Solving the economics gender puzzle

17 October 2018

Speech by Sharon White to Economics and Finance Society, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, 17 October 2018.


Good evening.

It’s exciting to be back at Fitzwilliam, which has such a proud history.

One which began with the goal of extending opportunity.

Many of you will know the story of how this institution was formed in 1869. How it sought to break down barriers for those who couldn’t afford the cost of enrolling in a college.

Back then college students even had to buy their own furniture. But Fitzwilliam Hall offered a home to less advantaged, ‘non-collegiate’ students, and extended to them the chance to study at Cambridge.

These days, universities are more diverse places than in 19th-century England. But in academia, just as in wider society and the professional world, plenty of barriers remain for people whose age, background, disability or gender can make it harder to progress.

This evening I want to focus on one such area that is close to my heart, and hopefully very relevant to your Society: the role of women in economics.

We know that economics can be an inspiring and rewarding discipline. So it should be open to everyone who has the skills and passion to pursue it.

But for many years, economics has wrestled with a gender puzzle that has proved hard to solve. The numbers vary, but in broad terms only around a third of economics pupils, undergraduates and professionals are women.

We see a similar trend at Ofcom, where economics is fundamental to how we regulate the telecoms, media and postal markets. We have 89 economists, of whom 34 are women. So we have been examining the reasons for that imbalance, and considering how it might be addressed. I’d like to share some of the things we’ve found.

Reasons for the gender gap

As we’re economists, we should probably start with supply and demand. On the supply side, there simply aren’t enough female economists for employers to draw on.

The reasons behind that seem to begin at school – in the perceptions that young people hold; the choices they make; even the books they read.

This year, a survey of schoolchildren in Bristol found a strong perception – among boys and girls – that economics is about money. They also found that women are less likely to be motivated by financial gain when choosing academic subjects.

So when schoolchildren hear the word economics, they may not hear the opportunity to help shape Britain’s future industry and economy. They might not see the chance to inform strategy and policy in every major sector – from manufacturing to agriculture, telecoms to healthcare.

One of our women economists at Ofcom recalls being introduced to the subject as a child by the news, which tends to focus on house prices and interest rates. Of course, economics goes far wider than that. As Jessie J famously said, it’s not all about the money.

Role models are important too. Another study this year found that women are poorly represented in economics textbooks – from case studies to the choice of pronoun. Too often, young women don’t see themselves reflected in the pages of academia.

The same can be true at the highest levels of industry and public office. I would love to see more people like Diane Coyle, one of this country’s most high-profile economists, and now Bennett Professor of Public Policy here at Cambridge – who can inspire young women to enter the profession.

We have yet to see the first female Chancellor of the Exchequer. On the global stage, among the 79 winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics – including, of course, Fitz’s own Angus Deaton – America’s Elinor Ostrom remains the only woman.

These might be some of the reasons why just 30% of A-Level Economics students are women. At degree level, it’s just 27%. Those figures broadly carry across into private industry.

Why the gender gap matters

Those are the statistics. Why do they matter?

Let me offer two reasons. I believe our failure to attract more women into economics is both a blemish on the profession, and a hindrance to the economy.

Clearly, diversity matters in its own right. Every industry should seek to draw the best and brightest talents from across society, irrespective of characteristics like gender. I know how fascinating and rewarding our profession can be. Everyone should have the opportunity to discover that for themselves.

But diversity also matters to our wider society and economy. A range of research shows that companies with varied teams work better together, make more money and enjoy a better reputation than those with without.

Research also shows that women can offer a different policy focus to men. Clearly these are generalisations, but once again the evidence is interesting.

The American Economic Association found that its female PhD members were a fifth more likely than men to favourmore Government regulation; and a third more likely to advocate more equal distribution of incomes across the economy. Some European studies have shown similar findings.

So on average, women seem to take a more interventionist and egalitarian approach to policy questions. That is not to say those approaches are always right. Nor will economics ever be a perfect science, whoever carries it out. We should be honest enough to acknowledge the legitimate questions that have been asked of our profession, not least after widespread failure to forecast the financial crash of 2008.

Who can say whether that crisis – or the prevailing sense of injustice that has destabilised society and polarised our public debate in recent years – might have been mitigated if women had held more seats at the top tables of industry, finance and Government?

