Students & Campus
03 February 2021

Joint University Initiative Tackles Women’s Underrepresentation in Economics

Women in Economics Léman is a joint initiative by PhD candidates at the Graduate Institute, the University of Geneva, the University of Lausanne and EPFL that aims to launch a conversation about the repercussions of systemic gender biases on researchers within the economics field.  

In an interview, Women in Economics Léman co-founders Laura Nowzohour (PhD candidate in International Economics at the Graduate Institute), Alice Antunes (PhD candidate in Political Economy at the University of Lausanne), and Federica Braccioli (PhD candidate in Economics at the University of Geneva), discuss the important role of their initiative.

Why is there such a shortage of women in economics?

Alice Antunes: There certainly is a shortage of women and under-represented minorities (URMs) in economics. While around one-third of PhDs are awarded to women, only 20% of tenure-track faculty in economics departments are women, and that number drops for tenured faculty. URMs receive around 7% of PhDs but only 9% of full-time faculty positions (tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure track) -- see Jennifer Doleac and Elizabeth Pancotti’s online tool.

This trickles down to all kinds of under-representation, from not being invited to speak at academic seminars, to being left out of top-ranking journals. There are a few different reasons for this. First, academic economics tends to reward men. Articles written by men are more likely to be accepted for publication in top-ranked journals.

Economics is also often openly hostile against women and URMs - with little accountability for sexual harassment and open racism. Second, there are societal pressures that might keep women and URMs from economics. There is a shortage of women in more math-intensive fields (economics is notoriously math-intensive in the social sciences). This could be explained by the fact that society rewards people for sticking to stereotypes: women who deviate from the “nurturing and kind” type are often punished for doing so. Think of the attitudes towards Hilary Clinton while she ran for president in 2016, versus attitudes towards her before then.

What concrete actions have been established by this initiative thus far?

Laura Nowzohour: We began with wanting to understand better the role of gender in economics. During eight workshops and apéro sessions last year, we dove deep into some pertinent pain points such as the leaky pipeline, glass ceilings, gender stereotypes, sexual harassment as well as policy options. Transforming our learnings into tangible action, we started with some low-hanging fruits.

First, we wanted to obtain visibility and make our learnings available to outsiders. So we set up a website and a Twitter account to document and disseminate our activities. We wanted to start building a sense of belonging for junior women while also generating awareness and insights among established economists whom we hope would eventually become allies.

Second, we wanted to support and empower our community of women economists. We set up a mentoring programme to improve the network and exchange in the region.

Third, we would love to see some institutional change. Our departments have been supportive so we look forward to a fruitful collaboration on implementing some ideas we are working on at the moment to improve inclusion and diversity ‘at home’. None of this would have been possible without the explicit encouragement from the women in our networks early on, in particular, Professors Beatrice Weder di Mauro and Lore Vandewalle.

In greater numbers, what will women be able to contribute to this field?

Federica Braccioli: Let me rephrase this question using one of our favourite quotes from Bertrand (2020): "(...) it is tempting to say, and many have, that the world would be a kinder—and, in the long-run, better—place if more women were in charge, with less hate, less greed, and/or more sustainable policies. While I find it hard not to sympathise with this argument, I also fear that it is ultimately counterproductive, as it takes us back to the same stereotypical thinking trap. Instead, we should strive for a better allocation of talent in society, [regardless of gender identity].”

The problem is that women and other minorities (note that women are not a minority, rather they represent half of the population) are systematically exiting the profession. The economic challenges of the 21st century are massive and we cannot afford to not hear the voices of talented women to tackle them. Once the allocation of talent will hopefully be more fair, we will be able to observe what it is capable of.