How can WC diversify its economics program?

By Liz Hay

Elm Staff Writer

For every two male economics students at Washington College, there is only one female economics student, according to data from senior Talia Seidman’s Senior Capstone Experience in economics. This gender difference is even more pronounced nationally.

As a female economics student, I am constantly thinking about if and how this underrepresentation impacts my education and perspective — and if others feel the same.

Economics is a subject that slips through the cracks of diversity initiatives and can be a bit unquantifiable, but it is one of the most critical subjects to have diverse representation in. The pushes for women and people of color in STEM are well known and established, even if there is still a lot of work to be done. But economics, as a social science that’s particularly hard to define, isn’t typically thought of as STEM even though it faces many of the same demographic challenges. This leaves me and other students feeling as though the first step toward increased improvement, awareness, has not even been taken yet.

Seidman was driven by her personal experiences as a woman in economics to conduct her SCE on the differences between women and men in confidence and competitive tendencies. 

“My hypothesis was that women are less likely to major in economics because of differences in competitiveness and confidence levels,” Seidman said.

Seidman replicated an experiment conducted in several studies to measure confidence and competitiveness. Although these experiments typically involve putting money on the line, she gave WC students in several introductory economics courses the opportunity to earn extra credit points by choosing between a competitive or noncompetitive payoff. Although the pandemic’s virtual setting complicated her results, the original studies demonstrated a clear gender divide in confidence among economics students. 

“The most shocking part [of the literature] to me was that the highest performing quartile of women [in the experiments] were less confident than the lowest performing quartile of men,” she said.

This data confirmed the anecdotal experiences of Seidman, me, and other women in economics at WC and everywhere.  

Even when doing very well in a class, “if I ever answer a question I … check it and then double check and then triple check just to make sure that I had the right answer because I didn’t want to risk being wrong,” Seidman said. “I feel like I’m less confident than the average male economics student at Washington College.”

Although women in economics feel less confident, Seidman’s research also showed that, on average, there is little basis for the gendered difference in confidence found in research. In fact, she found in her research that among WC’s economics majors in the last decade, female students had significantly higher high school and college GPAs, on average, compared with their male peers.

In addition to the confidence barrier faced by women in economics, the homogeneity of the classroom can make it difficult to participate. 

“I think that a lot of the times as a woman — and I’m sure there are other identities that relate to this even more — you’re able to see some gaps in the traditional language of economics that doesn’t fully explain your experience with the world,” senior Bethany Ford, another female economics major, said.

However, these diverse perspectives are often lost to insecurities and silence. It can be difficult to believe in the validity of your perspective if you feel like the only one — or one of a few — seeing these gaps and wanting to address them.

Combined with the confidence gap, consistently speaking up with answers and points in class can be very difficult for me and others in similar positions.

“I think the professors were doing everything they could, and it’s more the environment.  When a class mostly consists of men you definitely feel a lot more pressure speaking up in class,” Seidman said.

So, what can be done to draw in more women, and diversify the major in general at WC?

Economics as a field struggles with homogeneity, but WC has the potential to combat this trend, at least locally. Economics majors shape the world; they are the next generation of researchers, policymakers, businesspeople, and bankers. Filling those professions with diverse perspectives is essential to addressing issues and inequalities that might otherwise go unnoticed. These are not problems created by WC’s department because these themes span the entire field, but there are steps that the department can take against the homogeneity of the discipline as a whole. 

Actively structuring lectures and discussions around more critical perspectives of our course material is an important way to show that the subject is accessible and applicable to the real world. Although professors make an effort to point out that the models we learn are very simplified theories, often the conversation does not continue and give equitable time to the real-world flaws of those theories, particularly in early courses. 

“I think it can cause harm to someone’s worldview if they only learn this really simplified version of something and they’re never told how important it is to consider the other factors,” Ford said. 

Most economics classes that I’ve taken are lecture-based and very streamlined, as opposed to my courses in other disciplines which present a topic and then focus a significant portion of class time on questions, critiques, and creative thinking.

While there are necessary lecture topics and some courses that already achieve this, economics classes overall could benefit from similarly integrating more critiques of material either from additional academic sources or just student discussion. Guiding students toward critical thinking and more heavily prioritizing those real-world, diverse discussions of economics would build critical thinking skills and lend validity to the students who see gaps between their lived experience and their education.

“I think it’s far more common in a field like International Studies or Political Science for those criticisms of economic [theory] to come up,” Ford said.

Another way to diversify the major is to diversify our methods of assessment. The economics major at WC requires very little reading and writing, leaning almost exclusively on problem sets, quizzes, and exams to determine grades. Men perform marginally better on math tests compared with women, but the latter significantly outperformed men in reading and writing, according to 2019 research published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.”

“[One study] found that in intro classes, if men get a B or C, they are far more likely to stay in the major than if a woman gets a B or a C,” Seidman said. “I think, like, if a woman doesn’t do well, she automatically switches to something she’s stronger in. But a man is like ‘oh it’s a B or a C, okay,’ and then they just keep going along with their classes.”

Changing assessment methods — particularly in introductory courses — to allow a diversity of academic strengths to shine may help retain more women and other minorities in the major. Although I ultimately stuck with economics, I was nearly swayed by courses in my freshman year that emphasized reading, writing, and creative thought, skills which I find relevant and suit my learning style. I wrote my final paper for a political philosophy class on John Locke’s theory of property and found that engagement with economics much more relevant to my academic and personal interests than my introductory economics courses. I stayed with economics because of books and podcasts on economics topics that I sought out myself, which made me realize there was more to the subject than exams. 

This skill imbalance also affects women — and students of all genders — who do continue on in the major without often reading and writing in economics. Data Analysis is the only class that Seidman, Ford, or I could recall as having a required paper, and both Seidman and I had that paper cancelled as a way to lighten student workload during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s possible that I’ve just had an unlucky combination of classes without a writing requirement. However, as a junior, I am now generating ideas for a lengthy thesis for a field in which I have never written a paper, despite the fact that WC prides itself on its “culture of writing.” My insecurity around this skill is also reflected in the experiences of seniors at the end of the thesis-writing process. 

“One of the criticisms I get a lot from my thesis advisor is that my work isn’t ‘econ enough,’ but frankly I don’t know that means because I’ve never written a paper in economics,” Ford said.

Combining the truly stellar faculty and program that we already have at WC with a redoubled focus on change and inclusivity has the potential to diversify students in the major and improve the academic experience of all economics students. 

“Some of the strengths that we already have [in the department] can be applied in new ways and we can get really good results. This department is really all about building their students up and making them feel welcome,” Ford said. “It’s a very kind place and it’s a very supportive place.”

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