But we do know that economics affects everyone in society, men and women alike – through the policies that govern us, the jobs we do and the financial decisions we take. So as a discipline, economics can only benefit from having the widest possible range of voices at its heart, allowing it to reflect the views and needs of our whole society.

That includes more women entering the profession. The demand is there, but we must increase the supply.

To finish, I want to consider how we might do that.

What we can do about it

First, let all of us work to change how economics is perceived. You have the power to do that. It might be the smallest thing – like how you describe what you do – or your collective work as a Society to enhance the image of economics as a rewarding, inspiring field.

Collectively, we need to tell the story of economics as a social science that spans most areas of people’s daily lives. This is a subject that seeks to understand the complex trends that underlie our relationship with products and services. Ultimately, it seeks to improve our collective wellbeing.

Diane Coyle put it another way: “Anybody who would like the world to be a better place should be able to think like an economist”. If we can convey the importance of that ambition, we can hope to attract a broader range of talented people, from the very first time they engage with our subject.

Then, when you enter the working world, you have the chance to become positive ambassadors for the profession and what it represents.

It can be so valuable just to share experiences with other people in your position. One of Ofcom’s senior economists has established a network for professional women to discuss how they overcome professional barriers and develop a shared confidence to tackle them.

And when you become managers, you can find ways to ensure that opportunity is extended to as many people as possible.

For example, the Government Economic Service has launched a programme to improve diversity among civil servants. It works by encouraging people at different job levels to share their experiences of economists from diverse backgrounds who have progressed successfully through the ranks.

In my experience, employers increasingly understand the value of diverse teams. But achieving them isn’t always easy. Ofcom’s job includes regulating telecoms and radio spectrum, so many of our colleagues come from the science, technology and engineering sectors – where just 13% of overall workers are women.

So we are working hard to broaden our workforce. For example, we now take care to advertise roles in ways that appeal to women, as well as minority groups.

We have set up training programmes to tackle the unconscious biases that often occur during recruitment. We assess applications anonymously before they are shortlisted. Other leading economist employers – such as Frontier Economics, and the Competition and Markets Authority – are doing the same.

Third, we need more role models. That is why Ofcom has a mentoring scheme to encourage young women to progress through the organisation. Half of our senior management team are women, including our new Chief Economist Luisa Affuso. But we still have much further to go to improve diversity throughout Ofcom, especially at Director level.

We know that mentoring is just as important in the academic world. The American Economic Association launched a senior mentoring programme for young female academics, encouraging them to discuss issues such as teaching, getting published and balancing work with family life. And it worked – increasing the number of published papers by women authors, and the number of successful federal grants earned by female academics. I hope this kind of programme will happen more in the UK.

Finally, I believe flexible working is also vital to attracting more women. Ofcom now advertises every job as ‘flexible’, as opposed to full time. That means allowing people to work during periods of the week that allow them to balance important responsibilities outside work, such as childcare. That applies to everyone, by the way, including working fathers. I appreciate that, for many of you, parenthood will feel some way off; but hopefully, one day, these measures will benefit you too.

In fact, I believe they are increasingly vital to any modern, inclusive, agile workplace. The evidence shows they can lead to better decisions, stronger performance and higher job satisfaction. In short: a healthier organisation. Every colleague – whatever their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or disability – stands to benefit from that.

But it will take time. Problems like unconscious bias can be tackled effectively at the recruitment stage. But the experience of many female economists at Ofcom is that progression within companies is hardest of all, because those biases emerge most strongly at senior levels.

One of my colleagues at Ofcom recalls meeting clients at a private practice who routinely assumed she was a personal assistant. In fact, she was the only female director among 20 in the economics division. When she gave her leaving speech, she was the only mother in the room.

Her advice to women who face those barriers? “Hang in there! This is such a rewarding profession, and things are improving, but there is a long way to go – especially in the private sector. We can all help change that.”


So I hope what I have covered tonight will be relevant to all of you at some stage in your career.

Whatever background you come from. Whatever achievements and challenges might lie in front of you. Whether you are destined for a career in academia, private industry or the public sector.

Entering the world of work might seem daunting, especially at a time when technology is set to revolutionise whole sectors of our economy. But by seeking to understand those changes, and embracing how companies are adapting to the modern world, you can be part of them.

And of course you have the benefit of coming from this institution, which was founded on the promise of greater inclusion.

In the years ahead, I hope that gives you the confidence to make the most of your individual talents. And to do your bit to help extend opportunities to everyone who deserves them.

Thank you.