Economics is male-dominated but that’s especially true in academia, where females secure fewer tenure-track positions and publish less research than men. Overall, only about 15 per cent of economics professors in the U.S. are women, according to The Economist.

The barriers keeping women economists out of high-level jobs appear to be the same ones other academics face, including a lack of female role models and implicit bias.

But leaders in the field — including the American Economics Association (AEA) — are working to close the gender gap, and research from Princeton University is identifying promising initiatives.

The study, which will be published in the May 2020 edition of Papers and Proceedings of the American Economic Association, argues that mentoring helps women succeed.

What’s interesting about the paper, though, is that the mentorship program doesn’t have to take place over several weeks or months. It can be as brief as two days’ time.

VIDEO: Mentors matter

Researches examined a group of women who attended a two-day workshop that introduced junior economists to their senior counterparts. The networking opportunity proved to be an effective retention tool and helped participants earn more tenure positions and publish more papers than women who did not participate.

“It’s remarkable that a two-day intervention could have such an effect,” researchers said.

For the study, the authors examined a “treatment” group, where women participated in the workshop, and a “control group” of women who did not.

The two groups were followed for four to 14 years after the workshop and their career highlights — including academic employment, promotions, and publications — were recorded.

It was found that many participants maintained contact with connections made at the workshop for years and regularly leaned on one another for support and advice. 

“Our results speak to the importance of having mentors and peer networks and suggest that women in economics often face difficulties in developing these relationships. We hope these results will inspire others to step forward with additional ways of tackling this persistent problem,” the researchers wrote.

See it, be it. Networking conferences can lead to life-long professional connections. File photo: Canva.

Racial diversity lacking in economics

2017 paper by the AEA suggests gender isn’t the only diversity issue economics.

In the academic 2015-2016 year, there were 33,352 economics degrees at all levels (bachelor’s, masters, and Ph.D.) awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

  • 62.1 per cent of all degrees were awarded to white individuals of all genders.
  • Hispanic students accounted for 10.3 per cent of bachelor, 9.1 per cent of masters, and 6.9 per cent of Ph.D. degree recipients.
  • Black students accounted for 5.0 per cent of bachelor, 6.3 per cent of masters, and 3.1 per cent of Ph.D. degree recipients.
  • American Indian/Native Alaskan students accounted for 0.3 per cent of bachelor, 0.3 per cent of masters, and 0 per cent of Ph.D. degree recipients.
  • American Indian students received 98 economics degrees in the 2015-2016 academic year — representing 10 per cent increase over the previous year but below the 2009 peak of 141 degrees.

Supporting everyone is good for business

The findings suggest small efforts to retain and support women can have large implications on their career trajectory, reminiscent of the conclusions of a September 2019 study focusing on female scientists and career advancement.

The study suggests women may struggle to gain the skills and professional contact necessary to build their careers because many institutions haven’t put in place supportive policies.

“The data suggest that we are making headway,” Reshma Jagsi, a radiation oncologist and director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan and contributing author said.

“That said, there are still many institutions that have few women in senior-most faculty positions. There also remains quite a bit of room for improvement in certain areas, including the representation of women in certain roles, such as speaking at scientific meetings.”

Promoting and retaining women isn’t just good from a moral standpoint: Research shows companies that support gender diversity are rated more favourable overall and supporting all minority groups — including white women, people of colour, individuals with disabilities, and those from the LGBTQ+ community — can help a company’s bottom line, allow employers and schools to develop untapped talent, and give institutions a competitive edge.