Why affirmative action could prevent lost talent in economics

Hal Weitzman | Jun 23, 2021

Sections Economics

Collections Gender Gap

Economics is an overwhelmingly male profession. In spite of efforts to increase women’s representation, top US university economics departments have made precious little progress in achieving greater gender balance over the past 26 years, according to the American Economic Association. This has meant that the talent of countless women who might have become leaders in the field has been lost.

One reason these efforts may have failed is their focus on combating explicit or implicit bias that discriminates against women as a group, according to Northwestern’s Marciano Siniscalchi and Chicago Booth’s Pietro Veronesi. They accept that explicit or implicit bias may partly account for women’s underrepresentation. But they argue that the gender gap may be exacerbated by a more subtle phenomenon, self-image bias: individuals tend to overvalue their own attributes when judging others. In the case of researchers, these attributes may include items such as favored research topics, methodologies, policy relevance, and the like. Thus, if most researchers are male to begin with, the profession will, on average, prize characteristics more common among men and effectively devalue those found more often among women.

The model that Siniscalchi and Veronesi constructed explains how self-image bias keeps women from achieving greater representation even when reviewers use gender-neutral evaluation criteria. The model also highlights why research universities have been particularly bad at tackling the problem. They argue that self-image bias means that aiming for “gender blindness” may not be enough to address the imbalance in the composition of the economics profession. The presence of self-image bias instead provides a new rationale for some targeted affirmative-action policies in addition to traditional approaches such as outreach and mentoring. When female and male candidates are otherwise equally qualified for a position, such policies could serve as a possible tie-breaking factor and help address gender imbalance in the profession. 

Data collected by the AEA point to a “leaky pipeline,” in which women are lost at every stage of the academic career. Although the share of women economics undergraduates at the top 20 US schools has increased steadily since 1994 to around 40 percent, the fraction of female PhD students has stayed flat at about 30 percent, and the proportion of women among entry-level tenure-track assistant economics professors has stagnated at 22 percent

The economics departments of research universities are particularly imbalanced. By contrast, at institutions without doctoral programs, more than 40 percent of tenure-track faculty are women. Among nontenured teaching faculty, women account for 37 percent at both types of institutions, suggesting that the barrier to women’s progress has something to do with research.

The root of the problem is in how established researchers evaluate the work of younger colleagues, according to Siniscalchi and Veronesi. If the lack of senior women were just down to implicit bias, the proportion of women at both research and nonresearch colleges would be similar, as would women’s share of tenure-line and nontenure-line professorships. The difference, they reason, could be the way research is evaluated.

Self-image bias is a well-established phenomenon in psychology, but Siniscalchi and Veronesi are the first to build it into a mathematical model to explain the gender gap in academic economics. 

Their model assumes some heterogeneity in research characteristics, such as whether the research is empirical or theoretical, deep or broad, as well as its methodology, the field, the topic, the type of questions it asks, and its policy relevance. All of these approaches are equally valuable, but women and men tend to cluster around different characteristics. Consistent with the empirical evidence, the model assumes that the differences within the genders are much more pronounced than the distinctions between them.

Tenured men dominate decisions to hire or promote female economists, and their self-image bias gives extra weight to the more “male” characteristics in making hiring decisions, the researchers argue. In this world, it makes sense that fewer women choose to pursue PhDs because the odds of eventually securing tenure are slimmer than for men. This, in turn, reinforces the dominance of “male” research characteristics. 

Without intervention, Siniscalchi and Veronesi’s model suggests, economics cannot achieve gender parity. They therefore conclude that affirmative action—mandating equal gender representation among researchers—may be more effective at preventing the loss of talent incurred because of self-image bias than more traditional policies.