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Where are all the women economists?

The winner of the Virago/New Statesman Women’s Prize for Politics and Economics explores how economics views the world through male eyes – to the detriment of all.

I dare you to do something. Fetch a piece of paper and write something on it: the names of five famous female economists. Go on, off you go. And no cheating – no googling on your iPhone.

It’s hard, isn’t it? You may have thought of Gillian Tett, Stephanie Flanders or Joan Robinson. But naming five is a bit of a stretch. Most people know the more prominent names in economics – the Keyneses and the Hayeks and the Marshalls – but there are no women among them. Economics does not have a Marie Curie.

Economics has a problem with women. I write this as a woman who has studied, worked in and is now writing about the subject. The data bears this out. Across the UK, just a quarter of undergraduate economics students are women. This is about the same proportion as the economics teaching and research academics at the University of Cambridge: by contrast, women make up 43 per cent of the Cambridge psychology faculty. Where are all the women? Why does economics fail to attract women in the way that other social sciences do?

Perhaps they are discouraged from joining the world of economics as it doesn’t seem likely to reward them with career prospects. According to a 2014 paper by the economists Donna K Ginther and Shulamit Kahn, working with the psychologists ­Stephen J Ceci and Wendy M Williams, once you control for productivity (which they measured by the number of published research articles), men and women have the same promotional outcomes in most academic fields – but not in economics.

Ginther and her co-authors describe economics as “an outlier, with a persistent sex gap in promotion that cannot be readily explained by productivity differences”. Female academic economists are rarely rewarded. In 2014, the Economist published a list of influential figures in the field that featured not a single woman. Of the 76 Nobel laureates in economics, only one has been female: Elinor Ostrom, who won the prize in 2009 for her work examining the use of co-operation, trust and collective action in the management of common-pool resources.

Either women don’t perform well in economics research, or there is a bias against them when prizes are handed out. I suspect the latter. The post-Keynesian economist Joan Robinson was never awarded the prize, though many believe that she would have been a perfect candidate. The reason often given is that she was not a mainstream economist but, according to my calculation, around 45 per cent of Nobel Memorial Prizes in Economic Sciences have been awarded to those who could be considered non-mainstream candidates.

Meanwhile, two of Robinson’s (male) PhD students went on to become Nobel laureates. And, just like her, their approach was not mainstream. Robinson influenced economists as diverse as Nicholas Kaldor and the Greek economist and recent finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. But she didn’t have the right body specification.

Economics has a more significant problem than recruitment. Not only does it struggle to attract women into its academic departments, but mainstream economics often refers to models that are inherently sexist. Homo economicus is the supposed ideal form of behaviour – a theoretical human being used to try to find answers to economic problems. There are many flaws in this model. Real people, for example, are not entirely financially self-interested like he is. And there is a more important criticism: Homo economicus is a man. His competitive behaviour seems stereotypically testosterone-fuelled and his extensive use of mathematics is considered masculine (even if it shouldn’t be).

What this means in practice is that all economic analysis is based on a belief that a male pattern of behaviour is somehow the norm. As the Cambridge economist Victoria Bateman wrote in an article published in the Guardian in 2015:


The questions economists seek to answer, the tools they use to help find the answers (that’s principally maths, rather than the applied topics that research suggests women are drawn to), the standard assumptions they make along the way  (that people are emotionless, free and selfish), and the things they choose to measure all reflect a traditional and stereotypical male way of looking at the world.


Economics views the world through a male prism: it is analysis undertaken by men, about men, for men. In retaliation, I sometimes refer to economics as a woman. Why? All the men are trying to do her, and mostly they’re failing.

Economics is interested in gender disparity – the pay gap between men and women, for example. However, do economists undertake their analysis in a non-sexist way? Neoclassical economics, in essence, claims that sexism doesn’t and cannot exist, at least not in the long run. This is partly because there is no incentive for firms to discriminate on the basis of gender, especially if women improve a firm’s efficiency. In any case, the presence of a gender pay gap should nudge firms into employing more women: if they are paid less than men, it is less costly for a firm to employ them than men. So you would expect many more women to be employed than men. By this logic, neoclassical economics predicts that gender disparities will eventually vanish into thin air.

Isn’t this the same as arguing that something doesn’t exist simply because it oughtn’t? There is an entire body of literature showing that women earn less than men and are under-represented in many industries. In 2016, the UK average gender pay gap was estimated at 13.9 per cent: for every pound earned by a woman, a man earns just under £1.14. Yet neoclassical economics tells us frail, hysterical dears that we should calm down. Be reassured – all those successful male economists have figured it out.

