Our second year economics undergraduates were asked to write an essay on the topic: Identify the main concerns that are raised by the evident gender imbalance in economics? How does gender relate to ideological bias in economics? Here we have reproduced in full, with permission, the essay written by Lewis Cranidge.
Ever since the inception of economics, women have been continually and intentionally underrepresented within the profession, breeding a hostility which is felt by women in the industry to this day. The sheer size of the issue is undeniable, and being increasingly highlighted by researchers; “Only one woman in five reported being “satisfied with the overall climate” in the field; “Seven in 10 women said they felt their colleagues’ work was taken more seriously than their own;” “Nearly half of women said they had avoided speaking at a conference… to guard against possible harassment” – these criticisms of the field’s “unacceptable culture” are as distressing as they are depressingly predictable (Casselman, 2021; Casselman & Tankersley, 2019). Economics itself is a centralised monolith of male thought, lacking the sort of plurality in ideology and opinion which is so crucial to a science not dealing in absolutes or constants, but essentially in people, in how they behave and how they consume. Therefore, to tackle the depth to which gender relates to such ideological bias, we must first grapple with a concept more closely related to philosophy than finance – “The social nature of knowledge” (Peterson, 1993).
This idea suggests knowledge is not simply truth grounded in facts and reality, but instead a product of the social system and culture it is created within. Indisputably, the environment within an economist is raised will effect the questions they want answered, the research they wish to undertake. It is this phenomenon that would lead some on the left to view the subject as little more than “the reified reflection of bourgeois interests,” a profession where the most recurrent opinions have been shaped by those in positions of historical privilege – more specifically, wealthy white men (Martin, 1968).
One of those ‘recurrent opinions’ now being challenged by feminist authors is the separation of economic activity into public and private spheres, a practice described by Waller and Jennings (1990) as “integral to the subordination of women in modern western culture” (Waller & Jennings, 1990). Fundamentally, “Activities other than production for profit in the are considered peripheral and noneconomic,” rendering labour traditionally associated with women, like housework or raising children, irrelevant in the eyes of the economist, existing in a private sphere outside the reach of the subject (Peterson, 1993). This concept has gone as far as shaping the very statistics economists use on a daily basis: “The definition of… “labour force” used by statistical agencies excludes the domestic production classified as housework” (Peterson, 1993). This means a practice which is arguably more significant to the quality of family life than the money a bread-winning husband brings home with him becomes practically invisible.
It is not controversial to say that this feels outdated, and the fact these “problematic assumptions about women’s lives” have not already been challenged and changed by the relevant economic authorities reveals a lot about the subject’s inflexibility to adapt to the modern world (Peterson, 1993). The work of Javdani and Chang (2019) appears to suggest that this same stubbornness, this same refusal to reflect or change, has been passed down to the current generation of economists, particularly those naturally more susceptible to patriarchal values and beliefs – men.
“We find that the estimated ideological bias is 44% larger among male economists as compared to their female counterparts” (Javdani & Chang, 2019). This bias extends to how the issue of gender is perceived within the profession, with “a whopping 26%” more female candidates agreeing “the hurdles that women face within economics are very real” compared to their male peers (Javdani & Chang, 2019). Furthermore, when falsely attributing a statement to “the left-wing British feminist economist Diane Elson,” agreement levels fell by 5.8% amongst the men, despite earlier promises in the survey that the economists only focus on the content of an author’s work, not the credentials or perspective of the author themselves (Javdani & Chang, 2019). All of this functions as empirical proof of an ideological bias within economics, a proven tendency for some male economists to distrust and dismiss work that does not align with their own personal beliefs, as well as a willfull ignorance towards the problems women in the industry deal with on a day-to-day basis.
