Helping Women Feel Welcome in Economics as Undergrads

January 25, 2023

What can be done to increase the participation of women in economics, particularly at the undergraduate level? Tisha Emerson, a professor of economics at Baylor University, examined this question during her presentation at last year’s Women in Economics Symposium.

In her Feb. 24, 2022, talk, “Diversifying Economics: Moving Beyond the ‘D’ in DEIB,” she highlighted the need to address equity, inclusion and belonging (the “EIB” part of “DEIB”) in addition to improving diversity in the economics profession.

It’s not enough to attract a diverse set of students, she said.

“We must also retain them through equitable practices where everyone is not necessarily treated the same, but instead are given the tools they need to be successful and are provided with equal opportunities to advance,” Emerson said.

“We must adopt inclusive practices that promote a sense of belonging for all participants, where everyone feels welcome, exactly as they are,” she added.

Why Diversity Matters

Before getting into what can be done to improve diversity in economics, Emerson talked about why increasing diversity is important.

She cited several reasons, including an expansion of the questions asked and issues addressed in economists’ research. She also noted that bringing together different perspectives and backgrounds, as well as different experiences, “increases the creativity with which we address problems, resulting in better and more innovative solutions.”

For women, having greater representation in economics “would result in having the concerns and values of the larger population better reflected in our research and policy work,” she said, since women make up about half the population.

Fewer Women than Men Study Econ as Undergraduates

Emerson noted that certain groups are underrepresented even at the beginning of the “pipeline” to the economics discipline (i.e., in introductory econ courses), which tends to lead to disparities throughout the pipeline. She focused on the underrepresentation of women at the undergraduate level.

She said female students are less likely than male students to:

  • Take an introductory econ course
  • Complete that course
  • Take additional econ courses if they finish the first one
  • Major in economics

At the same time, women outnumber men in overall undergraduate enrollment and bachelor’s degrees awarded, she pointed out.

Promoting “RBG” to Address Underrepresentation

Citing educational psychology literature, Emerson said that experiences promoting feelings of relevance and belonging, plus a growth mindset, or RBG, have a positive impact on students’ persistence and success.

“That means that students need to perceive the material in their economics courses as being relevant to their lives, they need to feel that they are socially integrated in their classes and that they fit within their department, and they need to believe that their ability in economics can grow and improve,” she explained.

Listen to Tisha Emerson talk about her research on the gender gap in economics and how active learning techniques may lessen that gap in a Women in Economics Podcast Series episode released Oct. 30, 2019.

Different strategies can increase female representation in undergraduate economics by promoting feelings of RBG, she said.

  • Provide information about economics, such as on topics studied, careers and earnings, to enhance students’ perception that econ is relevant to them.
  • Reform the curriculum, which could include adopting examples that are more in line with students’ interests.
  • Change how information is taught by using active learning approaches like economic experiments in the classroom.
  • Promote a growth mindset by normalizing struggle and framing mistakes as learning opportunities, for example.
  • Provide encouragement—in addition to information as noted above—to students in introductory econ classes.
  • Increase exposure to role models and mentors.

She discussed how some of these strategies have been shown to be more successful than others, noting that efforts continue to better understand how well these kinds of interventions work to increase women’s participation in economics.

Importance of Role Models and Mentors

The theme for the 2023 symposium is “Role Models Matter,” and Emerson’s talk last year had some comments in line with that topic.

She talked about the power in representation.

“When Janet Yellen became the first woman to serve as the chair of the Federal Reserve, and then the first woman to serve as the Secretary of Treasury, I certainly felt like those were important milestones for women in economics,” Emerson said. “There most certainly is power in representation, and we are making progress.”

She shared her own experience as a woman in economics in talking about mentors. She said that she didn’t have any female economics professors as an undergraduate student or as a graduate student, and she was the only female on tenure track when she joined her department as a faculty member.

“Ultimately, I was fortunate to have senior people in my field who advocated for me and gave me incredible opportunities,” she said.

Her advice to students? “Find your advocates and allies—because they may not look like you, but they are out there.”

About the Author
Kristie Engemann
Kristie M. Engemann

Kristie Engemann is a senior coordinator in the St. Louis Fed External Engagement and Corporate Communications Division. 

Kristie Engemann
Kristie M. Engemann

Kristie Engemann is a senior coordinator in the St. Louis Fed External Engagement and Corporate Communications Division. 

This blog explains everyday economics, consumer topics and the Fed. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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