We can compare this analysis to the way that sexism is explained in psychology. Here, tradition and the social entrenchment of values are considered to be among the explanations of gender disparity. The numbers indicate that university psychology faculties are far more welcoming than economics faculties to women. I strongly suspect that the explanations of sexism from mainstream economics were written by men – and those from psychology weren’t.

Diversity, sex and sexuality are subjects seldom discussed in economics. When they are, either the analysis is treated as heterodox, or the discussion lacks rigour. Feminist economics does exist but as a minority pursuit that is never awarded accolades. This comes as no surprise: men are the guardians of economics. They dominate the committees that decide which theories to support.

Economics aims to study human behaviour. Even if many women are homemakers and “soccer moms”, this does not make their economic actions irrelevant. Indeed, according to a 2015 commentary by Forbes, women drive 70 to 80 per cent of all consumer purchasing (this is what economists call buying real stuff). That applies not only to handbags and shoes but industries that are thought to be male. More than half of all video game sales to people aged over 18 are made to women. Forbes even goes so far as to state: “If the consumer economy had a sex, it would be female.”

Economics has ignored women to the detriment of all. While there are many explanations for the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, one of the more prominent theories is that bankers and financial traders were taking very risky bets. Fancy financial instruments such as collateralised debt obligations and derivatives may have paid off in the short term, but they ultimately caused instability that led to the near-collapse of the world economy. The bankers were running a high-risk, high-reward scheme.

There is early evidence for why men may be more inclined to take financial risks. A 2015 study published on the Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports website examined what effects, if any, the level of cortisol, a steroid hormone released in response to stress, had on risk-taking behaviour. Participants were invited to take part in a trading game after their endogenous cortisol was measured and also after they had taken oral cortisol. It was found that the level of cortisol, as measured in saliva, was strongly correlated with the amount of trading undertaken by men, but the same link was not shown in women. This could indicate that men under stress are more likely to take risks, whereas women aren’t.

Men dominate in the financial sector just as much as they do in academic economics. A Morningstar research report in 2015 found that less than 10 per cent of US fund managers were women. They comprise just 4 per cent of CEOs of the top 500 companies as ranked by the financial services company Standard & Poor’s.

Has this dominance of men in the financial sector been damaging? I would say so. A 2016 study conducted by the Peterson ­Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC, analysed 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries and concluded: “A move from no female leaders to 30 per cent representation is associated with a 15 per cent increase in the net revenue margin.”

It is partly for this reason that many investment banks run access schemes for women. They don’t do it to be nice: it’s financially beneficial. However, these schemes are rather like sticking a plaster on an amputated leg in an attempt to stop it bleeding. Financial institutions struggle to retain the women who enter the sector. A Twitter account written by a former bond executive, @GSElevator, supposedly reports snide comments made by financiers. Here, women are referred to as “skirts”.

Another reason why the number of women in finance is low could be the way in which bankers are recruited. A trick that banks commonly use is to ask a candidate a quick-fire arithmetic question as they enter the interview room, even before they have sat down. If the candidate doesn’t answer by the time they have reached their seat, it’s game over. The hormone study shows that men have a considerable advantage in such stressful situations. And that is not necessarily to the bank’s gain, particularly as women are known to improve corporate success by often taking more considered, thoughtful approaches to decision-making.

Not only does economics struggle to attract women, it discourages those who take up the subject. Whatever the current fashion or preferred theory, it is set by men – and when economists focus on the male, they neglect the female, even though women dominate many of those parts of life that they are seeking to analyse. This sexism needs to end. Economics needs to realise that more than half of the world’s population is not made in man’s image.

This is an edited extract from Whose Model Is It Anyway? Why Economists Need to Face Up to Reality (Virago).

In October 2015, the Virago/New Statesman Women’s Prize for Politics and Economics was launched, with the aim of finding new female writers in those vital, society-shaping fields that have historically been dominated by men. The winning proposal is developed and published as an e-book by Virago.

The 2017 prize is now open for entries by debut writers, which will be judged by the broadcaster Samira Ahmed, the economist Diane Coyle, Tom Gatti, the culture editor of the NS, and Lennie Goodings, publisher at Virago.

Event Frances Weetman will discuss women and publishing with Lennie Goodings, Publisher at Virago and Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 23 April at 4pm

Frances Weetman is a 2013 Durham University politics and economics graduate who turned down a job offer in banking to concentrate on film-making and writing. She is the winner of the inaugural Virago/New Statesman Women's Prize for Politics and Economics.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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