The Economics Department, in which male majors outnumber female majors by a 2-1 ratio, is participating in a national push to draw more women to undergraduate economics programs.
The “Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge” — funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation through the National Bureau of Economic Research — is both a national campaign to raise awareness about underrepresentation of women in the field of economics and a randomized control trial to assess the effectiveness of Economics Departments’ efforts to recruit and retain female economics majors.
Over the 2017 spring semester, Yale’s Economics Department, one of 20 nationwide selected at random to receive funding for the UWE challenge, tasked Olivia Briffault ’17 GRD ’23 and Claire Goldsmith ’18, two female economics majors, with developing a report of Yale-specific policies that the department could implement to respond to the challenge it faces in recruiting and retaining women. In response to the report’s suggestions, the Economics Department hopes to foster community within the major and make the major’s curriculum more applied and policy driven, according to Dirk Bergemann, chair of the department.
“This question of how to get women into the field and how to treat women in the field is something that is being very heavily debated right now, and I think it’s hugely important,” Goldsmith said. “It’s something I’m really excited and hopeful for, that this research, this larger challenge and the debates being had right now will make [economics] a more accessible and open field for students in the future.”
The gender disparity in the economics major is not a new problem or one unique to Yale, according to Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard who is spearheading the UWE challenge. Goldin, who categorizes economics as a STEM field, said that while the proportion of women in other STEM fields has increased substantially in the past 20 years, the ratio of women in undergraduate economics programs has not changed. The ratio of male to female economics majors at Yale has hovered around 2-to-1 for the past 12 years, rising as high as 3-to-1 in 2013. But this is “small potatoes” on a national scale, Goldin said, explaining that the average ratio of males to females in the major is 3-to-1 nationwide.
Goldin emphasized the importance of providing undergraduates with a greater amount of accurate information about economics early on, since many students do not realize that economics is relevant to areas other than the corporate sector.
“Most undergraduates, when they come to campus as freshmen, don’t have a clue what economics is,” Goldin said. “Males want to major in it more than females even before they know what economics is because they take their cues from what they read in the paper, what they see on television and what their parents and their relatives tell them, and generally, that isn’t good information.”
Bergemann told the News that a cross-analysis of all of Yale’s economics courses showed that the gender ratio is the most balanced in seminars and lectures that allow students to analyze policy issues and apply economic concepts in the real world. And, through analysis of 10 years of transcripts and enrollment data, Goldsmith and Briffault found that a large number of the women that would have been good candidates for the economics major chose to major in related subjects with more obvious applications.
Based on these findings, Goldsmith and Briffault in their report suggested creating an introductory economics class that focuses on the more tangible applications of the economics program.
In an interview with the News, Bergemann discussed the possibility of both adding more policy-driven courses at the senior and junior level and of revamping the whole introductory economics program to be more policy based, since most introductory courses are currently more theoretical and conceptual. Given that the major is the largest on campus, however, it would require careful planning, Bergemann said.
“Economics is not just for Wall Street,” said Ebonya Washington, director of undergraduate studies in the Economics Department. “Economists concern themselves with a myriad of policy issues from health care to immigration. And as that message gets out, a greater variety of students become interested in economics.”
The report also suggested creating an economics study space and establishing an organization for undergraduate women in economics, similar to the programs that exist in various STEM fields. According to Goldsmith, these initiatives are intended to foster more of a community within one of Yale’s largest majors and to give female economics majors support and guidance as they navigate job applications, internships or graduate school.
Bergemann told the News that, in response to the report, the Economics Department has requested such a study area from the Provost’s Office, though the office has not yet responded due to campus space constraints. And Washington said that the undergraduate group for women in economics, which has already had its first organizational meeting, plans to bring prominent female economists to campus to speak about their experiences as women in the field.
Goldsmith said the Economics Department seems both “receptive” and “excited” about the report’s suggestions. “The professors really recognize that the best work in economics comes when you have people with different views,” Goldsmith said.
Evie Cai ’19, a female economics major, said that in her higher level, theoretical classes, she was often one of only two or three women in a class of 20 to 25 people. She emphasized the importance of encouraging more women to become economics majors.
“If you look at the career tracks that economics majors go into like finance or graduate school for economics, you can see that there are fewer women,” Cai said. “If you start at the source, you can probably influence these fields as well.”
Within the Yale Economics Department’s tenure track, 14.9 percent of professors are women.
Adelaide Feibel | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Nov. 5: A previous version of this article stated that the Economic Department tasked Zara Contractor ’17 GRD ’23 and Claire Goldsmith ’18 with developing a report of Yale-specific policies for the UWE challenge. The students tasked with developing the report, in fact, were Olivia Briffault ’17 and Claire Goldsmith ’18.