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What's in a name? Why the "woman economist" label needs to be retired

CAROLINE BENTHAM: Despite the growing number of women leading macroeconomic institutions, the profession continues to be male-dominated and poorly represent the interests of women.

Bank of england

Women’s appointments to top roles in macroeconomics came thick and fast over the course of 2019. The European Central Bank has its first female head in Christine Lagarde, who was replaced as Chairperson of the IMF with their second female leader, Kristalina Georgieva. The economics departments of the UK government, the IMF and the OECD are all now headed by female Chief Economists, and Dame Minouche Shafik is hotly tipped as the first female Governor of the Bank of England from January 2020.

In November the Economic and Social Research Council’s Rebuilding Macroeconomics project co-hosted a Women in Macroeconomics conference at Girton College, Cambridge. Despite the growing success in women leading macroeconomic institutions, the conference was dominated by the message of how poorly women are represented by economics and within the economics profession. Pessimism was expressed for the likelihood that change will come anytime soon, as the rate of girls studying economics at A-level and undergraduate level are even lower than most STEM subjects. By some measures, the number of women in economics is actually falling.

Increasing the number of women economists could make a real difference: a survey study in 2017 found that women economists tend to show greater support than their male colleagues for policies that tackle environmental issues, value government intervention and promote greater equality. If more women were part of the economics profession, then we might see a very different approach to the economy and the way economic issues are prioritised.

And yet, we shouldn’t misinterpret the findings of studies such as the above. That survey polled the values of academic economists at universities, which cannot be directly compared to those who choose a career in economic policy, and even less so to the opinions of women who make it to the top of the economic policy career ladder. Convictions about what matters in economics do not necessarily survive the bruising, moulding experience of fighting your way through a career in rigid male-dominated economic policy.

Any person attempting to rise to the top of an institutional professional field faces a loss of individual conviction on the way up. People who rock the boat too much or disagree too far with the norms and orthodoxy of the institution are likely to find an especially difficult path upwards. This is even more the case for women working in fields dominated by men. When your personal characteristics are reason enough for your bosses and colleagues to doubt your ability – whether consciously or subconsciously – having extreme views is even more likely to hinder your progress than for someone who fits into the crowd in every other way. It should not be this way, but anyone who has attempted a career as a minority in an institutional environment will recognise the harsh reality of it. Macroeconomics is very much an institutional setting – you can’t go and start up your own central bank.

The pioneering economist Joan Robins is celebrated for her contribution as the sole female economist among those widely considered the modern fathers of economics: Keynes, Friedman, Kalecki, Kaldor – all men. But a key theme that emerged in the Women in Macroeconomics conference session dedicated to Robinson, from those who knew her personally and common to conference attendees who are following in her footsteps today, is how much women economists do not want to be identified as “women economists”. We identify as economists first and foremost, and battle hard to be known as leaders in our field rather than the more patronising woman leader in her field.

The presence of women in top economics roles is seen by some as reason for optimism that the economics profession is changing – both in being more accepting of women, and in terms of diversity of views. Yet besides the symbolism of female leadership at the top, the journey taken by those women to reach the lofty heights doesn’t necessarily signal a significant shift in practice, not yet at least. There is a risk that those women who do make it to the top may only do so by maintaining the status quo rather than fighting hard for an alternative perspective on the big economic questions.

We can hope that young women are inspired by those women now leading economics, to see that they too can and should take on the important questions of economic policy and choose to study economics at school and beyond. This is much more likely to be a success if more programmes to encourage girls into economics are put in place, as are now widespread for STEM subjects. Because only when female macroeconomics leaders are called simply “economists” – a common part of the economics profession, rather than unusual in the profession because of their gender – might female perspectives on economics finally be given their time to shine.  

Caroline Bentham is a PhD Economics Researcher at University of Leeds, formerly of the Bank of England and latterly Assistant Director at the Department for Business (BEIS).