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How can we promote diversity in economics?

A variety of initiatives are seeking to make economics more inclusive as a discipline by broadening the appeal of the subject to potential students, changing their perceptions of what economists do and attracting young people from under-represented groups such as women and ethnic minorities.

Economics has gone through a decade of reckoning. Various world events have brought to public discussion some latent concerns with economics as a discipline: the global financial crisis of 2007-09 led some students to demand change in the syllabus, arguing that it was unfit to understand big economic shocks and prevent new ones; the #MeToo movement reminded the profession of the need to confront problems with gender bias and harassment; and #BlackLivesMatter highlighted not only racial discrimination but also questions about the extent to which economists do research on race-related matters.

On top of all this, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed both global inequalities and the inequalities within our societies, which may add to pressures to update economic tools.

Lack of diversity in the profession has been considered one of the roots of the problems in economics and its ability as a discipline to deal with these issues. It is against this background that the Royal Economic Society (RES) annual conference in April 2021 hosted two special sessions on diversity, which you can watch here:

Why does diversity matter?

Our social knowledge and lived experiences shape our perspectives, and for those working in research, they also help to shape our research interests. Demographic characteristics such as gender, country of origin or geographical location affect economists’ views on contemporary policy issues and the type of research questions asked (May et al, 2014, 2018).

Diversity can help to avoid problems in how we interpret and engage with knowledge in economics. Diverse teams tend to be more objective as they are forced to confront different ways of thinking (Rock and Grant, 2016). If policy-makers are advised by a group of economists sharing common characteristics (such as gender, age and ethnicity), they may not fully understand how diverse groups of people may be affected by the recommended policies, and may fail to recognise or understand how the cost of policies are likely to affect those from groups with different characteristics, or how these groups experience these consequences.

Lack of diversity among economists may also help to perpetuate under-representation and feed into stereotypes of economists as white middle-class men in high-stress financial careers (Bayer and Rouse, 2017). Considering gender, female role models play a key role in attracting students to economics and having women lecturers affects the retention of women students (Porter and Serra, 2020; Avilova and Goldin, 2018). This can limit capacity to attract the very best talent to the discipline.

What do the data show?

In the RES session on promoting diversity in economics, Arun Advani (University of Warwick) presented the findings of the 2020 report ‘Ethnic Diversity in UK Economics‘. Some of the results appear encouraging. Ethnic diversity among economists in academia increased from 19% in 2012/13 to 24% in 2018/19. But non-white economists are much less likely to work at the prestigious, research-intensive Russell Group universities: compared with a 50% share of white academic economists, less than 30% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi academic economists and less than 20% black academic economists work in a Russell Group university.

There are also large differences in representation across the different ethnic groups. Figure 1 shows the percentage of university research staff in economics across various ethnicities (conditional on being an academic researcher). What is conspicuous from this chart is the extent of gender differences. Overall, women from any ethnic group (except Chinese) are less represented than men. Gender representation is in fact one of the biggest issues in the economics profession.

The forthcoming RES report on ‘The Status of Women in Academic Economics within the UK’ includes even less encouraging statistics. Overall, growth in women’s representation in economics has stalled since 2012, with women researchers representing just 26% of academic economists in 2018. If we consider intersectionality (the interconnection and overlapping of social categorisations such as gender, race and ethnicity), only 8% of academic posts with research and teaching duties were held by non-white women (compared with 17% of non-white men) and at no point in the period 2012-18 was a black woman professor of economics employed on an academic contract in the UK.

Figure 1: Percentage of research academics from each ethnic group working in economics, by sex (2018–19)

Source: ‘Ethnic Diversity in UK Economics’ – Advani et al, 2020

Looking at the student population, economics seems to be doing well in attracting students from ethnic minorities: 37% of UK undergraduate economics students were of non-white background in the 2018/19 academic year, higher than in other social sciences (23%) and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) courses (22%). But again, they are much less likely to be represented in Russell Group institutions, mirroring what is observed for academic economists: less than 25% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi students and less than 20% of black students study in one of these institutions (compared with nearly 50% of white students).

Women’s representation among students is 35%, with flat overall growth in the period 2012-18. One of the key problems with gender representation in economics concerns attracting more women to study the subject. Figure 2 shows that women are consistently under-represented among undergraduate students and PhD students (32% and 39%, respectively). In contrast, they are over-represented among master’s students (52%) – although they are also less likely then to continue with a PhD. Looking at students’ ethnicity, women are better represented among black and minority ethnic students at undergraduate and master’s level, but are again under-represented at PhD level (Bateman et al, forthcoming).

Figure 2: Economics students in UK universities

Panel A

Panel B

Source: ‘Report on the Status of Women in Academic Economics within the UK’, Bateman et al (forthcoming)

What current initiatives promote diversity in economics?

During the RES session on promoting diversity in economics, we had the opportunity to share what is happening at various levels to promote diversity.

Maeve Cohen, campaign manager for Discover Economics, explained their work on making the discipline attractive to a more diverse range of students by changing perceptions of what economics is about, and what economists really do, among a target group of 15-17 year olds, many of whom do not have any opportunity to study economics at school.

