Have you ever noticed the gender divide in some of your classes? Kerry Nix ’16, an Economics and Italian Studies double major, noticed it clearly in her Econ classes and decided to investigate. The following post is the result of her many interviews with fellow classmates and professors and her research into gender disparities and their consequences at universities nationwide. It contains stories of particular experiences within the Econ major and out, and policy suggestions for improving equal access and participation in college-level Econ courses. Feel free to comment below on your experiences with gender disparity in your courses (Econ or otherwise). If you are interested in discussing any of the issues raised here, you can attend an open meeting of the The Female Economists of Wesleyan (FEW), a recently formed group of female-identifying Econ students. The meeting is on Sunday, 4/26, 4:30-5:30pm in PAC001.
At the end of this post is a list of policy suggestions to improve equity and inclusion in the Econ department. For greater detail and more students’ and professors’ perspectives, read the full article.
Professor indicates female
Professor* indicates male
Economics at Wesleyan needs more women. While more and more students are choosing to major in Econ, the major is not getting any more representative of Wesleyan’s student body. The average class size has grown enormously over the past thirty years, from under 60 to over 100, but the low proportion of female to male students has stayed remarkably constant. From 1985 to 2015, on average only 28% of Econ and Mathematical Economics (MECO) majors in each graduating class were female.
Econ’s gender problem is parallel to the gender problem in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Women’s underrepresentation in the STEM fields has inspired presidential interventions aimed at benefitting industry and increasing women’s earning potential (women in STEM industries earn 33% more than women in other fields, according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy). While there is still a long way to go toward achieving gender equity in STEM fields, broad interventions have made real progress. Women are similarly underrepresented in economics; women at Wes are majoring in Econ at nearly the same rate as at women at women’s colleges. The gender imbalance of Wes’s Econ department – consistent with those nationwide at higher-education institutions – reflects a long process, made up of several intermediate steps, through which women are squeezed out of quantitatively oriented fields.
Econ, like STEM, needs serious interventions. Undergraduate Econ’s gender imbalance has stagnated for 20 years (American Economics Association). More women with undergraduate degrees in Econ means more strong female applicants to currently male-dominated industries. The culture of majority-male workplaces we observe in the tech and finance industries today may be due partly to the gender imbalance of Econ higher ed, but it may also help to perpetuate it, as many male-dominated workplaces are wrought with barriers that could deter women from entering those fields (shout-out to Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, who just lost a pretty convincing lawsuit against her former employer, Kleiner, Perkins Caufield & Byers). More women in Econ means higher lifetime earnings and more employment options for women. While gender inequity is an intricate problem with many sources exogenous to Wes, Wes can and should be a place of change.
As a female Econ major who is deeply invested in this issue, I have spoken with professors and students regarding their perspectives of the gender imbalance, and how it affects their academic experiences (see the full-length article for more students’ and professors’ accounts). Wes faces several problems, and together we must address them all in order to achieve equity:
PROBLEM I: Failure to Attract Female Students to Gateway ECON110
Nobody expects 50-50 gender balances within any academic department. As we’ve seen, Wesleyan’s Economics department does not draw a balanced representation of the student body, but neither do most majors. Still, a glance at the above graphs shows you that, although the major is growing, it isn’t growing any more popular with women.
Fewer women than men consider Econ to be in their set of academic options. Econ Professor Hornstein reasons that the major might appeal more to men “because economics has many overlaps with related fields; a larger fraction of women are interested in those interdisciplinary overlaps and don’t feel the desire to complete the formal major in economics.” Men, who might be more focused on Econ as a vocation, seem to find that the Econ major suits their goals, while women might satisfy their interests by enrolling in ECON101 and lower-level electives.
Gender differences and socialization may also explain Econ’s gender imbalance. Professor Hornstein says, “each of us has certain topics we talk about at the dinner table and in school. Whatever that is, you’ll tend to study that a little further. You can see how that’ll lead to demographic overrepresentation in certain fields… The guys walk in, they’ve become accustomed to talking about business…and it’s not because they come from families where this is more business, it’s for whatever reason that parents talk about that more with their sons than their daughters.”
