Gender imbalance in economics: what next?

Misa Tanaka

This post by Misa Tanaka is based on her talk at the Royal Economic Society’s webinar on Gender Imbalance in UK Economics which took place on 6 October. She is Head of Research at the Bank of England and a member of the Royal Economic Society’s Women’s Committee. 

The latest report on the Gender Imbalance in UK Economics by the Royal Economic Society (RES) Women’s Committee makes a depressing read. In a nutshell, little if any progress has been made in women’s representation in academic economics in the past decade. A well-considered action plan is needed to improve gender balance and diversity in the discipline, if the next decade is to look any different.

The pipeline of women in economics remains thin. The share of UK-domiciled women in both undergraduate and masters levels has been fairly constant at just under 30% over 2012–18, although there was a small increase in the share of women among PhD students to 32% in 2018. The picture at A-levels is similar: while the number of women studying economics increased over this period, the share of women studying A-level economics has fallen from 37% in 2012 to 35% in 2018 (and stands at 35% in 2021). Not enough young women seem to be taking up economics, even though an undergraduate degree in economics gives one of the highest lifetime return for women, along with medicine and law.

The thin pipeline is also leaky. While 33% of economics lecturers at UK universities were women in 2018, only 15% of professors were women. The leaky pipeline is also evident in US economics departments, where the share of women among full professors was 15% in 2020, compared to 39% among those in non-tenure track positions. Under-representation of women in senior positions is not unique in economics departments. Across all disciplines, women make up 47% of non-professorial academic staff in UK higher education institutions but less than 20% of professors. It is not unique to academia either. A recent study by Britton et al (2020) finds that, across all undergraduate degree holders, median earnings for women stagnate from 30 to 40 except for those who studied medicine and law, whereas male earnings leap from 30 to 40. These stats don’t even include women who drop out of the labour market and have no earnings. While the majority of women dedicate their time to child rearing in their 30s and early 40s, men move from mid to senior-level positions in their respective professions. 

The fact that the share of women among economics professors at UK universities only increased by 2 percentage points from 2012 to 2018 – with no black female professor during this entire period – nevertheless raises the question: has enough been done to rectify the gender imbalance in the discipline? US economics departments also saw a very limited increase in the share of women among professors during the past decade. This lack of progress contrasts starkly with the much greater progress made towards improving gender balance in other professions occupied by economists. For instance, the Five Year Review of The Women in Finance Charter found that there has been a step change in the UK financial industry since its launch in 2016. The percentage of women on Exco of financial firms increased from 14% in 2016 to 22% in 2021, while that on boards increased from 23% to 32%. Signatories of the Charter outperformed non-signatories on both metrics. This progress was driven by a series of concrete actions. Signatories to the Charter committed to having one member of the senior executive team who is responsible and accountable for gender diversity and inclusion. They also committed to setting internal targets for gender diversity in senior management, publishing annual progress against these targets, and having an intention to ensure that the pay of the senior executive team is linked against these targets.

The Bank of England is also a signatory to this Charter, and I was able to observe the change from the inside. At the Bank, the share of women in senior management rose from 17% in 2013 to 32% in 2020. This still falls short of the target of 35%, and there is certainly more to be done to improve diversity across gender, ethnicity, and other dimensions. So while this is not the time to be complacent, there has been some meaningful progress such that the place now looks and feels different from a decade ago. My own personal observation is that the full and repeated endorsement by the top management of diversity policy and actions to support it was critical in bringing about the change at this speed. These actions included setting and publishing targets for the share of women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff in senior management; pooled recruitment for senior appointments; and a sponsorship programme which offers focused career advice by senior managers. A study by the European Central Bank (ECB) also found that the promotion gap between men and women disappeared after the ECB made a public commitment to diversity in 2010, which was supported by targeted actions aimed at increasing female representation in senior positions. 

This is not to say that the same formula should be applied to academia. But economics as a discipline needs to come up with a more concrete action plan to increase gender balance and diversity at senior levels. Interestingly, other academic disciplines are moving from simple record keeping on gender imbalance to analysis of the causes and concrete actions. Take, for example, the recent report by the Royal Society of Chemistry. They identified specific barriers to women’s progression, including academic funding structures which tend to be short term; academic culture, including inconsistencies in the quality and accountability of management; lack of transparency in recruitment and promotion processes; overloading female academics with ‘citizenship activities’ which are not recognised in promotion processes; bullying and harassment; and lack of support for those with caring responsibilities. Encouragingly, the RSC also came up with a concrete action plan to address the problems identified. These include the launch of a bullying and harassment helpline; launch of grants for carers; launch of annual recognition for chemistry departments that demonstrate significant progress in inclusion and diversity; facilitating an exchange of best practice between peers; and launch of a gender equality forum to accelerate culture change.

These issues are unlikely to be unique to chemistry or science but recognisable in economics as well. There is now mounting evidence that culture in economics has not helped women: female economists face more questions in seminars, are less likely to have their papers accepted for presentation at academic conferences, held to a higher standards of writing in getting their papers accepted by journals, receive fewer citations on their papers, and commented on about physical appearance or personal information rather than academic and professional characteristics in anonymous online discussions. On top of this, the unequal distribution of increased childcare burden during the pandemic could further exacerbate the existing gender gap. There is now abundant evidence that increased childcare responsibilities during Covid lockdowns placed disproportionate burden on mothers, and led to disproportional decline in female employmentCovid also affected productivity of academic women disproportionately, and this could have long-term consequences on their career. 

A rapid increase in the share of women in senior academic positions in economics is unlikely to happen without additional actions. There are multiple barriers which need to be removed in order to recruit, retain and nurture talented women in the discipline. The mentoring programme for early career female economists and initiatives to encourage young and diverse talents to study economics are great for expanding the pipeline. But to fix the leaky pipeline and improve diversity at the senior level of the discipline, interventions that are targeted at mid-career levels are also needed. These interventions need to be initiated, and loudly and repeatedly endorsed by the top people in the discipline. Senior individuals should also be held accountable for delivering a well-defined set of diversity objectives. Such initiatives also need to be appropriately resourced, so academic economists from the so-called diverse backgrounds don’t end up being overburdened with yet another citizenship work

The present lack of diversity in economics is unlikely to be optimal for society. As both senior academic economists and economists in policy institutions play a key role in shaping public policies, the lack of diversity will ultimately lead to lack of attention for public policy issues that matter for women and minority groups. If the next decade is to look any different, the male majority occupying the top positions in economics must act, as well as women, and they should be held accountable for delivering this change.

Misa Tanaka is Head of Research at the Bank of England and a member of the Royal Economic Society’s Women’s Committee.

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