Girls Rock Camp for Economists

What Economists can Learn from Girls Rock Camp.

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By David Orrell

Based on an extract from Economyths: 11 Ways Economics Gets It Wrong (2017).

In 2010, when I wrote a chapter on gender issues in economics in the first edition of Economyths, I was surprised that I seemed to be one of the few people talking about the gender aspect of the financial crisis. That has since changed (and not just because of the #MeToo movement which started in late 2017).

One factor was that government austerity programmes such as benefit cuts and tax changes were found to have a disproportionate effect on women – in the UK they bore an estimated 85 percent of the brunt, while the distribution of bank bailout payments presumably had the opposite skew (the former chancellor and ‘architect of austerity’ George Osborne meanwhile obtained a £13,500-per-day part-time consultancy with US investment firm BlackRock).[1] As Margunn Bjørnholt and Ailsa McKay commented in 2013: ‘Given the evidence emerging relating to the very gendered impact of the economic crisis it would seem that any attempt to render the economics discipline more effective as a tool for predicting, analysing and responding to economic phenomena should incorporate a gender perspective.’[2]

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One way to do this is through the technique of ‘gender budgeting’, which considers such impacts and has been adopted in some 15 countries from Iceland to Mexico.[3] Another step though is to counter what Bjørnholt and McKay call the continuing ‘marginalization of women throughout the economics profession’. When the American Economic Review invited six (male) economists in 2011 to select the twenty most influential articles from the last 100 years, one of 30 authors was a woman.[4] When the Economist magazine did a similar exercise for the 25 most influential economists of 2014, zero were women (they excluded active central bankers, so Janet Yellen didn’t make the list).[5] A 2014 study comparing gender balance in different academic fields concluded that ‘Economics is an outlier, with a persistent sex gap in promotion that cannot be readily explained by productivity differences’.[6] In 2016 the New York Times reported that ‘Economics remains a stubbornly male-dominated profession, a fact that members of the profession have struggled to understand’.[7]

As sociologist Elaine Coburn put it in a 2016 article, ‘mainstream economics remains remarkably “pre-feminist”’, and this is equally true of leading economic organisations such as the IMF and World Bank, where between them one of sixteen Chief Economists has been a woman (though Christine Lagarde has been Managing Director of the IMF since 2011).[8] Economics awaits its own version of the Guerilla Girls – the feminist artist collective which shook up the old-boy network, and the aesthetic, of the art world in the 1980s. The finance industry at least seems to be hiring more women, though one female hedge fund manager told Bloomberg in 2016 that sexism remains a ‘huge, huge issue’, as evidenced for example in the way that women are also more likely than men to be punished or fired for any infraction.[9] Megan Butler from the UK Financial Conduct Authority told an audience at the 2017 City & Financial Global’s Women in Finance Summit that ‘It’s extremely rare that in my professional life I have a conversation with a head of desk at an investment bank or a global head of business that is anything other than a white male. I’ve increasingly come to find that a little bit difficult to take.’[10]

It was telling that one of the effects of the crisis was to boost the demand from people working in finance for testosterone treatments, in the form of injections, supplements, and creams. ‘If you’re going to be trading on Wall Street or dealing with large sums of money, you had better be confident’, a Manhattan doctor explained in 2012. ‘The man who is wishy-washy’, he elaborated while still in 2012 as opposed to say 1962, ‘is not going to be successful.’[11] Some female traders even take the therapy, but according to the Financial Times they ‘get much smaller doses than men because there is a risk they might grow facial hair or display other male characteristics’. The testosterone presumably helps them worry less about such risks, though, in a scary kind of werewolf-ean feedback loop.

More controversial, perhaps, is the idea that mainstream economic thought itself incorporates a male bias. Consider for example the question of theory versus concrete data, which is related to a broader dichotomy between abstract number and physical reality. ‘Statistically, men and women are not drawn to the same fields within economics’, writes economist Miles Kimball and an untenured female economist who didn’t want to be identified in case it hurt her career.[12] ‘And even within a field, women are drawn to a different balance between immediate real-world relevance and theoretical elegance.’