Recently, various groups and initiatives have been launched aiming to support economists from different backgrounds. Felicia Odamtten, founder of the Black Economics Network, shared her experience as a black economist in the Government Economic Service (GES), and the role of the network in supporting professional economists and economics students, while also working to create more inclusive working environments for the community and calling out discriminatory practices.

In my own role as RES Diversity Champion, I am collaborating and supporting the work already in place by various networks. We plan to make diversity and inclusion central to all RES work and events, including the annual conference, and set up a mentoring programme that supports efforts in promoting diversity and inclusion in economics. We are currently working on improving our data collection process, which will inform future research on the state of economics in the UK.

Is improving diversity the end goal?

The short answer is no. Initiatives aiming to attract students from more diverse backgrounds to economics need to be matched with actions that ensure inclusion.

The economics profession has been accused of being a hostile environment. The 2018 climate survey conducted by the American Economic Association (the US equivalent of the RES) highlighted the extent of this problem: only 40% of men and 20% of women are satisfied with the overall climate in economics.

Women are unhappier: only 22% feel that they are socially included within the field (compared with 44% of men). And there are specific issues that are prevalent to them – 22% have suffered sexual harassment (compared with 3% of men). Further, 47% of black economists and 25% of those with a disability reported feeling discriminated and treated unfairly.

An unfavourable environment may affect how people from diverse backgrounds engage with the discipline and have a negative impact on their satisfaction and wellbeing. This may then result in performance gaps among different demographic groups. To address these issues, we need to understand the roots of the problem.

At the RES conference, we had the opportunity to hear some success stories. Ana Lamo explained the work of the European Central Bank in promoting gender balance, and Tesfa Mehari (Greenwich) showed how clear equality targets can contribute to close promotion gaps.

Both interventions were based on a throughout audit of diversity in the workplace, aiming to understand barriers to promotion and the roots of the observed structural inequalities. In both cases, a combination of mentoring programmes, creation of networks, and providing staff with leadership opportunities contributed to promoting diversity in more senior roles.

Despite being a discipline attractive to ethnic minorities, these groups tend to underperform at all levels in the pipeline. Ethnic minority economists are less likely to work in Russell Group universities and those employed by these universities are 45% less likely to be professors compared with their white counterparts. At undergraduate level, students from minority backgrounds are less likely to get at least an upper second class honours degree, and are less likely to be successful in job applications (Advani et al, 2020).

If we want to improve the pipeline, we need early interventions. Greater diversity in classrooms should be complemented by more inclusive educational practices that offer all students the opportunity to thrive. The way economics is taught is not neutral and affects students’ behaviours and performance. For example, those who study introductory economics courses tend to be less generous (Rose, 2009). In addition, economics students show greater gender bias after a few years of studying economics (Paredes et al, 2020).

Rethinking pedagogical practices and innovations can help us not only to close awarding gaps, but also to contribute to improving students’ engagement and employability skills. During the RES session on diversity in economics teaching and learning, Fahrida Miah, Mahkameh Ghanei, Adotey Bing-Pappoe and Sara Gorgoni from the University of Greenwich shared some of their positive interventions working with a very diverse group of students.

The interventions included changing assessment methods, and efforts to ‘decolonise’ curriculum and teaching practices, which contributed to decreasing attainment gaps for under-represented minorities and improving their sense of belonging to the discipline. In turn, this has had a positive effect on engagement and academic performance (Ahn and Davies 2020; Smith and Bath 2006).

Students want to feel that they belong and that their voice matters. Students’ ideas can help us to shape the future of our discipline as those ones showcased in the ‘seven action points‘ for universities to start with this change, inspired by students’ interventions and experiences presented at the ‘Women in Economics: Student Workshop‘.

Students also want to see the world we live in reflected in the curriculum. The CORE Project is looking to change how we teach economics to new generations, and there are valuable lessons we can learn from decolonisation projects.

Diversity alone does not drive inclusion and many of the challenges in attracting diversity to economics are rooted in the lack of an inclusive culture in our institutions.

What next?

We need more diversity in economics to broaden the ways we see the world, understand the social problems we research, and provide more relevant policy recommendations. And to maintain and support this diversity, we need to provide a more inclusive culture in economics. For this, we need changes aimed at transforming the structures, processes and practices – including mental models – that help to perpetuate any form of discrimination.

Universities can work on implementing changes that we know work and were described in the sessions during the RES conference. At staff level, these include revisiting promotion practices and analysing the internal culture and sources of conscious and unconscious biases. At student level, they include changes in curriculum, and ways to teach and engage students, including assessment methods. Standard research tools can help to overcome institutionalised routines and practices that act as barriers for inclusion. Such tools include clear goals, (qualitative and quantitative) data collection, and analysis of what promotes change over time.

At the RES, we are looking into these issues and we aim to take major steps to support students and economists from under-represented groups. The current strategy focuses on improving data collection and running research on the current climate within the discipline, which will help to understand the roots of the problems and provide potential solutions. For this, we need the contribution of all economists no matter what their background and experiences. The diverse talent brought into the discipline should not bear the burden of changing the culture.

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Author: Stefania Paredes Fuentes
Photo by Amy Elting on Unsplash
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