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Economics (still) has a diversity problem

Hazel Cranmer considers how the discipline should respond to the BLM movement


Earlier this year, a movement gained sudden and momentous global attention. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in response to inhumane and fatal police brutality on a black man in Minneapolis. What grew out of it was much louder. It called for an uprooting, a reimagination, and a restructuring of law enforcement in the United States. It challenged the historic glorification of slave trading individuals and European colonisers. It critiqued the Eurocentrism and racism imbedded in our own curriculums. And it demanded more from white allies. With this, the lack of diverse voices in Economics and wider academic plurality within our discipline is called into question. For the field which concerns itself with who gets what and why, questioning Economics’ diversity problem and consequent ineptitude for addressing issues of race and gender inequality deserves immediate attention.


What problem?


In the U.K, an estimated 30% of all Economics bachelors are obtained by women, despite women making up 57% of all U.K. undergraduates. This figure is significantly lower than in mathematics, medicine and other ‘STEM’ subjects which, as part of a government initiative, have actively encouraged women to study. The numbers for racial minorities are mixed, with international applicants pulling up the diversity figure – but notably, entry of minority-ethnic British nationals is poor, and particularly low for black students. 


Scrutinising student statistics gives insight into the long-term health of the field and may also serve to demonstrate its current weaknesses. Discovering why so few women and POC study Economics in higher education helps us understand the root of the diversity problem in modern Economics. Of particular interest is the disparity between British women and POC entering Economics and the interest of international students – with international applicants (including from the rest of Europe) proportionately more diverse in both respects. This suggests a fault more evident in the U.K. than abroad. And this disparity only narrows the higher up the academia ladder you climb.


The Impact of Underrepresentation 


Economics consistently tops league tables for the highest earning degrees in the UK. The fierce social disproportionality of Economics graduates only serves to perpetuate the gender and racial pay gap and consequential raging wealth inequality. While underrepresentation has gradually narrowed in other fields, change in our discipline has been remarkably non-existent for 20 years. We must therefore ask: what is the societal impact of having a field dominated by one subgroup?


Underrepresentation of women and POC has wide social implications given the prominence of Economics graduates in government, central banks, and the civil service. This concern is echoed by Ross Warwick, a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) – “Ethnic diversity among economists matters particularly because economists often play an important role in the formulation of policy”. Diverse groups have consistently been shown to deliver different, and more desirable, outcomes in business and policymaking. A diversity of experience, knowledge and perspective promotes fair and effective policies. 

It is not difficult to envision the situation you produce with a homogeneity of advisers. One only needs to remind themselves that sanitary products continue to be considered ‘luxury goods’ and thereby charged higher VAT throughout the EU. Ultimately, the victims of flawed policies, are the ones who were not listened to in their design.  


Narrow Academia


Grieve Chelwe, a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Cape Town, argues the obvious consequence of a lack of diversity in the field is that the weakening of intellectual work. He argues that Economics has an ‘Africa problem’ and that much of the work done by economists in the Global North on development issues in the south are largely vacuous, highly simplistic and ultimately irrelevant in answering the most important questions. He opposes the nature in which western researchers travel to Africa to conduct experiments for the benefits of their own studies. He criticises the resource allocation disproportionately favouring economists in the Global North at the detriment of economists in the South especially when research projects concern the African continent. 


In January 1970, a group of black economists wrote an open letter to the American Economic Association (AEA). They criticised colleagues who ignored discrimination in the profession and failed to consider racial inequality in their own research. In June of this year, over half a century later, the AEA issued a statement that “we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.” Within the field, it is rarely considered how issues of sexism, racism or xenophobia would impact statistical studies. In fact, of 105 papers in top journals testing for discrimination between 1990 and 2018, only 11% discussed the possibility that statistical discrimination might be based on odious beliefs. 


Large scale field experiments as recently as 2018 have demonstrated the risk of discrimination for minorities within the British job market. Identical, fictitious applications were distributed and for every ten positive responses traditional British names received, a person with a recognisably African or Pakistani name received just six. Economics’ failure to acknowledge societal discrimination is not only limiting academic research but threatens to have significant consequences for global development. Economics is, after all, a social science, and must stop ignoring society. 


Breaking the cycle

Academics have offered a series of culprits for the diversity problem in Economics. They point to poor leadership, institutional dysfunctions, discouragement from specialising in the study of race and gender, and a toxic professional culture. Esther Duflo, who recently became the first female economist to win the Nobel Prize, echoed some of these features, citing an “aggressive and macho” culture for the problem of underrepresentation. Yet she also highlighted what she believes to be widespread misunderstanding on what Economics actually is. People, she said, “have a misconception that Economics only deals with interest rates and growth rates”. Research indicates she isn’t wrong. And what’s more, this misconception is greater in the US and the UK than throughout Europe and Asia.


A survey conducted at a Bristol school asked 16- and 17-year-old students to produce ‘associated words’ with ‘Economics’. The most common answer? Money. What followed were variations of finance and business and even featured multiple mentions of ‘percentages’ and ‘graphs’. Edward Miguel, an economist at UC Berkeley, describes what this narrow perception of the field implies – “People equate economics with business, so they think if you study Economics, you’re trying to game the system or make it in the system”. If the majority of students considering higher education do not view Economics as a tool to change society (as Miguel believes it is), it will not attract students who want to. And, if we believe a greater share of those who seek societal change are minorities, women, or those from lower income backgrounds, this helps explain the lack of diversity of Economics students. 


If the answer is ‘women and POC are not interested in Economics’, is there a case for intervention? Our justification for intervention is typically made on the grounds of market failure, and information failure is clearly apparent in this case.  A field experiment applied across nine US colleges demonstrated what happens when Economics is communicated differently. Two versions of emails were randomly sent to incoming female and minority first years. One email was simply a standard welcome message. The other included information “showcasing the diversity of research and researchers within Economics”. Results found that female and minority students who received the email advertising Economics’ diversity saw a 20% increase in their first-year completion rate – a pretty significant result for such a small intervention.  


Tim Hartford, the ‘Undercover Economist’, reiterates the urgent need for economists to be better communicators. When the U.K. voted to leave the EU despite the near unanimous opposition from economists, much of the blame was directed towards the population. Hartford criticises this attitude and calls on economists to change the way they publicly communicate, advocating for greater engagement and the consequential abolition of the elitist nature Economics inadvertently presents. 

Miguel is more determined with reform; he argues Econ 101 does not give students the view that their discipline is a force for tackling some of the greatest societal issues. Entrenching concepts of inequality, development or climate change from an early stage promotes student interest to pursue Economics further. The discipline must not only change the way it communicates but change the way it is taught. Or else, we face another 20-year stagnation for diversity in the field. 

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