Women in Economics at Warwick: What was it about?

On 18-19 January, students from 12 UK universities met at Warwick to talk about how to make our Economics departments more inclusive, attract more women and increase diversity in general. That Economics has a gender problem and, more in general, issues with diversity is well-documented (e.g. herehereherehere). Addressing this issue is not just a matter of fairness and equality, it is also important for making better economic and policy choices that make us all better off, and not just women. See for instance Javdani & Chang (2019)'s work on ideological bias in Economics, and both works of May et al. (2018 ab) on differences in economists' views. Sarah Smith has also done plenty of work on this.

Academics and professional economists are currently working on increasing women representation and trying to find new ideas on how to address the diversity issues. Projects such as #DiscoverEconomics and various universities initiatives are currently in place to achieve this goal.

Students currently sitting through our economics courses can also offer their ideas and likely to offer a different perspective. This workshop gave voice to these students. After all, they have recently chosen to pursue a career in Economics, and they might be currently facing some of the challenges of being underrepresented in the classrooms: only 1/3 of economics students is female (see Figure 1) which compares negatively to other similar topics.

Figure 1
source: The Economics Network

Women under-representation and low satisfaction with their academic career (as shown by TEF data) were the inspiration for this workshop. Various universities around the country are working on initiatives to ease this problem. However, in a discipline in which women and minorities are under-represented, I found myself discussing initiatives on how to increase female students satisfaction in a room with a majority of senior male colleagues, in which my voice got lost a few times. Then I thought: we need students' voice if we seriously want to address this.

I put together a group of enthusiastic students at Warwick and open a call for ideas on how to create a more engaging and inclusive environment for all. We received applications from various UK universities and on Saturday 18th January 2020 around 20 selected students presented their ideas in four panels. The discussions were so informative and inspiring. We could finally see the problem with the students' eyes, and personally, I learnt a lot. I will try to summarise my main learning points, and provide some short-term and long-term action points. Of course, these are very subjective, and hopefully more people can reflect on how to integrate these ideas in our current practice.

Economics curriculum
It is not as much 'what we teach' but 'how we teach'

There is a lot of criticism on the failure of the economics curriculum to deal with gender issues, and even to provide a positive image of women and minorities but I am not going to discuss this and will focus on the outcomes of the workshop. If you are interested in these issues, there are excellent researchers working on these (e.g. D-Econ, Women Budget Group).

Students want lectures that spark their interest. They want examples that actually represent their lives and their experiences (or their family's experiences). An 'economic agent' who works full-time and makes a choice between work or leisure mainly based on income, may not reflect these experiences. This economic agent is typically a man (especially if successful!) and lives a life that is alien to many students. For instance, he has the choice between consuming and saving, but data shows that in the UK, 15% of people have no savings at all, and this percentage goes up to 53% for 22-29 year olds. Of course, men tend to save more than women which can be explained by income differences. To this, we can add that the majority of our students come from countries that are far less wealthy than the UK, which will reflect in these countries' saving rates.

Short-term actions? Even without changing our syllabus, we can rethink our examples when teaching. For people like me, this shouldn't be too difficult (I am a woman, from a developing country, with a long experience of living like an immigrant in various countries), however even us can get comfy and just rely on the book's examples but these are biased! Figure 2 shows how fewer women appear in textbooks' examples, and usually they are relegated to minor roles (The Economist, Jan 2018).

Figure 2: How is gender (mis)represented in economics textbooks
Source: The Economist, 17 Jan 2018

Just think about nice examples on the real economic choices we had to face in our lives. These are more complicated than choosing the right amount of pizza and beer given our current income. Economics deals with very hard choices, and students should know that.

Long-term actions? We need to revisit the syllabi and the programmes we offer more in general. Get rid of outdated economic theories (you don't use these in your research!), and bring the interesting work we are actually doing into our classrooms. Just to pick an example, Blanchard's basic macro textbook doesn't reflect Blanchard's research, so we need to think about which one we want to convey to students.

Student-led Networks
Women in Economics societies

A very important aspect of students' academic experience is the extra-curricular activities they do at university, a lot of these happen in students-led organisations such as societies. Econ Societies tend to be one of the most popular ones. They attract economic and non-economic students alike. Not being a student, I am not in a position to talk about these societies and I can simply try to convey the key messages from the students' discussions.

The key message of this session is that we need more 'Women in Economics' societies. The role of these societies will not just be to provide networking opportunities among students, and between students and potential employers, and it is not just about social events. Their role has to go beyond that. It needs to provide students with information on what they can do with an Economics degree that is not just banking and finance, they will be a meeting point for diversity, they will contribute to provide role models for girls interested in economics. In fact, the lack of role models for minority groups is one of the most cited problems for the lack of diversity. A lot of the workshop applicants mentioned a role model as the reason why they chose Economics at university.

Universities are in a privileged position to broadcast what Economics really do and the synergies between the student-led groups and the university support can do lots for changing people's views of Economics as a male subject. 