Common misconceptions about what Econ is can make it burdensome to pursue its study. Econ and Government double major Jenny Robinson ’16 says, “There’s a national stigma about women and math…. Econ, a lot of people don’t actually know necessarily what it is…People think, ‘Oh, it’s like business, and banking and finance,’ and that has not been in any way what my experience has been.” Econ and MB&B double major Caroline Elmendorf ’17 admitted, “I had someone accuse me last year, [saying]: ‘You want to go to Wall Street and just rip people off all the time and become super rich!’ Econ is so much more than that, and I think people aren’t aware of it.” Another female Econ major, a senior, asked a fraternity brother and athlete how he responded to these kinds of hostilities. He answered: “I don’t ever feel like I have to justify myself, because all my friends are Econ majors.” Social associations and cultural milieu matter for students studying Econ, and popular misconceptions about their motivations make the decision easier and more natural for some students than for others.
And importantly, female undergraduate students are less confident in their quantitative skills, even when they possess abilities equal to their male peers (American Economics Association). Women are also more sensitive to grades than men. A nationwide study by Claudia Goldin, Harvard Professor and President of the American Economics Association, finds that in getting an A in an introductory course, about 40% of male students and 42% of female students will continue with the Econ major. In earning a B-, meanwhile, about 31% of male students but only 14% of female students will major in Econ. Likewise, Econ major and two-year Major Committee member Andrew Hove ’15 recalls a female friend who discontinued the major upon receiving what she considered to be a bad grade in ECON300.
Failure to attract women is motivated by many social and cultural factors, many of which are outside of Wesleyan’s direct control. But that should motivate intervention, not deter it. If we choose to think that the current gender imbalance of Econ reflects males’ and females’ true preferences, we are legitimizing the cultural biases that prevent women from pursuing the same academic disciplines as men.
PROBLEM II: Unwelcoming Gateway and Lack of Camaraderie within the Major
The classroom environment of the Econ major’s gateway course may impede students’ engagement with course material. Econ and Sociology double major Shivani Kochhar ’14 recalls that ECON110 “wasn’t an environment conducive to actually understanding what was happening. You would want your Econ class to be a lot more engaging, a lot more collaborative, and a little bit more rigorous, so that people could get a sense of what Econ actually is.”
One female Econ major expresses frustration with her professor’s lack of explanation of mathematical concepts, saying the professor “gets it so intuitively that he doesn’t [get] how to teach it.” Some professors define technical terms and frequently pause for questions; others blow through complex proofs and ask for questions once they’re finished. Students unwilling to interject with clarifying questions might not build up enough understanding to even formulate a question at the end of a professor’s demonstration. Further, students without the prior exposure to economic concepts are at a disadvantage in these settings. At this point, some students are confused, and opportunities for learning are bypassed.
Many students I spoke with find the treatment of course material difficult to relate to. In introductory courses, students learn principles via economic models, which employ many assumptions that render course material not immediately applicable to the real world. One female Econ student has felt frustrated by the apparent implications of simplified economic models, when conclusions seem to go against her principles of socioeconomic justice. Lack of discussion about course material compounded her feeling of alienation. For some, disconnectedness is worsened by use of sports-focused example problems in class. Currently, some professors rely heavily on sports-related statistics to illustrate economic principles, apparently assuming most students in their classes play sports.
Some female students in male-dominated Econ courses recall hearing male students’ laughter after asking questions, and feel both self-conscious and suspicious of their classmates. We are more confident when we feel we are among peers, and as Econ Professor Tien notes, “not having gender support within your classroom, you feel a little more reluctant to raise your hand.”
Raising clarifying questions about course content is crucial to succeeding in Econ. Math and Econ double major Kumbi Kuti ’16 feels it may be hesitance to raise questions that exacerbates females’ experiences in Intro Econ courses. These courses tend to provide few opportunities and low incentive to work or connect with peers. Disconnectedness from course material, a lack of gender support within classrooms and few opportunities to talk or work in groups result in students not feeling ownership of course material and a weird, unnecessary discomfort with classmates.
Factions form among students in Wes’s Econ classes. Whether students feel more or less comfortable in classes depends on their position among those factions. One female student notes that, in her ECON301 class, “we [female students] all sit in one corner…It’s very segregated.” Segregation implies power dynamics, which among students within the classroom reflect many things: gender, Greek association membership, sports, language, race, socioeconomic status, cultural background, sexual orientation…the list goes on.
