The field of economics has a “dirty secret” that’s putting women off its pursuit in academia: It’s a “testosterone-fueled bear pit.”

That’s according to one of the U.K.’s most influential economic policy makers David Miles. And it’s one of the big reasons the field has been dominated by men, said Miles, head of macroeconomic forecasting at the country’s fiscal watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Miles made the comments to lawmakers in December, and his observation is borne out by a study of the data. In a 2020 survey conducted by the Royal Economic Society, more than 50% of respondents said they found the climate aggressive. Less than half found it respectful, and a third of women said they had been subjected to inappropriate sexually-related behavior, according to the survey of 181 academic economists.

It’s not just a culture question. Women are grossly underrepresented in the field. And for those who stick it out, they deal with the widest gender pay gap among professors across subjects at U.K. universities.

“If economics is toxic on the inside, as we draw more women into the subject, they’ll be turned off, exit and retreat,” said Victoria Bateman, a Cambridge University economist who co-authored an RES report on women in the field.

Global Issue
The problem isn’t limited to the U.K. A paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that female academics in the U.S. were asked more patronizing questions in seminars. In 2018, Harvard economist Alice Wu used algorithms to show that there were more references to women’s looks in online comments on an economics job forum than men’s. And in 2020, former Federal Reserve economist Claudia Sahm argued that there’s a macho culture of debate in economics.

Leaving female economists out of the ranks of academia has impact beyond just the make up of the field. It can steer the assumptions behind economic thinking and what to measure. Bateman cited the example of gross domestic product: “It excludes the unpaid labor of women, and that has meant that transport becomes part of infrastructure investment, but not childcare.”

For Britain’s Royal Economic Society, the problem is so acute that it launched a four-year strategy to promote economics to women, support their careers and monitor their progress. The program began in 2019 and also introduced a code of conduct to make economics a less hostile environment, including guidance that participants shouldn’t interrupt a presenter in the first 10 minutes of a seminar.

Lower Ranks
Analysis of the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency by the RES showed that in 2018 just over a quarter of academic economists were female. Women were more likely to be employed at lower academic ranks, in research and teaching-only positions, instead of posts that combined the two. At the undergraduate level, only engineering and computer science had worse male-female ratios.

There’s also a striking pay gap. While economics as whole is better paying than many other academic fields, female professors are earning less than their male counterparts. In the 2019-2020 academic year, economics had the widest gender pay gap among professors across subjects at U.K. universities, at 10% compared with the 6% average.

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