Women in University economics challenge underrepresentation, disparity

Monday, January 22, 2018 - 8:29pm

LSA junior Anna Tushman took an AP economics in high school and loved it. She came to the University of Michigan expecting to major in math but decided to take Econ 101 and found herself fascinated by its rational, logical thought process. Her 101 class had a fair mixture of women and men, but as she progressed through the major, she found the number of female students in her classes leveling off. Out of boredom one day in her econometrics discussion section, she counted the students in the class and saw there were four male students to every one female.

This drop off holds true when considering the numbers. More than half of the student body of LSA consists of women. Yet, according to data kept by the LSA Economics Department, women are 39 percent of the students taking introductory economics courses. Women then account for about a third of the Econ major.

The disparity isn’t unique to the University — the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession in the American Economics Association did a study surveying 126 economic departments nationwide, finding while women make up 33 percent of first-year students, they make up only 13 percent of full, tenured professors as of 2016.

While STEM fields also have trouble attracting women to their classes, intro level courses in the Physics Department have a higher representation of women than in the Economics Department, according to Betsey Stevenson, associate public policy and economics professor.

“It is sort of striking that physics is doing a better job of getting women into introductory physics than economics is in introductory economics at Michigan,” Stevenson said. “There are questions to be asked of why is it that the University of Michigan has such a low gender share. But they’re not easy answers.”

LSA sophomore Madeleine Danes said a key reason many of her female friends stopped taking economic classes after the intro course was because of lower grades.

“Some of them dropped because they didn’t do well,” Danes said. “If you don’t do well in those introductory classes, you might be discouraged.”

Tushman echoed this sentiment, saying when she does poorly on a test, she feels discouraged and less confident in her abilities, especially when she reads about the difficulties women face in the economic field. She doesn’t think men absorb their failures in the same kind of way.

“Women tend to internalize things more,” Tushman said. “I don’t want to make that a sweeping generalization, but I know I do it. It’s easy to get discouraged when you see how much harder it is for you in the field. When you do poorly on a test, you think it’s just because of you, whereas men tend to externalize their failures.”

The feelings Danes and Tushman describe are common among many women, according to Economics Prof. Linda Tesar. Tesar said data points to women thinking their failures are more about themselves, with men thinking the opposite.

“There’s a lot of evidence out there that men and women respond to grade signals in different ways,” Tesar said. “Women students interpret that it’s more about their ability, whereas men tend to — now, I’m grossly exaggerating — on average men tend to interpret the grade signal as external to them; the class, the GSI, and less about their ability.”

Tesar is part of a team of faculty and lecturers studying the experiences of women and underrepresented minorities in the economics program: Gender Learning Analytics at Michigan-Economics. In order to encourage these populations to continue studying economics, GLAM-E is looking into data like the differing interpretations of grades, and their implications.

“We’re studying that data and learning about what the grade signal means and whether having a low GPA in a class perhaps is discouraging students that we don’t want to discourage from going forward,” Tesar said.

GLAM-E’s end goal is to encourage women to pursue economics as a career by imparting younger women with more mentors; right now, the gender distribution is far from ideal. Out of 71 faculty members listed on the Economics Department website, only 15 are women. George Fenton, a Ph.D. candidate in the Economics Department, said in his first two years he has not been taught by a single female faculty member. LSA senior Reema Kaakarli said she has had one female economics professor in her four years.

The Economics Department at the University holds an alumni panel each year called Economics@Work. This year, seven of the nine alumni speakers are men. Rackham student Ivy Tran said she has noticed the imbalance.

“One thing that I thought was really interesting though is a lot of alumni events held by the Econ Department — the alumni tends to be male, given the nature that I can imagine about twenty or thirty years ago, it was predominantly a male field,” Tran said.

Economics lecturer Mitchell Dudley organizes this panel. In an email interview, he expressed the difficulty he has in finding a diverse set of alumni.

“Given that I don’t have access to a master list of alumni, I must rely largely on recommendations,” he wrote. “In this case, I struggle to present a demographically diverse set of speakers. This is truly frustrating at times.”

Tushman said in her core economics classes, she’d always seek out a female GSI even if that GSI weren’t her own. She talked about the need for more female role models, and how inspiring it was when she saw Janet Yellen, the chair of the Federal Reserve, speak last year.  

“It’s important to have people to look up to,” Tushman said. “We got to go see Janet Yellen when she came, and that was one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me.”

Even on the level of economic textbooks, women are underrepresented. Stevenson conducted a study with Rackham student Hanna Zlotnick on mentions of males and females in introductory economics textbooks, and discovered 6 percent of real business leaders mentioned are women, whereas they are 41 percent of made-up or “ordinary” people reviewed in examples. Stevenson discussed the importance of having diversity in textbooks in order to resonate with as many students as possible. From her study, it is clear many textbooks don’t fit the bill.

“We use what we have from the past to prepare them for the future,” Stevenson said. “Diversity has definitely improved with time, so textbooks from the past have less diversity than we want.”

LSA senior Shannon Hsu discussed the varying levels of comfort she felt in taking classes with different professors. She found she did better with professors that were friendlier and more approachable. She also noted the difference in discussion sections of her two majors: International Studies and Economics.

“International Studies is very different from Econ in that it’s very inclusive,” Hsu said. “It always feels like a safe environment, whereas the discussions I’ve had for Econ core classes have been more hostile in the sense that the GSI is only there to teach what is required of him, not build that connection with the student.”

This hostility is apparent in the economics field at large. Fenton said within the discipline when someone presents their research they are then subject to somewhat aggressive questions from the audience. He suggested this could be a reason women might be discouraged.  

“One thing I’ve realized is that the economics seminar environment all over the country is especially hostile and combative, or just downright rude sometimes,” Fenton said. “I don’t know if that’s related at all to the gender issue, but I do know that it’s a very intimidating environment, I know for a fact more than many other disciplines when it comes to presenting research.”

Tran agreed the economics environment is tough. She said she feels the need to be more persistent when voicing her opinions.

“If I’m the only female in a group and I say something, oftentimes I have to repeat myself or I have to speak a little bit stronger,” Tran said. “I have to stand my ground in order to be heard.”

Kaakarli said she thinks this intimidating culture is the main problem, rather than explicit bias or discrimination.

“I don’t know if I would say that there have been any outright incidences of discrimination,” Kaakarli said. “The main issue is just that there’s a culture that’s not as welcoming.”

Organizations such as the Society of Women in Economics for undergraduates and the Women in Economics group in the Ph.D. program provide women with more comfortable environments in order to offset this hostile one. Tushman, president of SWIE, said the goal of the organization is “to create an empowering space for women who are interested in economics.” SWIE holds events such as female alumni panels, study sessions and resume/cover letter workshops.

These problems may not be as visible to those they don’t directly affect. Fenton said he doesn’t think about these issues as he goes about his studies in economics.

“On a day-to-day basis, this is just not something I pay a lot of attention to,” he said. “That in itself in a way is an indictment, right, despite the many barriers that clearly exist, I have the luxury as a matter of routine in my studies of ignoring them.”

Tesar said while there’s plenty of work to be done, the first step has been taken in that people are starting to recognize the issue.

“We know we have a problem in economics,” Tesar said. “I think we know we need to work on it, and we are working on it. I think there’s national momentum on this issue, and there’s also a lot of momentum at Michigan.”