To encourage more female participation, economics therefore needs to ‘become open to a wider range of scientific approaches and topics’, and also promote ‘a better power balance among colleagues. What we mean is that female economists should be encouraged to assert their power, but male economists should find it hard or impossible to exert illegitimate, sexist power over their female colleagues. If this sounds obvious, it’s much harder than it seems.’ Male professors may enjoy cultivating a ‘rude’ atmosphere (see, but it sounds rather one-sided. Conversely, if and when more women go into economics, it will be interesting to see how this changes the profession.

But gender is a tricky subject, and it’s getting trickier. I know this because I signed one of my daughters up for a summer rock camp for girls. On volunteers, the website features a ‘special note to male-identified allies.’ The camp, it says, ‘is primarily led by and for women and girls. We also value diversity, inclusion, and sensitivity towards all individuals, regardless of gender identity or expression. The organization welcomes the support of male-identified allies, and expects male-identified allies who would like to volunteer to respect the importance of leadership by women.’[13]

So in other words, someone like me who identifies as a male can volunteer but only if I respect the leadership of those who identify as female. It is like gender identity is important, but somehow flexible at the same time. Which perhaps is not a bad description. Maybe economists need to attend girls’ rock camp.

[1] Effects of austerity were estimated over the period 2010 to 2015. Cracknell, Richard and Keen, Richard (2016), ‘Estimating the gender impact of tax and benefits changes’, Briefing Paper Number SN06758, House of Commons Library, 13 December 2016. Neate, Rupert and Mason, Rowena (2017), ‘Striver? Tory architect of austerity George Osborne banks £1m fortune’, Guardian, 10 March 2017.

[2] Bjornholt, M. and McKay, A. (2013), ‘Advances in feminist economics in times of economic crisis’ in Bjornholt, M. and McKay, A. (eds), Counting on Marilyn Waring: New Advances in Feminist Economics (Bradford, ON: Demeter Press).

[3] Downes, Ronnie and Gentili, Elena (2016), ‘Gender Budgeting’, presentation at the 37th Annual Meeting of OECD Senior Budget Officials, Stockholm, 9-10 June 2016.

[4] Arrow, Kenneth et al. (2011), ‘100 Years of the American Economic Review: The Top 20 Articles’, American Economic Review, 101: 1–8. The sole woman was Anne Krueger, who has held important posts in the IMF and the World Bank.

[5] Anonymous (2015), ‘Shifting clout’, The Economist, 3 January 2015.

[6] Ceci, Stephen J. et al. (2014), ‘Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape’, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(3) 75–141.

[7] One factor is that they get less credit for team publications than their male counterparts. Wolfers, Justin (2016), ‘When Teamwork Doesn’t Work for Women’, New York Times, 8 January 2016.

[8] Coburn, Elaine (2016), ‘Economics as Ideology: Challenging Expert Political Power’, in State of Power: Annual Report 2016 (Amsterdam: The Transnational Institute).

[9] Porzecanski, Katia (2016), ‘This Election Shines a New Light on Wall Street’s Bro Culture’,, 4 November 2016. See also: Steverman, Ben (2016), ‘Proof Wall Street Is Still a Boys’ Club’,, 14 March 2017.

[10] Ring, Suzi (2017), ‘White Male Bank Culture “Difficult to Take”, U.K. Regulator Says’,, 24 January 2017.

[11] Wallace, Charles (2012), ‘Keep taking the testosterone’, Financial Times, 9 February 2012.

[12] Kimball, Miles and Anonymous (2015), ‘How big is the sexism problem in economics? This article’s co-author is anonymous because of it’, Quartz, 6 January 2015.

[13] See Highly recommended, by the way.

2019 January 19

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