Women Economists Finally Get Their Just Due


By Dr. Sherry Cooper
2014 ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference Keynote Speaker

First thing next month, Janet Yellen will become the first woman to Chair the Federal Reserve Board—arguably, the most important economic policy job in the world. While a breakthrough on many fronts, this is particularly noteworthy because of the appalling representation of women in economics. Janet Yellen was awarded her doctorate from Yale University in 1971. At that time, women received only 8% of all doctorates in economics (out of roughly 800 in total). When I received mine in 1978, the percentage had risen to about 10%. While those numbers have increased considerably over the intervening four decades, to 32% in 2012 when 1,195 in total were awarded, the upward movement of women on the academic career ladder has not improved.

Women are significantly less likely to be promoted to tenure than men and these differences cannot be fully explained by observable characteristics such as the number of publications in prestigious academic journals. Indeed, the data suggest that women with children published more papers than their male counterparts (or, for that matter, their female counterparts without children) in the first ten years post PhD—so much for typical gender bias that blames the underpayment of females on child bearing and rearing.

Over the period 1973 to 2001, women economists were an estimated 21 percentage points less likely than men to have a tenured academic job 10 years after receipt of their PhDs. While much has been made of the low proportion of women in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), this gender promotion gap is larger in economics than in any of the STEM disciplines. For example, compared to the 21% gender promotion gap in economics, the gap is under 3% in the physical sciences, nil in statistics and it reverses (favoring women) in the life sciences, engineering and political science. While the percentage of doctorates granted to females has risen in all of these fields since 2001, the fastest growth has been in the physical sciences, led by computer and information sciences, and in engineering.

The growth has lagged in economics and the absolute proportion of women PhDs is now the second lowest in economics–above engineering and about tied with the physical sciences. In 2012 (the latest data available), only 381 women were awarded their PhDs (32% of the total), compared to 1,883 PhDs to women (22%) in engineering. The American Economic Association’s Committee for the Advancement of Women in Economics reports that the situation has improved relatively little in the past decade. Lest we think this applies only to academic economists, the U.S. National Association of Business Economists reports that women PhD economists earn about 20% less than men with PhDs.

Janet Yellen has been a star in the economics firmament for many years. She has had a number of stints at the Fed and was Chair of the Economic Policy committee of the OECD from 1997 to 1999. She is professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley where she has been on the faculty since 1980. Of the top-ten economics graduate schools in the U.S., Berkeley has the largest proportion of female PhD students (at roughly 40%) and studies have shown that there is a strong and persistent correlation between the gender ratio of students and faculty. Professor Yellen has been a role model for women for many years.

Not surprisingly, she has had a very supportive partner. Her husband of many decades is Dr. George Ackerlof, a Nobel Prize winning professor of economics, also at Berkeley.

Economics is arguably the most influential of the social sciences. Among tenured economists in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, the United States and Sweden, a 2008 study found only 5% to 9% are female. Studying economics helps to make sense of the world. Janet Yellen’s appointment to the world’s most powerful economic position will hopefully make a difference. Economics is too powerful a discipline to be exercised only by men.