Bryan Caplan  

Shocked by the Gender Gap

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As I've said before, the data show that men think more like economists than women do. But today I came across some new data (or data I once saw and then forgot about?) showing a gender gap that is quite a bit larger than I would have guessed. The National Council on Economic Education's 2005 What Teens and Adults Know About Economics has some truly shocking findings. This survey tested knowledge of basic economics, and then gave respondents letter grades (A, B, C, D, F). The results for adults:

Grade Men Women
A 27% 6%
B 23% 10%
C 26% 23%
D 9% 18%
F 15% 42%
Average Grade 2.38 1.18

The disparity for teens wasn't quite as bad, though their average was a lot worse than adults':

Grade Men Women
A 5% 1%
B 7% 5%
C 20% 14%
D 14% 14%
F 54% 67%
Average Grade .95 .61

Of course, there are those like Gendergeek who would rather shoot the messenger. This is classic:

It worries me that so much of the heavily gendered distortions of modern economics, in conjunction with its methodological fetishism, is unnoticed or ignored. Economics could turn out to be the new morality and it needs to be exposed for what it really is: a male chauvinist pig of a discipline, suffering from severe monomania.

That's from a review of Freakonomics; I've got my fingers crossed that Gendergeek will be reviewing my book when it comes out next year.

P.S. Coming Soon to a Blog Near You: An announcement of the final title and further details.


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/502
The author at Vivre La Différence in a related article titled Men and Women and Economics writes:
    Brian Caplan over at Econlog has another of his interesting little pieces about the differences in the way men and women understand economics. The average grade for men is over twice that for women. Now, we do need to take this with a little pinch of s... [Tracked on May 1, 2006 9:26 AM]
COMMENTS (7 to date)
Marcus writes:

A core insight of economics is that people are rationally self interested. Males are better at being selfish and analytical.

Males have a lower digit ratio than females. Digit ratio is a useful indicator of early androgen exposure (males with a very low digit ratio have a higher risk of prostate cancer, for instance). It would be revealing to see the "grades" of women with low digit ratios and men with high ones.

[Fixed the link--Econlib Ed.]

Daublin writes:

The individual questions are more interesting than the overall scores, because some of the questions are uninformative. "What would an economist recommend about pollution" is not so interesting IMHO. "What should you consider when making a purchase" edges towards value judgements. And while I agree that the most correct answer to addressing scarce resources is to make choices, I am not sure it is outright wrong for people to say to use less -- depending on how one interprets the question, using less can be a great response if it's an investment in the future.


Anyway, fascinating stuff, thanks for posting it. The bulk of the questions seem like just the sort of basic economics you'd want policy makers and voters to understand. Supply and demand, inflation, trade, ....

liberty writes:

What the above commentators say is interesting, however I would have a different take on why these results would be found. Schools are more and more run with a socialistic teaching style - eg everyone should pass, improving is more important than learning, feeling is more important than thinking, art is more important than math, etc - and often socialist teachers.

The bias of the teacher (who doesn't like capitalism or competition) as well as the teaching style will be antithetical to teaching economics, hence lower scores for the young than the old (who were taught years ago when teaching was more rational, and who may have learned something since leaving school).

Girls may further fall behond boys as the teaching style would not favor pushing girls to be more rational than they might prefer to be - and girls are more emotional because of biology and upbringing. This gap may be narrowing because the emphasis on irrational thought favors treating boys and girls alike but both irrationally!

Tom Schofield writes:

Could these gender differences trace back to the old hunter-gatherer economies that prevailed for much of human history? While men hunted in teams, the emphasis was very much on individual effort and skill. Gathering, on the other hand, was as much a social as an economic activity. For all intents and purposes, men can no longer hunt. The activity has become a highly-regulated and politically incorrect sport restricted, for the most part, to men with substantial discretionary income. Women, however, can still gather - and many do so with a "shop 'til you drop" gusto. Perhaps this relates to the trite example of a highly intelligent and well-educated woman spending, say, $70 on a useless thingamabob and stoutly insisting she has actually saved $30 because the item was marked down from the normal retail price of $100. Any man who has ever tried to question this line of reasoning with a woman knows very well that there are irreconcilable differences in the way men and women think about economics and all subsidiary subjects.

liberty writes:

>Any man who has ever tried to question this line of reasoning with a woman knows very well that there are irreconcilable differences in the way men and women think about economics and all subsidiary subjects.

I am going to assume that you mean *some* men and *some* women. There are, odd as it may seem, some women who are very good at economics - and don't even waste money on useless things for a bargain price.

In addition, as the history of economic thought will tell you, there have been a lot of useless men who can't think their way out of a cardboard box (eg Marx) and many more who wasted years and years arguing theoretical piles of waste in a closed, zero-sum system. New minds that understand complexity, agents and emergence - be they male or female - will be required to give economics the good name it deserves.

mobile writes:

Is the disparity for teens really any better? Most teens -- both male and female -- get F's, but F's cover a wide range of scores (0 to 50%? 0 to 60%?) It's not clear from the bucketed data that the distribution of raw scores, conditioned on the teens that got F's, is the same between males and females.

EntropyAS writes:

Seems about right.

In my experience as a woman, men and women pretty much have an equal shot at everything now. If individual women want to use bias as an excuse to not learn things for themselves, it only improves my chances to succeed in this world. The more women expect teachers and society in general to hold their hands, the less we as a group are taken seriously by men.

I would like to see a quiz that focuses on gas prices to see how poorly EVERYONE does. Questions to include:

*Does driving 50 miles out of your way for gas that is one penny cheaper per gallon save you money?

*Will boycotting Exxon gas cause the gas station across the street to lower its prices?

*What will happen if the government instituted a price ceiling for gas? (What do you mean the gas station is out of gas!?!)

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