Home > econometrics, economics profession, Real-World Economics Review, RWER > Yes, economics has a problem with women

Yes, economics has a problem with women

from Julie Nelson

Yes, economics has a problem with women. In the news recently we’ve heard about the study of the Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) on-line forum. Student researcher Alice H. Wu found that posts about women were far more likely to contain words about their personal and physical issues (including “hot,” “lesbian,” “cute,” and “raped” ) than posts about men, which tended to focus more on academic and professional topics. As a woman who has been in the profession for over three decades, however, this is hardly news.

Dismissive treat of women, and of issues that impact women more than men, comes not only from the sorts of immature cowards who vent anonymously on EJMR, but even from men who probably don’t think of themselves as sexist. And because going along with professional fashion may be necessary for advancement, women economists also sometimes play along with the dominant view.

Consider a few other cases I’ve noticed during my thirty years in the profession:  

  • A literature has grown up “explaining” the greater achievements men have obtained in labor markets as the result of men and women having “fundamentally” different preferences—in spite of the empirical evidence for this being weak to nonexistent. (More about this below.)
  • Articles about how to get Chief Executive Officers (mostly men) to act in the interest of others (shareholders) prescribe incentivizing them with generous bonuses and stock options. Articles about how to make sure that nurses (mostly women) have the interest of others at heart suggest keeping the pay low, reasoning that then the job will only appeal to true altruists. Yet few seem to notice that such stereotyped reasoning might be relevant to discussing the gender wage gap…
  • An economist department tenures a man who had, as his strongest publication, a piece in World Development, a journal not among the top 100 in the profession. The next year, the department denies tenure to a woman purportedly on the basis of inadequate research, in spite of her having published in top-flight journals including Econometrica, JPE, AER, JEP, and REStats.
  • A book by an economist claims that statistical discrimination against women is fair and allowable, because it treats women fairly as a group even if it disadvantages some individual women. Affirmative action for women, that attempts to even out the advantages historically enjoyed by men as a group, however, is considered by the author to be unfair, because it could disadvantage individual men.
  • Two well-known (male) economists discuss the problem of widening income and wealth inequality at a conference, offering progressive taxation and an extension of opportunities for higher education as possible solutions. Afterwards, I suggest to another economist that public support of high quality subsidized childcare and early education should also be considered a possible remedy for inequality. Well-designed policies could reduce inequality by supporting low-income working parents (especially, given current patterns, mothers). They could also make crucial investments—arguably more important, for many, than higher education—in the next generation. His reply is, “Oh, but that panel wasn’t about life course issues.”

Additional sexists comments, discriminatory decisions, biased research, and, of course, a high preponderance of all-male panels at conferences and high-level policy events would be reported by many economists I know—both men and women. Some of us also see gender bias in the values underpinning the discipline, and especially those values that have governed the choices of the particular models and methods.

As economists, we like to think we are very sophisticated when it comes to research. But are still human beings, and so still subject to the cognitive biases that have explored by psychologists and, more recently, by behavioral economists. Thinking simplistically is one bias-creating cognitive shortcut. For example, we may think of groups as being either “the same” or “different” without paying attention to the degree of difference. Another form of bias is “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to take more notice of evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

A few years ago, I became curious about claims such as “Women are more risk-averse than men”—or “are less competitive than men” or “are more altruistic than men”—that were popping up in the economics scholarly literature. Some articles claim that these differences are “fundamental.” They also often make allusions to stories about evolution, hormones, or genetics as possible causes. Some draw the conclusion that men and women therefore need to be treated in categorically different ways in employment, investment advising, and so on. I decided to do a meta-analysis of the literature, and describe my discoveries in Gender and Risk-Taking: Economics, Evidence, and Why the Answer Matters.

I find that both simplistic thinking and confirmation bias are rife in the literature on gender and risk-aversion. Reexamining the data used in the economics and finance literature—drawn from survey questions, experiments such as lottery games, and actual investment portfolios—I find that the empirical results are actually quite mixed. Some studies find women to be the bigger, on average, risk-takers than men. Very many studies fail to find a statistically significant difference.

But even more importantly, I find that the best (that is, most precise) estimates of the substantive size of the difference between measures of men’s and women’s risk aversion to be about 0.13 of a standard deviation. To put it another way, you can think of the men’s and women’s distributions having about a 95% overlap. Or expressing it in even simpler terms, suppose you were presented with a random pair of people, about whom you know nothing. In that case, there is a 50% probability that your guess about which one will be the bigger risk-taker will be correct. My meta-analysis implies that if you were presented with a random man and women, and predict that the man will be the bigger risk-taker, your chance of being correct rises all the way to…55%.