Any student’s discomfort in the classroom is due to the actions and circumstances of everyone involved, and professors and students alike may feel victimized by the subtle power dynamics of the classroom. Psychology Professor Lisa Dierker notes: “There’s a fine line between victim and oppressor. We are all all of those things.” Subtle biases are powerful, and female students feel the effects of gender bias in classes. Professor Dierker says, “Forty years ago, biases were in your face…Despite the fact that biases can seem nonobvious in our classrooms and even on our campus, research is showing they remain incredibly powerful influences on our behavior no matter how old or young we are.” Female students feel the effects of gender bias in classes.
PROBLEM III: Challenges to Learning in Gender-Imbalanced Classrooms
Gender disparity is most extreme in upper-level Econ classrooms, as these classes include only Econ majors and minors. Professor Hornstein experiences skewed gender representation pretty regularly in her upper-level finance courses, to her dismay: “I need women in there. I can tell you how awkward and uncomfortable it can be if you feel like you’re the only person who is like you.”
Professors posit that female students usually do very well in upper-level electives, and on average tend to have higher grades than males in those classes. Further, in some classes, female students participate proportionately more than males. However, neither observation indicates equity in Econ classrooms. It could mean that the “lower-performing” females did not choose to major, while “lower-performing” males declared the major anyway and continued to the upper classes. The women who elect to major are those who have adapted to Econ’s individualistic system of incentives.
Econ and Math double major Kumbi Kuti ‘16 finds that the gender disparity in Econ at Wes makes the department feel “so far removed from the world of social justice, and everything else that Wesleyan stands for.” As one of a handful of female students in some of her classes, she reflects: “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m numb to it. For me, my coping mechanism is that I don’t see myself as a woman in the class; I see myself as a student and a participant.” And that’s good! We should all be able to shed our superficial identifying characteristics. But she recalls instances in which, as she was raising a question in class, male students have cut her off. Often, the incident goes unchecked by the professor. Kumbi says, “Actually, the minute I said something and got cut off, I was reminded that I was a woman in the class.”
Mindfulness of the effect gender imbalance has on classroom dynamics is crucial to ensuring academic equity. Gender may not seem immediately relevant to Econ’s course content, but gender affects the environment of Econ classrooms and students’ opportunities to succeed. Professor Dierker says, “I think that [women in male-dominated disciplines] can often be pushed to internalize the values of those disciplines…to be very, very successful, you need to internalize those values.”
Success in a male-dominated discipline may reward female students who adapt to the male-dominated value structure. In order to make Econ more welcoming to women, what should have to change? Women, or the culture of rewards for Econ students and professors?
The “Role Model” Hypothesis
Having good role model figures is crucial to students’ comfort within a major. Many female Econ majors cite encouragement from female professors as a major motivator for their choosing Econ. Further, many female students appreciate female professors’ heightened sensitivity to gender issues within the economics field.
Five out of the 18 Econ professors at Wes are female. This is actually above the national average – go Wes! But in the Spring 2015 semester, two of those five professors were on sabbatical and none taught Intro Econ courses ECON101 or ECON110. Further, female professors are already overburdened with advising, as many students find female professors to be more approachable.
It is not fair to put the burden of welcoming female students on female professors, just as it’s not fair to require that one of the five professors on the Intro-course teaching rotation each semester be a racial minority. What would be fairer is to encourage male professors to reach out to marginalized student populations and become forces for inclusion. Many already do! But what prevents progress toward correcting the gender imbalance, in large part, is that current interventions are marginal. The sum of these marginal efforts, I argue, is insufficient. Students have adapted their expectations of what it is to learn to an unequal environment, and students and professors may be perpetuating the disparity.
