Feminising Australian Economics

Alex Millmow and Cheryl Bookallil have a paper in the September 2006 issue of Economic Papers, looking at the gender imbalance in Australian economics departments. A few quotes:

While females now constitute 58% of all university enrolments, enrolments of females in undergraduate economics courses hovers around 40%, and falls to 36.5% for honours and 30.9% for PhDs …

Students were asked to consider whether studying economics might improve their chances of gaining employment. The answers show a difference in the rankings given by gender. 67% of Males agreed or strongly agreed with this question while only 46% of females agreed or strongly agreed. …

A difference in opinion between males and females was obvious when analysing the question of whether they thought it was a good thing that male instructors dominated the teaching of economics. Males appear to be more comfortable with the gender dominance of economics teaching than females with 30% of the males indicating that male domination of economics teaching was a good thing while only 9% of females agreed …

Males need the prospect of money to entice them to study more economics. Females, it seems, need employment opportunities. Demonstrating where economists are employed could spark student interest, particularly amongst women. The rigour and perceived relevance of the subject content is a matter of course design. Moreover, providing very visual role models, by actively encouraging females into the teaching of economics at university level, may be a practical step to encouraging more females to read economics. More concentration on “feminising economics” in the undergraduate program and highlighting female role models, and women who have made a contribution to economics, would help women to believe that they have a contribution to make to the discipline.

I think this is a really important article that offers a novel solution to the problem of declining enrolments in most Australian economics departments. My only quibble was with the title: “Girls and Economics”. Am I getting too politically correct in my old age, or would “Women and Economics” have been more appropriate?

The article isn’t on the University of Ballarat website (tsk!), but I’m told that in a month or so, it’ll be available on the Proquest website (free to those at a university, pay-per-view otherwise). Or if you have a subscription to Economic Papers, check your letterbox.

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7 Responses to Feminising Australian Economics

  1. Claire says:

    The title does not surprise me at all – there’s a common and fairly persistent diminuation of women in academia. One example: I was at an Mathematics research workshop in Canada in May (focussed research groups) doing computational phylgeny with a bunch of bio-informatics people. There were lots of different maths/physics etc groups there. The number of female participants was about 10% overall and our group was higher with 2/7. What really annoyed me though was that every morning at breakfast some male academic tried to get me to clean up their dirty breakfast dishes. Someone asked me to go and get them a cup of coffee. In both cases, the idea that I’d be offended at being treated like a waitress rather than a colleague was something they’d never considered. Equally, though, they’d clearly never consider treating a male colleague in that way (and there was no reason they could not have got their own coffee).

    Anyway, things are considerably better than when my mum was a PhD student and was asked on more than one occasion to give results to a male fellow student because (apparently) she was just working for the fun of it, whereas said male student had a family to support and needed the results more than she did.

    Incidentally, what’s the percentage of female academics in Australian economics departments? In top ten US departments it’s something like 15-20%, right?

  2. Peter says:

    Without wishing to diminish Claire’s substantive comment about discrimination, I think there is a linguistic issue involved here. I can recall, more than 25 years ago, using the word “girl” in a conversation with Americans and being criticized heavily for it. Yet my own Australian friends – female as well as male, and some of them very strongly feminist — used it (and still do) with alacrity.

    Americans should be sensitive to the fact that the word “girl” is not necessarily used with the same connotations by people in other English-speaking countries. Perhaps part of the reason is the very specific, racist connotations of the word “boy”, which are to be found in America but not in Australia or in Britain, because of our very different histories.

  3. Claire says:

    (I’m a linguist and I’m an Australian living in the US.)

    One issue is genre: there are many words that are more appropriate in some contexts than in others. For example, you don’t find the medical literature on urinary tract infections talking about problems with going for a slash, and you don’t find headlines talking about glossolalia. Of course, sometimes people exploit this difference in genre, particularly in titles and headlines. There are a couple of places where “girl” is pretty generic in US English too – “you go girl” is probably the most obvious. I was watching Cabaret again recently and Sally Bowles has a lot of “what’s a girl to do?” type usages.

    Linguistic issues can be revealing too. For example over time there’s a large amount of evidence amelioration (the acquisition of positive connotations) in words denoting men, and the opposite for words denoting women. Think of the differences in default meaning between governor and governess, master and mistress, and working man versus working girl, for instance. A bloke might talk about his “little woman” but a wife’s “little man” is her toddler son, not her husband.

    Granted, “girl” isn’t an example of this. I don’t have much data on former diminutives becoming general terms (although it happened with many words in the history of French, for instance).

    I guess my point was more that there’s still an attitude that despite AA/EEO and all the rest still sometimes stereotypes female academics as less dedicated and less capable of academic work (or more capable of looking after their male colleagues). And I can imagine that this sort of attitude could make the difference for women who aren’t 100% convinced that they want to be academics, and could turn them off. That’s probably the flip-side of the authors’ discussion of increasing the profile of women in the discipline.

  4. Christine says:

    You’re not getting old and boring. “Girls and economics” is horrible. There is a paper on men and uni enrolments titled “Where the Boys Aren’t”, which is equally offensive.

    Two possible reasons: (1) cute title; and (2) uni students aren’t quite accepted as full adults yet.

    Don’t think either of them are good enough, though, especially in a paper that specifically looks at the status of women.

  5. Russell Hamilton says:

    Where the boys aren’t is a great title (I’ll be humming Connie Francis songs all afternoon now).

    I work with a guy who’s 30 and plays footy and refers to himself and his team mates as boys – – “Had the boys around for a barbecue on Saturday….”

    I suppose it’s because I’m over 50 but any 18 year old can seem like a boy (or girl) to me. I’m always surprised at the words people find “offensive” these days. Slightly annoyed perhaps, but offended ?

  6. Cheryl Bookallil says:

    This paper is about girls as well as women. It covers the continumm from secondary school to university and beyond. The central issue of the paper is that not enough persons of the female gender are becoming students of economics and this is having knock-on effects on the discipline. This paper draws a correlation between high school girls not taking economics as part of their secondary studies and declining female university students taking economics. It further draws a correlation between declining numbers of females undertaking some degree studies at university and the declining overall numbers. Of the Business specialities it appears that Economics is the hardest hit by declinging enrolments of females. The message, therefore, is that economics departments at university ignore the female perspective at their own peril.

  7. Christine says:

    Yeah, I understand the playing with song titles thing (under the ‘cute’ justification). And it does make some difference if you’re talking about high school girls as well – thanks for the clarification, Cheryl.

    But yes, I am a bit touchy the use of ‘girls’ in a work context (I’m OK with it for BBQs or going to a movie or whatever, really I am). In a work or university environment, whether used about the teachers or the students, though, the word is deliberately infantilising. Not good.

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