Economics: Where are All the Girls?

Economics: Where are All the Girls?

5 October 2022

George Vlachonikolis discusses the importance of encouraging girls to study economics.

It is vitally important to have greater female representation in economics.  At a fundamental level, a lack of representation means a lack of ideas.  Or, as Diane Coyle, professor of public policy at Cambridge, puts it: “it is simply not possible to do good social science if you are so unrepresentative of society.”[1]

The Economist magazine –led by Zanny Beddoes (it’s first ever female Chief Editor) – has written about this too: “it is time for the dismal science to improve its dismal record on gender … economics has fewer good ideas than it should and suffers from a skewed viewpoint”[2].

The criticism that economics has a skewed (male) viewpoint is not a new idea.  It has always been a subject that is almost entirely based on the theories of rich white men[3].  But the argument that greater female participation would lead to greater innovation is finding more weight with new research.  For example, new evidence suggests that there are gender differences in views on core economic principles and a wide variety of contemporary policy issues.

  • Females are more likely to support government interventions to solve market failures rather than market-based solutions
  • Females are more concerned by environmental protection
  • Females believe that inequalities are embedded into the current labour market
  • Females are less likely to worry about core economic principles and methodology[4].

Another example is to look at the recent development of textbooks.  Until recently, Richard Lipsey and Paul Samuelson wrote the default University textbooks. [In 2022] Wendy Carlin’s Core Economy is the new default.  She put Income Inequality in Chapter 1, not supply and demand.[5]  Professor Carlin is steering the conversation away from traditional issues of income and personal wealth, and more towards solving the social, environmental and humanitarian issues of today’s world.

All of these results lend support to the notion that gender diversity in policy-making circles may be an important aspect in broadening the menu of public policy choices.  The message is clear: GSA schools should care about the number of girls studying economics at university because it will make a difference to the policies we all get in the future.

So, the question now turns to: how?

I have written before that the gender imbalance at school has nothing to do with maths.  But, it has everything to do with image.  Economics has a PR problem.  Sarah Smith, professor of economics at Bristol University concurs: “If you ask [young people] who’s an economist, they’ll say it’s a boring man in a suit. If you ask them what economics is about, they’ll say it’s money, banking and finance.”[6]

Therefore, one obvious solution to attract more girls into the subject is to look at the wider real-life impact of economics on non-traditional agents.  Studies, like Prof Smith’s, have shown that boys and girls have different motivations for choosing their subjects to study; girls frequently rank “contributing to society”, “the environment” and “the opportunity to care for others”.[7]  We should focus on these all of the time – not just on open days – but throughout the 2 year course.

A second solution is to expose our students to concepts of finance and money at an earlier age so that they are not seen as unfamiliar by the time the students reach Sixth Form.

One final solution is role models.  Role models matter and we should look for opportunities to talk about the work of female economists whenever we can.   We live in a time when this should be an easy win: the Head of the IMF is Kristalina Georgieva, the President of the ECB is Christine Lagarde, the Secretary of the US Treasury is Janet Yellen, the Director of the WTO is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, one of the most recent winners of the Nobel Prize for economics (2019) is Esther Duflo.  These are all organisations that A-Level students must study as part of their course.  But there are reading lists too.  My students frequently tell me that the most interesting economic authors are: Dambisa Moyo, Diane Coyle, Mariana Mazzucato and Kate Raworth.

Ultimately, if GSA schools can frame the subject of economics as being less about money and expose our students to work of female economists more often, then I would expect the number of students choosing to study economics to grow.  That is our challenge.

About the Author

George Vlachonikolis is the Head of Economics at Headington School and the Chair of Examiners for a leading exam board in A Level economics. He is the author of several textbooks including students guides, revision notes and teachers resources, as well as a frequent contributor to publications such as Business Review and Economics Today.

At 23, George joined the British Army and served in two operational tours of Afghanistan. After a six-and-a-half-year military career, George shifted gears into a new challenge: becoming a schoolteacher. Now, as an experienced veteran of both combat and classroom, he is keen to explore the overlaps between the two fields. George currently teaches economics at A Level and for the International Baccalaureate.


Member Zone

Lost your password?
Find a school Login