Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Assessing gender and racial disparities in economics

By Hallie Jo Gist

The gender disparity in the economics discipline is no secret. For UC Berkeley undergraduates, a glance around the classroom is enough evidence of an imbalance. As a part of the nationwide Undergraduate Women in Economics (UWE) Challenge, we attempted to quantify this apparent disparity. The data collection described below is a first step in this research.

At UC Berkeley, students interested in economics choose between three undergraduate majors: economics, environmental economics and policy (EEP), and political economy. Additionally, UC Berkeley offers an undergraduate business major at the Haas School of Business. The economics major is the largest undergraduate major at UC Berkeley, with an average of 470 graduating students every year over the past 10 years. Given its size, it is particularly important to understand the barriers to majoring in economics that students may face.

Our main statistic of interest is what we call the “Goldin ratio,” named for Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University and the founder of the UWE Challenge. This is the male-to-female ratio of degrees earned in a given undergraduate major, divided by the male-to-female ratio in the full undergraduate population at UC Berkeley. For example, if there is a 50-50 distribution of males and females among all undergraduates, a Goldin ratio of 2 for the economics major implies that there are twice as many males as there are females earning an economics BA. We calculated the Goldin ratio by major for each of the last 10 years.

Fig. 1

The Goldin ratios are consistently greater than 1 for both the economics major and, to a lesser extent, the business major, indicating that the economics and business majors are disproportionately male relative to the university.

But these ratios combine all racial groups, disguising the fact that the gender disparity in economics at UC Berkeley varies by racial group. In Fig. 2, we break down the Goldin ratio by race, showing the average Goldin ratio for the past five years (the 2012-2016 academic years).

Fig. 2

Within the economics department, the gender disparity is highest for underrepresented minority (UM) and white students. Meanwhile, the gender balance for Asian/Pacific Islander students and international students is at parity. This suggests that the overall gender disparity in the undergraduate population is driven by the underrepresentation of white and UM women. We find this trend in the other majors. However, for EEP and political economy students, the Goldin ratios for UM and white students is closer to 1, indicating a more equal gender balance across racial groups.

To better understand the representation of racial groups in economics, we constructed the “race ratio.” The race ratio is analogous to the Goldin ratio; we look at the reciprocal of the ratio of students of a particular racial group to students of all other racial groups. For example, if 18 percent of UC Berkeley’s undergraduates are of underrepresented minority (UM) racial groups (defined as African American, Latino/Latina, or Native American), then a race ratio of 2 for UM students in the economics major implies that only 9.9 percent of economics BA recipients are UM students. We calculated this ratio for each of the four majors within the economics and business disciplines at UC Berkeley.

Fig. 3-6

There are striking trends in the race ratio over the past ten years.

UM students are particularly underrepresented in the economics major relative to the population of undergraduates. Furthermore, the disparity in representation of UM students is growing.

At the same time, international and Asian/PI students are overrepresented in the economics major relative to the university as a whole, with race ratios less than 1. By construction, the overrepresentation of Asian and international students generates underrepresentation of white and UM students relative to the university population. However, the UM population is even more underrepresented than the white population, which shows that there are excess barriers to inclusion in economics for UM students. While the patterns in the business major are similar to economics, the EEP and political economy majors show far less racial disparity.

It is important to note that looking at the proportions of race or gender groups obscures the inequality faced by underrepresented minority women. An average of only nine UM women have graduated with a BA in economics each year for the past 10 years. This is remarkably small, considering that the economics major graduates an average of 470 students each year.

How or why these inequalities arise is a topic for future research. Regardless of the reason, it is clear that the economics and business disciplines at UC Berkeley suffer from gender and racial disparities. I believe that this inequality is a detriment to women and UM economics and business students. As a woman and an undergraduate economics student myself, I was encouraged to enter this field by my female economics instructors, whom I admire immensely.

Economics Ph.D. student Emily Eisner also articulates the effect that a community of women can have: “My female peers in my cohort have defined my experience in grad school. They are the people I learn from most and who have supported me most in pursuing my own research.”

Encouragement of women by other women, and of students of color by other students of color, is sacrificed when there are gender and racial imbalances in the field.

Additionally, gender and racial disparities in economics do a disservice to the field itself. UC Berkeley Economics Professor Martha Olney notes: “Economists rethink the models they develop in response to challenges to the underlying assumptions of those models. Many important challenges come from Berkeley students. If the students are not representative of the population as a whole, the challenges economists hear will be incomplete.”

Undergraduate students are working to rectify the apparent inequality. In the spring of 2016, students founded the Undergraduate Women in Economics at Berkeley club. And this semester, the Students of Color in Economics was established. These two organizations foster community among undergraduate women and underrepresented minorities in the economics discipline.

For those of us involved in the UWE research project at UC Berkeley, these data are just a starting point. We recognize that any attempt to promote a more equal distribution along the lines of race and gender in the economics and business departments will not be successful if we do not take an intersectional approach.

The research described here was conducted under the direction of Professor Olney and is funded by the nationwide UWE Challenge. Further data and results were published on the Women of Economics at Berkeley Blog.

Update 11/10/17: the paragraph “To better understand…UC Berkeley” has been updated to more accurately describe the race ratio.