STEPS TOWARDS EQUITY – Lessons from other institutions and empowering Econ students
To improve equity, we can learn from some other institutions’ successes. Sheryl Sandberg, in her 2013 book Lean In, describes how Harvard Business School (HBS) closed its achievement gap between male and female students. Women accounted for 36% of the HBS class but only 11% of the school’s highest honors recipients; not only were women underrepresented, but they were underperforming as well. HBS redefined leadership and reworked how it awarded credit, and thus reoriented students’ and professors’ incentives toward fostering community-minded leaders and a collaborative academic culture. Defining new credit-earning opportunities outside the classroom also helped redefine academic excellence. Professor Dierker says, “the people who weren’t comfortable talking in classes…were excelling” outside the classroom. And importantly, “everybody was happier with the program with these changes. It both closed the gender gap, and even the American men, and the international students, and the women, were all satisfied.”
In proposing initiatives that Econ could adopt, I also look to professors at Wesleyan who grappled with issues of inclusion. Professor Hornstein acknowledges that male students in her typically gender-imbalanced Econ finance elective have tended to have greater exposure to finance prior to Wesleyan. As such, she approaches assignment design with gender and cultural biases in mind to capture the reality that no prior topical knowledge is required or expected. The course’s semester-long group project levels the playing field, such that “girl” types can leverage their creativity, understanding of theory, and knowledge of other disciplines, while the “boy” types can benefit from their prior knowledge of the field through isolated hands-on experiences with related material.
In Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center, courses were designed with inclusion in mind; its credits are cross-listed with a wide variety of academic disciplines. QAC is similar to Econ, in that its focus is quantitative, but it actually attracts those very students who are underrepresented in Econ. Professor Dierker notes that its introductory statistics course, Applied Data Analysis (QAC201), “enrolls statistically higher rates of women than on campus [60%]… and higher rates of underrepresented students, both African American and Hispanic, than on campus.”
To realize its goals of inclusion, QAC courses seek to empower students though project-based learning. Inaugural chair Professor Dierker says, “The pedagogy that engages is absolutely necessary, but the pedagogy that empowers you to be your own thinker, and your own worker, to do things and get your hands on it and get support to do that, I think is also really attractive and important for underrepresented groups, be it women or any other underrepresented group.”
QAC courses incorporate hands-on problem solving into class meetings, along with ample opportunities to ask questions. Some Econ majors note that building problem-solving time into class meetings allows students to raise questions or issues – such allocation certainly occurs in some Econ courses, but not across the board. Econ majors, too, would benefit from increased problem-solving time and resources for extra help.
Some professors in the Mathematics department are experimenting with flipped classrooms. Students participating in “flipped classrooms” might watch pre-recorded lectures and follow along with guided notes, and then spend most of class time on hands-on problem solving or some other activity. Mathematics Professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor experiments with her courses’ formats, incorporating elements of flipped classrooms. Her website describes the Multivariable Calculus course she taught in Fall 2013: “Students worked through content before class by reading PDF documents and annotating these, posting questions and responding to others’ questions…. Annotations served to prepare and engage students, enable students to ask content questions immediately and help me gauge what concepts needed clarification.”
While these examples present possible structures from which to draw to improve equity in Econ, Professor Dierker stresses that attempts to create more accessible and rigorous course structures fail as much as they succeed. Nevertheless, she says, “we succeed more now than we did five years ago, or four years ago, or three years ago…it is definitely about keeping at it.”
THE BRIDGE: Achieving equity in the Econ major
Gender equity should be a departmental priority, and achieving that goal may require coordinated actions between professors, students, and administrators. As Harvard Business School’s interventions illustrate, even small changes can make things better for everyone. Wesleyan’s Econ department could re-work credit to reward students who excel outside the classroom. Further, it could shift academic culture from individualistic to collaborative by incorporating problem solving into class meetings, designating peer mentors, and restructuring the TA program to provide greater access to extra help. Such changes could increase camaraderie and redefine academic success.
I have spoken with low-income, minority, and international students who identify with many concerns about inclusion expressed in this article (see full article for greater detail and more students’ and professors’ perspectives). This has given me the sense that these problems face not only women in Econ, but students across departments and from many different backgrounds and identities.
Progress toward equity and inclusion calls for collaboration. I hope that people who are experiencing these problems will make their perspectives known. We face these issues together. Through fostering campus dialogue, we can acknowledge our own contributions to the problem and compel professors and administrators to take action on the issues we perceive within classrooms. We can make real progress toward equity and inclusion, but in order to do so, all students must communicate their issues, biases, and struggles to professors, administrators, and above all, to each other.
