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Chapter 1. What do we know about the experience of women economists throughout their career?

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

For the first installment of our Women in Economics workshop EVER, we wanted to take a deep-dive into the career path of women economists. We wanted to look at what pushes us to become economists, who stays in academia and why, and what we can expect throughout our career, based on research and others' experiences. 

Throughout the workshop, we had two guiding questions:

  1. What do we know about the experience of women at different stages of their careers in economics?

  2. What is the effect of the lack of female role models for young female economists?

Women start well-represented but drop out quickly

You probably knew that economics is male-dominated in real life, but did you know that this is also the case in fictional worlds created by economists? In 2018, Betsy Stevenson and Hanna Zlotnik looked through economics textbooks to examine whether they create worlds that are familiar to everyone. What they found may not be surprising: women are severely underrepresented in economics textbooks' fictionalized accounts, choices of pronoun, and in the real people that are used to illustrate points made. Economics textbooks do not describe worlds that feel familiar to both male and female students (not to mention the world of people who identify beyond the gender binary). But even more importantly, given that economics is supposed to be a tool to describe the world around us - if it's telling a world that is only familiar to some people - is it even getting the whole picture right?

What could be the consequences of this? We know that women enroll in economics, but they start dropping out pretty quickly. The gender proportionality gap increases over time in a career. There might not be much of a gap between women and men's representation in economics at the undergraduate and master's levels. Still, there is a gap at the PhD level, which increases as they go up the academic ladder. Maybe the unfamiliar world created by textbooks contributes to the loss of motivation for women to stay in economics and academia over time. 

What could reduce this inequality at the PhD level? In 2019, Leah Boustan and Andrew Langan found that economics departments' views on gender matter. Departments that hire more women, facilitate advisor-student contact, provide collegial research seminars, and have notable senior faculty with an awareness of gender issues, hire and keep more women PhD students. 

Boustan & Langan (2019)
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Academia is not a friendly environment for women

A key pillar of academia is the peer-review process. Not only is publishing in top peer-reviewed journals important for getting your research out there, but it is also at the heart of academia's promotion process - the key to getting a tenured faculty position with job security and salary benefits. Previous research has found that women are penalized during the peer review process - there is a significant citation gap. Erin Hengel writes: "Ladies, our papers aren't published that often in "top-four" economics journals." The average share of female authors per paper was 15% in 2015, only 8% of articles were majority female-authored, and between 2015 and 2017, the Quarterly Journal of Economics did not publish one single exclusively female-authored paper. One explanation for this is given to us by David Card, Stefano DellaVigna, Patricia Funk, and Nagore Iriberri, who find that women are held to higher standards by peer reviewers. While this is not the full answer, this explains one aspect of the publishing hurdle for women. 

Mobility could also explain some of the gender gaps in academia. Doing well in academia requires significant sacrifices in terms of mobility. Around two-thirds of academics move at least once during the process of receiving a tenured faculty position. But little is known about the gender disparities in when it comes to mobility. Christiana and Michael Hilmer find that while women who move are penalized for doing so early on in their careers (they go to a less well-ranked university), men are rewarded for moving at any point in their careers. That said, so much more needs to be studied: maybe women move more for their marriage, and men move more for their career? Testing this is no easy feat.  

Women do not negotiate

Women economists are not only underrepresented in academia - but they are also underrepresented in other environments. One crucial factor is negotiation: women do not negotiate as often or as well as their male counterparts when they are in low-power positions (for example, in the early stages of their careers). Negotiation comes much more readily for their male counterparts. Deborah Small, Michele Gelfand, Linda Babcock, Hilary Gettman explore the power dynamics of negotiation and find that reframing situations goes a long way towards making it easier for women to initiate negotiations. When a situation is framed as negotiation, women are less likely to participate than men; when framed as an opportunity for asking, this effect disappears. Why this is the case is a behemoth of a topic that we try to explore in our fifth workshop.

Finally, during our Apéro, we had a fantastic Q&A session with Prof. Beatrice Weder di Mauro who generously shared her experiences with us and answered our many questions. The content shared remains private. 


Boustan, Leah & Andrew Langan (2019). Variation in Women's Success across PhD Programs in Economics. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 33 (1), 23-42.

Card, David, et al. (2019). Are referees and editors in economics gender neutral?. NBER Working Paper w25967.

Hilmer, C., & Hilmer, M. (2010). Are There Gender Differences in the Job Mobility Patterns of Academic Economists? The American Economic Review, 100(2), 353-357.

Small, Deborah A., et al. (2007). Who goes to the bargaining table? The influence of gender and framing on the initiation of negotiation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93(4), 600.

Antecol H., Bedard K., Stearns J. (2018). Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies? American Economic Review, 108(9): 2420–2441.

Goldin C., Rouse C. (2000). Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians. American Economic Review, 90(4): 715–741.

Lerchenmueller M. J., Sorenson O., Jena A. B. (2019). Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study.

Wolfer J. (2018). Why Women’s Voices Are Scarce in Economics New York Times

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