RUTH SUNDERLAND: Gender gap hits UK economics


RUTH SUNDERLAND: Despite a display of female firepower in economics around the world, the same effect has not been seen in the UK

  • Women are very poorly represented in university economics departments from undergraduates through to professorships, and that feeds through to a shortage at the top levels of policymaking 
  • Among economics students from the UK, women represent 27 per cent of undergraduates, and that has gone backwards in the past two decades 
  • The economy affects all of us, not just men, and so the study and practice of economics should reflect society in the round 
  • Widening the pool beyond white, middle-class males might reduce the risk of groupthink that was so deadly in the financial crisis 

Women have made great strides in economics, on a global stage. In the US, Janet Yellen is Treasury Secretary, having been in charge of the Federal Reserve, the world’s most powerful central bank, during the Obama administration. 

Christine Lagarde is head of the European Central Bank and Kristalina Georgieva is managing director of the International Monetary Fund, where the chief economist, Gita Gopinath, is also a woman. 

Despite this display of female firepower around the world, the same effect has not been seen in the UK, where there has never been a woman Chancellor or Bank of England governor. 

With the departure of Andy Haldane, there is a vacancy for the post of chief economist at the Bank. This is an opportunity for the Old Lady, which is trying to become more diverse, to pick a female candidate, of which there is no shortage. 

The list might include Professor Diane Coyle of Cambridge University and Professor Rachel Griffith of Manchester University and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Other names mentioned are Clare Lombardelli, the Treasury chief economist, Karen Ward at JP Morgan Asset Management, Stephanie Flanders at Bloomberg or more maverick figures such as the left of centre Mariana Mazzucato. 

Regardless of these high-profile role models, there is a widening gender gap at a grass roots level. Women are very poorly represented in university economics departments from undergraduates through to professorships, and that feeds through to a shortage at the top levels of policymaking. 

A study for the Royal Economic Society – whose president, Professor Carol Propper, is only the third woman to hold the post – made for gloomy reading. Among economics students from the UK, women represent 27 per cent of undergraduates, and that has gone backwards in the past two decades. 

Why does it matter? The economy affects all of us, not just men, and so the study and practice of economics should reflect society in the round. Widening the pool beyond white, middle-class males might reduce the risk of groupthink that was so deadly in the financial crisis. 

The discipline of economics would be broader and more insightful if more attention were paid to women’s lives – half the population, after all. 

In fairness, male economists can do this: Ha-Joon Chang, for example, has argued that the washing machine has changed the world more than the internet, by liberating women from housework and helping them enter paid work. It’s just that this kind of counter-cultural observation is rare. 

There is no denying that female economists face stubborn prejudice. When Esther Duflo won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2019 along with her husband and a male colleague, she was described in some media merely as a ‘wife’. Economics also has an image problem: there is a perception it is bound up with forecasting and dry mathematical models. 

In fact, it is engaged with all aspects of life from child nutrition to rail fares. 

Attracting more women won’t of itself solve all the problems. In Whitehall and in the Bank of England, as one senior economist pointed out to me, there is self-congratulation at taking on more senior women. 

His fear, however, is that they will join in the groupthink rather than challenge it – and if there is diversity of gender but conformity of thought, there will be no change. 

Female voices are not the only ones absent. There is a dearth of economists from working-class backgrounds. That is a serious deficiency, at a time when levelling up of underprivileged areas is on the agenda. 

A profession overwhelmingly populated by people cushioned from financial hardship by background and wealth is not best equipped to tackle this. 

The under-representation of women and other groups is important. It affects what questions economists ask and address, and the nature of the advice they give on public policy and to companies. The broader the profession casts its net, the better.

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