The Female Economists of Wesleyan (FEW) is a recently formed caucus of female-identifying Econ students. If you wish to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, come to our OPEN MEETING FOR ALL STUDENTS ON SUNDAY, 4/26, 4:30-5:30pm, PAC001.
Here is a list of FEW-approved policy suggestions to improve equity and inclusion in Wes’s Econ department:
1) ECON PEER MENTORS PROGRAM
Prospective or recently declared majors would benefit from the guidance of an Econ Peer Mentor. Econ Peer Mentors should be a diverse group of students interested in helping their academic community. Mentors would hold one or two office hours per week, provide fellow students with advice on course selection, and direct students toward Econ department or university resources, internship and career guidance, or homework help. The list of Econ Peer Mentors, including their contact information and primary academic and co-curricular interests, should be visible to all students; all Econ professors should announce the program to their classes.
2) PUBLIC PRESENTATIONS OF UPPER-LEVEL STUDENTS’ COURSEWORK
Upper-level Econ students could present final research projects at informal talks or poster sessions, open to all. In upper-level Econ courses, students complete research projects on topics of their choice, typically applying theoretical concepts to real-world issues. Seeing strong student work can pique interest and make the prospect of majoring in Econ more attractive, especially for students who associate Econ solely with Wall Street, who think it’s irrelevant to their day-to-day experiences, or who don’t have a solid idea of what economists do. These events can also highlight the accomplishments of female and minority Econ students. Posters could be mounted in high-visibility spaces, such as the Exley lobby. Presentations can also increase upper-level students’ accountability for their coursework, and thus engagement in class.
3) INFORMAL GATHERINGS for Econ professors and students
Events could be focused around current events and economic issues. At some events, multiple professors could attend and discuss their research, while students could join whichever group interests them. At such gatherings, all students would benefit from the opportunity to engage with Econ outside of class, and from improved camaraderie with fellow Econ students and with faculty. Interdisciplinary-themed gatherings could appeal especially to female students, who upon arrival at Wes may have greater initial interest in interdisciplinary crossovers between Econ and other academic disciplines.
4) TEACHING EVALUATIONS AND COURSE EVALUATIONS: incorporate professors’ sensitivity to equity and inclusion in the classroom, and allow professors greater flexibility and incentive to innovate their teaching styles
Professors’ teaching evaluations are heavily weighted in decisions about tenure. The course evaluations we fill out at the end of each semester make up one part of teaching evaluations. A professors’ efforts towards increasing equity and inclusion within the classroom should be rewarded; incorporating questions on course evaluations that focus on equity and inclusion in the classroom could push students to think about these issues, offer professors focused feedback, and promote dialogue. Students should be informed about the teaching evaluation process and recognize the power of thoughtful course evaluations.
Importantly, professors should be encouraged to innovate their teaching and move away from lectures, which may not create the most effective learning environment. Often, experimenting with classroom structure leads to a professor receiving more negative course evaluations, which can put them at risk of not getting tenure. Professors seeking to improve teaching and students’ learning outcomes should feel supported by their department, and equity and inclusion in learning should be a departmental priority.
5) TA OFFICE HOURS: increase the availability and visibility of extra help
For each course, professors could designate one or two TAs to hold specialized office hours, in which several upperclassmen Econ majors could offer help and engage with students interested in deepening their understanding of course material. With greater peer support, professors could increase students’ individual accountability on class assignments as well as the rigor of course material.
As female and minority students may be more grade-sensitive than their male peers, opportunities for attaining extra help are crucial. To achieve equity of educational opportunity, all students should have access to resources that will help them realize their academic potential. Harvard Business School (HBS) redefined leadership to reward students who help their communities. The Econ department should encourage students to help their peers; a more collaborative academic culture could help to normalize seeking extra help and improve camaraderie within the major.
6) RE-WORK CREDIT to reward students who excel outside the classroom
HBS created a new mode of earning credit so that students not as comfortable participating in classes could be rewarded for excellence outside the classroom in collaborative projects. Econ, similarly, could incorporate new opportunities for Econ credit. NSM departments at Wes currently offer quarter-credit Journal Club discussion-based courses; Econ could do the same, plus offer more opportunities for department and peer-supported independent or collaborative projects.