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Diversifying the Dismal Science

By discriminating against women and underrepresented minority groups, the economics profession perpetuates a hidden bias in data collection and analysis that pervades many important areas of policymaking. It should be clear by now that market forces alone will not solve the discipline’s diversity problem.

BOSTON – Although economics uses mathematical models and machine-learning techniques, it is still a social science. But compared to most other disciplines, the profession does not even come close to representing the societies we live in. In the United States, women received only 32% of US PhD degrees in economics in 2018, compared to 57% in other social sciences and 41% of doctorates in science and engineering. Worse still, black and Hispanic economists accounted for just 3.7% of newly minted economics PhDs – considerably lower than their combined share of doctorates in other social sciences (14%) and in science and engineering (8%).

The economics profession has made little to no progress toward greater gender, racial, or ethnic diversity over the past decade, and it doesn’t look like things will change anytime soon. There is a persistent pipeline problem that starts with women accounting for only about one-third of both undergraduate economics majors and graduate students in the field. Within academia, women disproportionately fall off the career ladder compared to men during promotion to tenure and account for only 15% of full professors.

Why has the economics discipline failed to diversify its membership? The simple reason is that economists tend to rely on market forces to solve most problems – including discrimination. The late Nobel laureate economist Gary S. Becker’s model of discrimination asserts that employers who discriminate based on factors unrelated to productivity – such as gender or race – will incur monetary costs (by paying higher wages, for example). In a competitive labor market, non-discriminatory employers do not pay this cost and should therefore drive the discriminatory employers out of business.

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