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How can we give women equal voice in economics?

Economics has a big problem of gender imbalance. Analysis of a series of polls of top economists suggests that strengthening women’s voices in the field requires not only increasing women’s representation in economics but also rethinking how different opinions are heard and valued.

Men are, on average, more willing to give their opinion than women and they are more confident in expressing themselves. This International Women’s Day, we consider what this gender difference in ‘voice’ – combined with the under-representation of women in economics – might mean for the wider profession.

It is well documented that woman are under-represented in economics. They make up just one in seven economics professors in both the United States and the UK, and one in four in Europe. Only 10-20% of chief economists in banking and finance and 25% of members of economic advisory councils are women. But when it comes to discussion and debate within economics, women’s voices are likely to be even more absent than these headline figures on representation would suggest.

Studies in psychology and economics of the general population show that men are often more willing to speak up and to give their opinion than women. Analysing data from surveys of the US and European Economic Expert Panels conducted by the Initiative on Global Markets (IGM) shows that the same is true among a group of world-leading economists.

These panels of economic experts, based in Europe and the United States, have been asked their opinions on hundreds of current topics over the past ten years. The most recent issues, for example, are Bitcoin, the US child tax credit and global supply chains. Panel members are asked for their responses on a Likert scale (strongly agree, agree, uncertain, disagree, strongly disagree). They are also asked to say how confident they are in their opinion (on a scale of one to ten) and are invited to leave an additional comment.

Analysis of nearly 19,000 responses finds that:

  • Male economists are more voluble. They are 10% more likely than the women on the panels to give an opinion. And if they give an opinion, they are then 50% more likely to take the opportunity to leave an additional comment.
  • Male economists are often more certain in their opinions. They are 20% less likely to say that they are uncertain and more than 30% more likely than women to say that they strongly agree or strongly disagree.
  • Male economists are usually more confident in their answers. The average gap is 0.5 on the scale of one to ten. Of course, confidence is correlated with certainty: those who are uncertain are typically less confident, while those who strongly agree or strongly disagree are typically more confident. But there is also variation within opinion groups. We find that men who agree or disagree are more confident than equivalent women who agree or disagree

These differences hold in fields of economics where both men and women panel members are expert: this is not an example of ‘male answer syndrome’, where men express opinions on issues they know little about. The differences also hold in fields that are typically thought of as being less dominated by men (labour, public or development economics): this is not just a macroeconomics or finance phenomenon. Importantly, the differences also persist over time: there is no evidence that women grow in confidence.

The economists surveyed have similar academic backgrounds (around 60% of both the men and women have a PhD from one of six institutions) and are also mostly based in a small set of the same universities. The group surveyed represent a highly selected group of acknowledged experts who have achieved the highest level of success in their field. These are people who have agreed to be on the panels precisely to give their opinions on different issues. This makes the gendered difference in confidence all the more surprising.

What are some of the possible implications of the findings?

First, men’s voices are likely to dominate economic debate even more than their physical numbers would imply. Women make up 21% of IGM panel members but 19% of opinions expressed, only 14% of the strong opinions, and 12% of the additional comments.

Of course, just because their voices are louder and stronger does not necessarily mean that men are more likely to be heard. But looking at the number of Twitter followers of each panel member – a plausible indicator of the extent to which different voices are listened to – we find that men who express strong opinions and who are more confident typically have more online followers than men who do not. Crucially, the same relationship does not hold for women. The take-away is that louder and stronger voices among men are more likely to be heard, but that telling women to lean in and speak up may not increase their influence.

Second, the nature of debate in economics is shaped by the fact that it is a profession dominated by men. If the gender balance among the IGM panels were to be reversed (that is, if there were 80% women), it is possible that opinions would be expressed with greater caution. The share of questions with ‘no consensus’ (where the modal response is uncertain) would increase and the share of questions where a strong opinion is the consensus would decrease. One discussion of the superiority of economists argues that ‘confidence is perhaps the greatest achievement of the economics profession – but it is also its most vulnerable trait, its Achilles heel’ (Fourcade et al, 2015). In other words, it is not clear whether more cautious views would be unambiguously better or worse.

Decision-makers welcome the absence of uncertainty (think of President Truman’s demand for a one-handed economist), and expressing clear opinions helps economists to gain influence in policy-making. But giving an opinion is not a good thing if it turns out to be wrong or gives a mistaken impression of underlying policy uncertainty. On two key measures – willingness to give an opinion and certainty – analysis finds that women are more sensitive to background uncertainty (measured by the share of other panel members who are uncertain) than men.

Finally, effort is required to ensure that diverse voices are not just represented but heard. Consider this thought experiment. Suppose that in an economic debate, the voice that is heard is the one that expresses a strong opinion and (in a tie) is the most confident. Applying this rule to an expert panel that had equal gender representation, women’s voices would only be heard 43% of the time. Women would be equally represented, but not equally heard because men are more likely to express strong opinions and they are more confident in their opinions.

The solution is not that women should speak up. Instead, everyone needs to be given an equal voice. As a starting point, IGM should consider stopping weighting panellists’ opinions by their confidence (since this gives more weight to the opinions of men). Within the discipline more broadly, policies and practices such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s guidance for making seminars more constructive and the American Economic Association’s guidelines for inclusive meetings are crucial – not only for improving the culture in economics but also for ensuring that different voices (loud and quiet) are heard.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Marina Della Giusta
  • Erin Hengel
  • Hilary Hoynes
  • Claudia Sahm
  • Almudena Sevilla
  • Sarah Smith
Authors: Hans Henrik Siervertsen and Sarah Smith
Picture by Fizkes on iStock
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