ANAmong the 40 federal treasurers Australia has had since 1901, there is one striking similarity: none are women. Much the same can be said for the leadership of other major economic bodies; the Productivity Commission, Asic and Apra have never been directed by women. Nor, in her 60 years, has a woman ever been Governor of the Reserve Bank.
These positions that impact the country’s economy and the lives of its 25 million citizens have never been held by a woman.
The conduit to these positions of power and to major government and business boardrooms across the country often involves the study of economics. But while there has been a push in recent years for women to study in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields, the proportion of women studying economics has fallen.
A group of evidence on the “gender trust gap” – the tendency for women to underestimate their intelligence compared to the self-esteem of men – already exists. This new research suggests, however, that this lower self-perceived ability may deter female students from studying economics beyond high school. And the impact of that falls not only on students, but also on the potential economic results of the nation.
“We’re talking about the people who really hold the reins of power in Australia,” says Cherelle Murphy, chief economist at EY Oceania.
“If we don’t bring women economists into the profession now, we will face another generation of leadership in which there will be very few women.”
The RBA study asked 2,000 years 11 and 12 students from across Australia to rate their understanding of economics on a scale of one to five. This found their self-perceived competence, which was tested against their actual competition based on performance in a test of economic concepts.
The results revealed “a pretty startling contrast” between girls and boys, according to the RBA’s chief information officer, Jacqui Dwyer.
Compared to nearly half of male students surveyed, only 30% of female students reported a good understanding of the concepts. Meanwhile, 35% of girls said they only had a poor understanding of the concepts, but only 20% of boys did the same.
The study also found that students from lower socioeconomic zip codes rated themselves as less competent than their wealthier peers. But unlike students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, whose self-perceived ability matched their actual ability, girls’ confidence was lower than their ability.
The problem with studying economics and young women
In the course of a generation, high school enrollment in economics has dropped by 70%. That drop has been more pronounced among female students, with the RBA data suggesting a 78% decrease of girls enrolled since 1992.
There are now two boys for every girl studying economics at school level in Australia. And in college, male students go back to being more likely to sign up, with the number of female registrations declining in recent decades. Today, women represent only 37% of economics students.
Dr Leonora Risse, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, says “the profession is to blame”.
“The traditional way of teaching economics is theoretical, bland, and disconnected from real-world issues like climate change and inequality,” says Risse. When teachers claim the subject is “just hard equations” and traditional male voices dominate classrooms, he says it becomes daunting and exclusionary.
At 15, Skye Dannaher was “reading everything from Adam Smith to Marx to Piketty to Krugman.”
“It took up almost all my free time, I was absolutely obsessed.”
Dannaher, now 19, hoped to complete a Ph.D. and work in economic research. “The way people interact with resources, how they distribute them among them and build on them to create new things… I find that absolutely fascinating.”
But his economics studies in high school set those lopsided goals.
“Being trans, I noticed an almost immediate change in how I was perceived and my opinion in class,” they say. Going from an all-boys school to study as a student in a coeducational school, Dannaher also perceived an instantaneous subconscious devaluation of their own opinion, internalizing how they felt perceived by others.
“In class, I’d say something, and the kids would say the same thing hours or days later, and get a warmer reception for having the same idea.”
Ultimately, Dannaher felt “always underestimated”.
“Everything made me temper my expectations of how I could study economics at university,” they say. Dannaher is now studying philosophy and history.
The trust gap, Risse says, is “a response to the cues around us and the environment we find ourselves in.”
In the US, a economics textbook analysis found that women were generally referred to in roles such as shopping or doing housework, while men were overrepresented in positions of authority. Throughout her own teaching, Risse has observed the same thing in Australia.
“Textbooks are meant to use real-world scenarios to illustrate economics in action,” says Risse. “They are evoking those traditional stereotypes within their pages.”
Dawson says, within this cultural problem, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” In Australia, only 15% of economics professors are women, for example. Women also wear makeup 18% of CEOs and 15% of board presidents.
The RBA study found that the trust gap of girls exposed to a female teacher was markedly reduced. Dr. Rigissa Megalokonomou, Senior Lecturer in the University of Queensland’s School of Economics, points to the US. investigate who found that girls exposed to “successful and charismatic women” who majored in economics are nearly twice as likely to major in economics themselves.
“With female role models, girls not only perform better, but also become more confident in their abilities.”
Risse says that while a girl “can love and be good at economics,” these environmental factors “subconsciously add up” to make women “doubt or question their legitimacy to be in the field.”
beyond the classroom
“Many men who dominate our economic conversations are all too sure they’re right,” says Emma Dawson, executive director of Per Capita. “The system reflects the way they live in the world and is configured to serve their interests.”
Dawson points to a number of structural deficiencies that exist “often because men don’t necessarily see the problem.” Childcare, for example, is traditionally viewed as a cost rather than an investment. despite the returns received by the economy spending on child care.
Then there is retirement. The current average pay for women is a third of the pay for men, quantified by the Australian Human Rights Commission like just $37,000 compared to $110,000.
Getting women into better-paying jobs sooner, supporting maternity leave and ensuring it is paid for every dollar so part-time workers aren’t lost are “all structural changes” that Dawson says are needed to improve outcomes for women.
While we didn’t account for the female experience, Dawson says that women will still be more likely to “accumulate poverty throughout life”.
But the absence of women economists is likely to have consequences beyond ‘women’s issues’. Megalokonomou says that “female economists bring a different perspective on different topics when they are included in the discussion.” She Research has observed a general trend of women economists are more likely to support government intervention, environmental regulation and care about equality issues, for example.
The RBA survey also found that female students tend to be more interested in identifying problems to be solved and topics such as globalization and the environment, while male students tend to be more interested in topics such as the stock market and production decisions.
“Male and female high school students have different questions they want answered,” explains Dwyer. “And when girls don’t recognize these issues as part of the field of economics, they don’t recognize that economics is for them.”
The result, says Megalokonomou, is the “pattern of misrepresentation that stretches from schools to universities to businesses to government boards,” missing innovative perspectives throughout economic discourse.
“Those who study economics shape the discipline and make economic policy,” says Dwyer.
“The more we can diversify the people who advise companies, governments and provide feedback… the more willingness we will see to challenge orthodoxy.”
Without that diversity in the profession, “we don’t have different perspectives on the kinds of economic questions being asked,” says Dwyer. “We also don’t have different perspectives on how these questions are answered.”