The vicious circle of gender inequality in Economics

By: Lykke E. Andersen*

There has been a lot of focus lately on the extreme levels of gender inequality in economics (e.g. Economics is the most dismal of sciences in terms of gender inequality). According to the IDEAS/RePEc ranking of more than 50 thousand economists in the world, only 19% of registered economists are women, and they are much rarer than that among the top ranked economists (

Typically, there are only about a handful of women among the top 100 economists in any particular country. In the Netherlands there is just 1, in the United States 3, in Canada 4, in Sweden 5, in the UK, Germany, Norway and Italy 8, and Denmark seems to hold the record with 10. (Do let me know in the comments below if you find a country with more than 10 women among the top 100 economists according to RePEc, because I didn’t check the countries with names that were too unfamiliar to me).

Despite a lot of well-intentioned efforts to reduce gender imbalances in economics, the situation hasn’t really improved over the last couple of decades. While women are becoming increasingly involved in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), with 58% of US bachelor degrees in STEM fields now going to women, they tend to avoid economics. The share of US bachelor degrees in Economics obtained by women has been going slightly down the last couple of decades and is now at 35% (1).

One example of a well-intentioned effort to promote more gender balance in economics/development is Owen Barder’s Pledge “I will not be part of male-only panels.” More than a thousand men have signed The Pledge, and, ironically, also quite a few women.

Similarly, economics conference organizers everywhere are trying really hard to include female keynote speakers. But the insistence on having female keynote speakers at every event, may actually hurt female researchers, because it takes a lot of time away from their research. Just as a thought experiment, consider the case of United States, where there are 3 women and 97 men among the Top 100 Economists. Suppose there are 100 conferences per year, which each require 2 distinguished male economists and 2 distinguished female economists as keynote speakers. To fulfil that demand, each of the 97 top male economists would have to give an average of 2 keynote speeches per year, whereas the 3 top female economists would have to give an average of 67 keynote speeches per year. Each such speech requires them to prepare (say, 1 day), travel (1 day), and generally participate in the event and be a nice person (2 days). If the top women were to comply with those demands, they would spend at least 268 days per year on conferences, leaving no time at all to writing the papers that would improve their RePEc ranking. In contrast, top men would spend an average of just 8 days on conferences.

For the annual Bolivian Conference on Development Economics, we have been trying several times to get Esther Duflo (the 4th highest ranked female economist in the World, and #92 in United States) to accept our invitation to be a keynote speaker, but the poor woman must be totally inundated with keynote invitations from all over the World. I think we should cut her and other distinguished female economists some slack and just have male keynote speakers this year.

* 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.




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  1. Surely the pledge is premised on the idea that the reason that the “top” economists in these countries are mainly male, is not because of talent, but because of systemic bias. If this is true then honouring the pledge would not necessarily involve inviting the same handful of women who have managed to be successful despite this systemic bias, but finding women whose work has been overlooked and giving them a platform. And obviously, if the premise is true (seems clear to me), this would not compromise the quality of the speakers because people at the “top” are not necessarily there on their merits.


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