The Underrepresentation of Women in Economics: A Study of Undergraduate Economics Students


Although women are underrepresented in the field of economics, many people see little
need for intervention, arguing that women are inherently less interested in economics, or are less
willing or able to acquire the math skills needed to do well in the subject. At the same time,
others support active efforts to increase the number of women in the field, pointing to other
possible causes of their current underrepresentation. These people argue, for example, that
women are deterred from entering the field because of a lack of female role models, or that
women are discouraged by an unappealing classroom environment. This study attempts to
assess these hypotheses. We examine the factors that influence undergraduate students’
decisions to become economics majors by analyzing a survey of students in the introductory
economics course at Harvard University as well as data on an entire class of students from
Harvard's registrar.
We find that although women in the introductory economics course at Harvard tend to
begin the course with a weaker math background than men, math background does not appear
to explain much of the gender difference in students’ decisions about whether to major in
economics. The class environment and the presence or absence of role models also do not
explain much of the gender gap. On the other hand, women do less well in economics relative
to their other courses than men do, and controlling for this difference in relative performance
significantly diminishes the estimated gender gap. An economically large, but statistically
insignificant, difference between sexes in the probability of majoring in economics remains,
however. This remaining gender gap may be due to differing tastes or information about the
nature of economics. As evidence, we find that women who were considering majoring in
economics when they began introductory economics were about as likely to choose economics
as were men.

Year of Publication
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The Journal of Economic Education, Vol. 28, No. 4, Fall, 1997
Working Papers