Short-term actions? Set these societies! Students who participated in the workshop were so inspired to maintain the 'Women in Economics' momentum. At Warwick, some students are setting up a 'Women in Economics' society, and the workshop Facebook page became the new society page. LSE is still discussing these ideas, and hopefully some other students will start new initiatives in their respective departments/universities.

Long-term actions? Keep in contact! We are still discussing what next? after #WomenEconWarwick, but something that technology allows us to do is to keep in contact. We can support each other's initiatives by telling our experiences on what worked well and what could be improved. The Royal Economic Society (which financial support allowed this workshop to happen, thanks!) can also help to keep the momentum from the workshop. I think this is a great opportunity for the Women's Committee at the RES to play a bigger role among female future economists by supporting these initiatives, and helping to develop these networks.

Reshaping the Image of Economics 
Let's re-think our image, starting from our events

We need to move away from the image of the economist as the 'white man wearing a suit'. Sciences have made a better job at reshaping the figure of what scientists look like, and Economics can learn from this. Young people need role models and research suggests that it is important for people to see themselves reflected in those who make decisions, so we need to change the narrow idea of what an economist looks like.

University events for economic students can have a narrow focus. The Banking and Finance sector is one of the main employers of economics graduates, so there are many bank-focused career events. However, they can be alienating not just for women but for students from different backgrounds  and for those not interested in finance after all. If we are attracting more students by showing the amazing things they can do with an Economics degree, we need to show them ways to achieve those careers.

It is not just about promoting women economists or economists from different backgrounds, but it is about showing the person behind the economist. Economists can be normal people with hobbies, and they can have achievements in different areas beyond economics (sports, arts). It may be these hobbies and lifestyles that appeal to students and make them feel closer to economists. Creating informal spaces for 'girls to chat' about economics may also help, but we can also use technology: YouTube videos and even the public media can help to make economics a more human discipline.

During the event, we had some extraordinary guest speakers. They are economists in various very senior roles in the private and public sector: Wendy Carlin (Professor UCL), Luisa Affuso (Senior Economist at OFCOM), Urvashi Parashar (Senior Economist at BEIS). Despite their current roles and their extraordinary achievements, they also told us about some of the negative experiences in their careers linked to their gender. The participants recognised these speakers as role models, not only because of their extraordinary achievements, but especially because of their determination to overcome discrimination, their capacity to succeed despite these barriers, and their current efforts in fighting against discrimination (see for example the GES initiative).

Short-term actions? Difficult task, but we can contribute to change the culture in our home institution. When organising events rather than defaulting on the usual, we should consider what actions we are putting in place to make these more inclusive. Let's think if we are promoting any specific image and how we can change this.

Long-term actions? Role models have the potential to influence the culture of an organisation. Universities need to think hard about who their students see as role models, why and whether they are sending the right messages. Positive roles models that encourage diversity and promote inclusive environments should be given more visibility, this would signal the university/department's values. Universities common mistakes is to give more visibility due to seniority or narrow achievements. However in a discipline that is male-dominated, this may translate into promoting a very narrow image. Role models don't necessarily need to be super-stars, but they do need to be inspiring.

Making Economics More Inclusive
We should work beyond our classrooms

The last session focussed on how to make economics more inclusive beyond university. Economics can be relatively 'unknown' compared to Sciences and Maths, and apparently, not the preferred A-level for some parents. Despite the increasing number of employment opportunities for economics graduates, the career paths are less clear than becoming a lawyer, doctor, or an architect.

Current students can become Economics ambassadors and reaching out their schools to talk about their academic experiences. Students can become role models for the younger generations and help us to attract more diversity. With some help from established organisations, these efforts can be coordinated and it may be possible to reach schools not just in the UK, considering the large numbers of international students in our universities.

Short-term actions? Work more with students, engage more in widening participation activities. Learn from those who are currently working on these matters in Economics but in other disciplines too as we may learn something different. Engage students in widening participation initiatives. They can make very good ambassadors and are more likely to engage younger kids, and share similar experiences.

Long-term actions? Students cooperation to attract more school students to choose Economics is very welcome, but we need to be able to offer a positive environment otherwise, students efforts may be hindered by the exact issues that we are trying to overcome: discrimination, lack of representation, and non-inclusive environments. The efforts to increase (gender but not only) diversity in Economics require a real commitment to provide an inclusive environment. Universities are investing a lot of resources on this, but it is utterly important to get rid of toxic cultures that promote discrimination and lack of positive action. After all, economics has a problem with women, with minorities, and with diversity, so without a true commitment from all members - students and staff, hiring committees, economists in the public and private sector (including banking and finance) - to stop tolerating any form of discrimination, we will fail to the new generations.

As the guest speaker Tom Schuller (author of "The Paula Principle: Why women work below their level of competence") reminded us, the problem is not only to attract more women into Economics (which is one of the only subjects in which women are a minority), we need to break the obstacles that these young students may face later in their career.

The main goal of the workshop was to raise awareness among students of the problem, but also of the fact that together we can work to overcome these challenges. These were two very positive days. we all felt empowered to continue what we started at Warwick, and are really optimistic of a future with in which Economics will become more diverse and inclusive.