, the director of the Development of the American Economy program at the National Bureau of Economic Research and the current president of the American Economic Association.)

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