While the World’s education systems currently favour girls and women across most of the World (1), with 112 women enrolled in university for every 100 men worldwide (2), this educational advantage has yet to translate itself into more lucrative and prestigious positions for women. This is particularly so in the economics profession.
Only one woman has ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (Elinor Ostrom in 2009), whereas in Physics there are 2 female Nobel Prize winners, in Chemistry 4, in Medicine 12, in Literature 14, and 16 women have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (3).
That women have trouble rising to the top in the economics profession is also reflected by the fact that there are currently only eight countries in the World in which the highest ranked economist is a woman (4). In at least three of those cases, however, the female researcher does not actually live in the country, but is rather affiliated with an institution in the country, while currently living in another country (5). Thus, only five countries in the world has a top economist, who is both female and actually lives in the country: Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda. In contrast, there are 120 countries in which the top ranked economist is male (see Map 1). For the remainder of the countries, no data was available, as no economists at all had registered at RePEc.
Map 1: Gender of the top ranked economist in each country (according to the IDEAS-RePEc rankings of December 2017)
Source: Author’s elaboration based on rankings from IDEAS-RePEc (https://ideas.repec.org/top/#authorscountry).
Note: The map is indicative only, and I apologize if some borders have suffered minor alterations.
The gender imbalances are particularly strong in the so-called developed countries. In all high-income countries, except Trinidad and Tobago, the highest ranked economist is male. Indeed, in most high-income countries (e.g. US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, and many more), there are no women at all in the 10 highest positions. In a few rich countries you can find one solitary woman among the top 10 economists (e.g. Australia and Denmark). Uruguay is an extreme outlier among high-income countries with four out of the top 10 economists being women.
It is clearly a problem that so few women are involved in the formulation of social and economic policy around the world. As Justin Wolfers at the University of Michigan recently pointed out, such extreme and persistent gender inequality “would be disturbing in any academic field, but because economics has an outsize influence on public policy, it means that many important debates are likely to be dominated by men’s voices for years to come” (6).
Why women are having such a hard time in Economics is strange. Economics is about managing scarce resources, understanding human decisions, improving social policy, and many other topics of immediate relevance for our everyday lives. There is no obvious reason why women should be worse at -or less interested in- this than men. There are certainly many women who have been tremendously influential in the field (7), but women generally don’t seem to get full credit for their contributions (8).
Some people argue that women don’t do well in economics because it is so heavy in mathematics, but that argument doesn’t make any sense, since women do well in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), with 58% of US bachelor degrees in STEM fields going to women, while only 28% of US bachelor degrees in Economics are obtained by women (9).
Other people have suggested that economics is a toxic field for women (10). A particularly clever senior thesis by Alice H. Wu at Berkeley used machine learning techniques to analyse millions of posts on a popular anonymous message board frequented especially by young economists (EconJobRumors.com). She found that the 30 most common words used in posts about women were: hotter, lesbian, bb, sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated and prostitute. In contrast, the posts talking about men used words such as: adviser, Austrian, mathematician, pricing, textbook, Wharton, goals, greatest, Nobel, bully, burning and fought (10).
Clearly, not all male economists talk so despicably about female economists, certainly not to their face, and even fewer act on those misogynistic impulses. But it doesn’t take that many bad experiences to drive a woman out of her profession or out of her country. Competition within the field seems to be particularly fierce in the United States, with lots of sharp elbows that tend to discourage women (11). Of the top 100 economists in the United States, only three are women (12). Unfortunately, the situation does not seem to be improving. While the female share in undergraduate STEM degrees keeps rising steadily, in economics it peaked in the mid-1990s, and has been going down since then (6).
In the face of this dismal situation, I offer the following solution, which is clearly not a first-best solution, but it works: For female economists who are fed up with misogyny, sexual harassment, and/or lack of recognition in their country of origin, the above map provides a handy reference for potential future opportunities. If you move to any of the light blue countries, register with RePEc, and have any citations at all to your research, then you will immediately become the top economist of that country.
* Senior Researcher at INESAD. The viewpoints expressed in this blog are the responsibility of the author and may not reflect the viewpoints of all members of Fundación INESAD. The author would like to thank Levin Wiebelt and Agnes Medinaceli for their assistance in preparing this blog.
(2) World Bank World Development Indicator, Gender Parity Index at tertiary level: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ENR.TERT.FM.ZS
(4) According to the IDEAS ranking based on registered authors at RePEc (the largest collection of socio-economic research in the world), in December of 2017.
(5) For example, Kathryn Hart Anderson is the top ranked economist in Kyrgyzstan, but she seems to be an American economist based at Vanderbilt University in the US, although she maintains some affiliation with the Mountain Societies Research Center in Bishkek. Similarly, Léa Rouanet figures as the top economist in Haiti, but she is actually a French economist working at the World Bank in Washington. D. Gomez Selemeneva is the top economist in Cuba, but she currently seems to live and work in Spain.