While this is not a finding of “sameness,” neither is it by any stretch of the imagination a finding of sort of 0% overlap and 100% predictive, categorical “difference” that is often extrapolated from the research studies. I suggest that, as a corrective, we researchers include measures of the size of a difference, as well as of similarity and overlap, in our studies, and remember to talk about them when addressing our colleagues and the media. We should also entertain alternative explanations. For example, while substantively larger degrees of “differences” are often found in studies of preferences regarding competition, the degree of overlap still tends to run about 60%. And in a world where people tend to judge competitive behavior by women more harshly than the same behavior in men, acting less competitively may be largely a learned and defensive (as opposed to innate) strategy.

What about the second type of bias I mentioned? Sadly for the profession, I find ample evidence of risk-aversion researchers slanting the results in ways that confirm their own (stereotypical) beliefs. For example, one article claims to find a “robust” “victory for gender difference” in spite of the fact that the authors only find a statistically significant difference in 5 out of the 12 measures examined. Four of the 5 were significant only at a 10% level. Another study merged the results from studies in which women on average took more risks than men with studies that leaned the other direction. The published article, as a result, failed to acknowledge the existence of most of this non-confirming evidence. Across the board, findings of “difference” are highlighted, much discussed, and often featured in the titles of articles. Meanwhile—driven by our profession’s fascination with p-values, as well as its gender bias—failures to find statistically significant gender differences are relegated to brief mentions and footnotes, at best, or else to the file drawer.

It’s long past time for our profession, which rightly aspires to do rigorous and scientific work, to wake up to its gender biases. Unfortunately, at least one study has suggested that the more people believe themselves to be rational and objective, the more likely we are to be fooled by our own prejudices.


  1. October 8, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    Thanks so much Julie. I believe myself to be normative, embedded, relational, and transformative.

    Without corporate agents such as NGOs and my friendship group in my neighbourhood, I could not get much done at all. Wendy Olsen

    • robert locke
      October 9, 2017 at 8:19 am

      Once in the distant past, I applied for a tenure track position at one of the branches of University of California. My mentor, who had a close friend in the department wrote a letter to him singing my praises. He received a reply that this slot is being held for a woman, so that Locke in this case has to pay the price for long time discrimination against women. I didn’t get the job, she did. So what did I do? Nothing.

      • IComment
        December 3, 2017 at 8:36 pm

        Given that women have been systematically discriminated against for years it would appear that all the high paying senior jobs historically have been “reserved for men”. Without deliberate attempts to correct this problem, men will continue hiring men. Simple.

  2. October 16, 2017 at 11:56 am

    There are no genetic differences between male and female Homo Sapiens that justify such discrimination against females. The discrimination you describe is almost exclusively cultural. And the cultures that foster this discrimination stretch back 5,000 and more years. Changing them is not either a simple or easy process. It’s particularly difficult since viewing females as inferior to males is only one aspect of the changes needed. Like freeing slaves, allowing females full freedom and equality frightens many males since the males cannot know in advance how such freedom and equality will affect them, or the society generally.

  3. Helen Sakho
    January 6, 2019 at 2:34 am

    January 6, 2019 at 2:22 am Reply
    Dear Dave, my reference was to the original post, but I do write as an Economist (with respect to you and other colleagues) not as a woman! In fact, I confess to increasingly wondering why on earth we have very few female participants here or elsewhere for that matter? Is it because they have given up on this so-called science and become engineers and tool makers like our friend Vladimir? I hope so. However, we could perhaps ask everyone to encourage more women to take part please? One does get tired of multitasking.

    Dear Julie and other enlightened colleagues. Wishing you all a peaceful and progressive New Year, I just posted this on the main (it seems) blog. Perhaps we can encourage more women Economists and potential researchers to participate?
    Helen Sakho

  4. Nancy
    September 11, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    Why not ‘men are more reckless’, ‘women are more cooperative’, ‘women are more inclusive (‘men are more exclusive’) ‘, etc. Perhaps the semantics and framing are the problem…. and the priorities?

  5. metaecongary
    October 27, 2021 at 7:03 pm

    Hypothesis, coming out of Metaeconomics framing and dual interest theory: Mainstream (Micro)economics is egocentric. It focuses on ego (the self-interest only indifference curve is that of the male — who can be very egoistic — head of household!), and downplays (actually, it ignores) empathy. Behavioral science supports the proposition that ego is a more dominant feature on the male end of the gender spectrum while empathy is a more dominant feature on the female end of that spectrum, with every combination imaginable in ego&empathy across the whole spectrum. So, sure, it makes behavioral (metaeconomic) science sense that mainstream (micro)economics is male biased, and male (or females with large egos) practitioners of it also so biased. Try Metaeconomics (https://tinyurl.com/buy-Metaeconomics ), which is gender neutral. In fact, the Metaeconomic framed question is about find what works best in the balance in any give economic situation, the best balance of ego&empathy, self&other(shared with the other, yet internalized within the own-self)-interest. There is also an empathy based other-interest curve in that indifference space, not just the ego based self-interest curve.

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