“Diversity” and the Gender Gap in Economics

Both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education have articles this morning about a new survey of Economics PhDs that finds a dramatic gender gap on policy questions.  Among the findings, women economists are:

  • 20% more likely than men to disagree with the notion that the United States has too much government regulation;
  • 24% more likely than men to believe that the size of the U.S. government is either “too small” or “much too small”;
  • 41% more likely than men to favor a more progressive tax structure.

The Chronicle article is tendentiously titled “Gender Gap in Economics Shows Analyses Aren’t Objective,” but nothing in the article or the survey’s press release linked above supports that conclusion. Do “objective” analyses always agree? Did the 78 male and 65 female economists who responded to the survey receive similar training — for example, did they attend more or less marked-oriented Phd programs in the same numbers? As the Chronicle noted, the survey’s lead author, Ann Mari May, professor of economics at the University of Nebraska, is executive vice president and treasurer of the International Association for Feminist Economists. Is feminist economics objective, or is no economics objective?

According to Prof. May, the results “showed little gender disparity on matters of theory and methodology. But when you get to policy questions in economics,” she said, “then you’re sort of heading into an area where people might have different experiences that lead them to see different things in the data.”

Prof. May is not at all reticent about proclaiming her own conclusions about the lessons her research teaches.

Women accounted for about 35 percent of doctorates in economics awarded by U.S. universities in 2010, up from 27 percent in 2000, Ms. May said. “If we learned anything from this study,” she said, “it’s the importance of making sure that you have diverse viewpoints at the table when you’re debating these things amongst experts.”

That’s a pretty big “if.” If Prof. May is to be believed, for starters, a male might well see “different things” in her data. If it’s true that women economists are nearly 25% more likely than men to believe the size of the U.S. government is “too small” or “much too small,” for example, some would no doubt argue that there are far too many women economists.

If more women economists are needed “at the table” (what table is that, other than the voting booth?) when “these things” are being debated “amongst experts,” then surely economics departments should make concerted (though no doubt “holistic”) efforts to recruit and produce more women PhDs, no? But if “diverse viewpoints” are the goal, why rely on a weak proxy like gender? Why not just recruit and produce by viewpoint quota?

The question of whether or not we (whoever “we” are) need more women economists sitting around the proverbial table, like the question  of the proper size of the U.S. government or the degree of progressivity of the tax code, has no objectively (or should that be “objectively”?) correct answer, and it is nothing more than academic hubris to think that the views of scholarly “experts” who tend these fields deserve special deference on policy questions.

When the questions on the table address policy choices freighted with politics, values, ideology, rather than assigning seats to economists based on gender (or race or ethnicity) I would prefer to have no economists at all.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

One thought on ““Diversity” and the Gender Gap in Economics”

  1. This seems to suggest that women are more apt to enroll in PhD programs in economics where the emphasis is left-Keynesian and men are more apt to enroll in programs where the emphasis is free-market/Austrian. There are quite a few women graduates of the George Mason program (which is in the latter camp) who are not the least bit disposed towards more government and there are also quite a few men who have gone through the more common statist-oriented programs at schools like Princeton. Thus, I don’t think this is a gender matter so far as receptivity to ideas goes. If it’s true that women economists are more inclined toward government intervention, that isn’t because of some innate “women’s way of knowing” but because they more frequently enroll in programs where they hear little but interventionist theory.

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