So, not only does one need to grapple with the notion there is a clear, detectable ideological bias within economics amongst men, but also the prospect that this bias has permeated the entire study in thousands of different ways since Adam Smith first put pen to paper in 1776. The problem appears worse when considering in 2019, 60.09% of US economists were male – imagine that same statistic in 50s, 60s or 70s, when some of the most influential neoclassical ideas ever were first devised (Zippia, 2021). Female economists are incredibly likely have different ideas to male economists, so their absence, or the muting of their voices, is guaranteed to hamper “our collective ability to understand familiar issues from new and innovative perspective” (Bayer & Rouse, 2016). In fact, work by May, McGarvey and Whaples (2013) found that although there was agreement on core economic principles, women supported “government-backed redistribution policies more than males,” “view[ed] gender inequality as a problem in the… economics profession more than males,” and favoured “government intervention over market solutions more than their male counterparts” (May, et al., 2013). These ideas are noticeably divorced from neoclassical thought, and one begins to wonder how different the state of economics might have been had women played an equal role from the start; how many more schools of economic thought might have existed had their influence been elevated to that of their priviledged male associates from the beginning.
Although the situation appears too far gone, economics has time on its side. To use the words of Yuan Yang, co-leader of Rethinking Economics, the study desperately needs a revitalisation, not only to stop “clinging to nineteenth century orthodoxies,” but also to rebrand as a “”method of enquiry” rather than a springboard into the City” (Rankin, 2014). This rebrand could even extend to the vocabulary used within the subject, with ideas like “competition, exploit, and survival of the fittest… hav[ing] what some economists have called a masculinist bias to them” (Harvey, 2019). Ultimately, economics has for far too long been allowed to go unchallenged and unchanged, and this is unsurprising with so little room for pluralism. As sole-female Nobel Economic Prize winner Elinor Ostrom once said “One can… get trapped in one’s own intellectual web” – however, for the long term relevance of the subject, action must be taken (Ostrom, 1991).
In conclusion, the gender imbalance within economics has meant the lines of thinking pursued have been limited in scope, resulting in a subject littered with commonly held assumptions which may or may not tell the full, representative story. Due to the social nature of knowledge, many of the rules by which economics abides appear outdated, based on cultures and social hierarchies very different to the standards we strive for today. With the presence of ideological bias not just a suspicion, but instead an empirical fact, particularly amongst men, the subject has no choice but to self-reflect, not only for the sake of its survival, but also for the greater good of humanity, as economics looks to prepare the next generation of economists to tackle not only pressing financial matters like recovery from COVID-19, but also increasingly daunting issues of sustainability and climate change.
Bayer, A. & Rouse, C. E., 2016. Diversity in the Economics Profession: A New Attack on an Old Problem. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30(4), pp. 221-242. Casselman, B., 2021. For Women in Economics, the Hostility Is Out in the Open. The New York Times, 23 February.Casselman, B. & Tankersley, J., 2019. Women in Economics Report Rampant Sexual Assault and Bias. The New York Times, 18 March.
Harvey, J. T., 2019. Do Women Avoid Economics…Or Does Economics Avoid Women?. Forbes, 11 January .
Javdani, M. & Chang, H. J., 2019. Ideology is Dead! Long Live Ideology!. New Economic Thinking, 12 August.
Martin, D., 1968. Review: The Sociology of Knowledge and the Nature of Social Knowledge. The British Journal of Sociology, 19(3), p. 342.
May, A. M., McGarvey, M. G. & Whaples, R., 2013. Are disagreements among male and female economists marginal at best? A survey of AEA members and their views on economics and economic policy. Contemporary Economic Policy , 32(1), pp. 111-132.
Ostrom, E., 1991. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Peterson, J., 1993. What’s in a number? Gender bias and ideology in economic statistics. Social Science Journal , 30(3), p. 1.
Rankin, J., 2014. Economics’ failure to tackle real-world issues drives women away. The Guardian , 30 November .
Waller, W. & Jennings, A., 1990. On the Possibility of a Feminist Economics: The Convergence of Institutional and Feminist Methodology. Journal of Economic Issues, 24(2), p. 619.
Zippia, 2021. Economist demographics and statistics in the US. [Online] Available at: https://www.zippia.com/economistjobs/demographics/?msclkid=869eaf91d09911ecbaca4b7d692928a7