Gender parity problems most prevalent in economics

Research project will be conducted this year to investigate the underlying reasons for the lack of interest in economics for women

Graphic by Philip Su
Graphic by Philip Su

According to Tammy Schirle, economics professor and director at Wilfrid Laurier University, the growth in the number of women enroled within the economics program has been stagnant.

“Economics is horrible when it comes to gender parity, I hate to say it. We’re not alone in the country, this is fairly normal for economics departments,” Schirle said.

The data has apparently not changed much since the early 1990s, with the number of economics graduates who are women fluctuating around 32 per cent. In 2014, 34.3 per cent of women were economics majors and 35.9 per cent graduated from the program. The program has changed, but its peak was in 1999 with over 40 per cent female graduates. In recent years, “roughly” a third of undergraduate economics students have been female. According to the five year summary of degrees/diplomas granted compiled by the office of the registrar in 2014, there was a total of 465 women and 284 men who graduated in the science faculty with either a bachelor of arts (general or honours) or a bachelor of science (general or honours).

In the faculty of business and economics, 426 men and 305 women graduated with a degree in the bachelor of business administration program. As for the honours economics program, the dynamic was 57 men to 38 women who received an honours bachelor of arts in economics with no designation specified. The interest in fields such as economics or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for women is rare, as other programs in the social sciences or humanities are preferably explored.

“Now when you compare that to what’s happening university-wide, you’re looking at roughly 60 per cent of our students being female and that’s been increasing over time right. More and more women are coming to university relative to men, but they’re not coming to economics,” Schirle said.

Schirle added the reason behind this lack of parity may be due to girls adopting gender roles in which competitiveness with boys is “frowned upon.” Another factor may be the bias of teachers, citing a study that basically unconsciously gave women a lower mark when the teachers knew who they were marking.

“We’ve seen some studies lately where they did an experiment where they were marking math tests … when they’d know that it was a girl, they’d get a lower grade for the same answer than when they didn’t know the gender of the kids.”

Schirle said this may discourage women down the road from taking advanced math classes that would make them qualified to enter fields in science and economics.

The last factor she discussed was the possibility of not knowing the full extent of the options of work available with an economics degree. Students’ Union president Olivia Matthews views it from a different perspective and said there is a problem with female engagement for extracurricular activities, specifically running for elections. As president and CEO, there are still barriers that must be overcome. Essentially, the work is not done.

“I’m kind of sick and tired of being in a position of power as a woman and having to say, ‘oh yes, there’s no problem with women in leadership’ because there is,” said Matthews.

“So I think about when I ran for election and the way that I was perceived. What was said about me versus my male counterparts, which was not done to them.”

Due to the many factors “at play,” Schirle said the economics department is working on a small research project that will be insightful in providing strategies to combat this issue.

As a whole, Schirle concluded with the importance of outreach to young women well before high school to continue their interest in economics or the STEM fields.

As an advocate for women’s issues, Matthews said Students’ Union president-elect Tyler Van Herzele is also keen on continuing the work as it is “just as important for him as a man” to be doing the work as well.

“We need more male allies on campus.”

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