Bryan Caplan  

The Gender Gap of Economics

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Men think more like economists than women do. According to my calculations in "What Makes People Think Like Economists?," (Journal of Law and Economics 44(2), October 2001, pp.395-426) being male has roughly 16% of the effect of a Ph.D. in economics. Now a fascinating article by Burgoon and Hiscox points to an explanation for this gender gap.

Admittedly, B&H's immediate goal is only to explain why women are more protectionist than men:

[G]ender shows up as a strong, consistent predictor of trade policy preferences. Women are much more protectionist than men. And this is not simply a function of gender differences in the standard political-economy variables. One might guess, for instance, that on average women tend to have less education than men, and lower levels of skills, or that they tend to be over-represented in terms of their employment in import-competing industries (e.g., the textiles and apparel industries). But even controlling for individual differences in education and other measures of skills, and allowing for the effects of industry-of-employment, the gender gap in attitudes is substantial. By one prominent estimate, for instance, men are on average 7.4 percent more likely than women to support trade openness...

But B&H's explanation has much broader implications than they realize. How so? When studying the gender gap on protectionism, they noticed two things:

  • There is no gender gap for respondents who didn't go to college. The whole gender gap exists because college-educated men are markedly less protectionist than college-educated women.

  • The older the college-educated get, the larger their gender gap becomes.

    B&H then put forward a simple explanation, though they admit their evidence is indirect: Four decades ago, only one econ student in ten was a women; now we're up to one-in-three. Women disagree with economists about free trade because fewer women study economics.

    Now notice: While B&H's explicit aim is simply to explain the gender gap on protectionism, their mechanism would in fact generate the kind of across-the-board gender gap that I reported in the JLE. The upshot: If B&H are right, we could make the gender gap of economics disappear by increasing female enrollment in economics to parity for a couple generations.

    I'd say it's worth a try, and I'll do my part: I've never refused to sign an add form, and I'm not about to start!

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    The author at Vivre La Difference in a related article titled Is Economics a Naturally Male Thing? writes:
      Brian Caplan at Econlog looks at the different attitudes towards one of the basic ideas in economics (free trade good) between men and women. He’s done some previous academic research into the subject and there’s a new paper that slightly modifies his ... [Tracked on April 10, 2006 6:20 AM]
    COMMENTS (15 to date)
    Eric Crampton writes:

    Bryan: I don't recall your having run gender/education interaction terms in your piece. Do you pull up the same results as Burgoon and Hiscox if you try it?

    Pointing to gender composition of econ classes as reason for difference in economic beliefs is somewhat question-begging; something underlies the difference in class make-up. Finegold (Psychological Bulletin, 1994) finds a standard deviation difference in mean scores between women and men on the "tendermindedness" facet of agreeableness in the "Big Five" personality test. One wonders if low scores on a tendermindedness index predict whether one chooses to major in econ conditional on having taken intro...

    Happy 35th...

    Eric writes:

    Correction: Feingold.

    anon writes:

    I am unaware of any math-intensive subject in which men and women enroll at comparable rates. As econ gets more algebra intensive, the pressures against parity become overwhelming. There has been some mild narrowing of the technical gap in general, but as a rule, subjects with plenty of algebra or calculus attract men more than women (or if you prefer, repel women more than men). Even in the sciences, the relatively less mathematical subjects -- biology, psychology, medicine -- are those which draw equivalent numbers of women.

    zul writes:

    Am I the only one who hates the expression "think like an economist"? It's usually used to describe any analytical or politically savvy thinking, as if only economists are capable of that. You never hear anyone say that you should "think like a computer scientist" or "think like a lawyer" even when discussing software or legal matters.

    Economists should stick to the intelligent thoughts and discussion and quit strutting around in front of a mirror with an economics pose.

    mike writes:


    I think that while the phrase "Thinking Like an Economist" is used here, economists would prefer to say the more appropriate, "Economic Way of Thinking."

    And, this is NOT a way to describe analytical or savvy thinking. It IS a way to describe thinking that understands the difference between marginal values and total values; to describe an understanding of unintended consequences; to describe an appreciation for spontaneous order; etc.

    Good economists use the term freely because it is exactly what they are trying to help non-economists do. The term was coined by many in the profession that have a passion for teaching and learning economics - so that the level of economic literacy (and hopefully of the policy we make) improves in the U.S. and beyond.

    I'd hardly classify that as strutting.

    Zubon writes:

    I frequently hear references to thinking like a lawyer, programmer, accountant, statistician, etc. Each perspective puts emphasis on different factors. Consider a new law being proposed: what are the different factors that a philosopher, economist, political consultant, police or code compliance officer, prosecutor, business owner, academic researcher, or civil servant might consider important? Actually, phrasing it that way, I can see why some legislators might forget to put on their economist hats (assuming they own such hats).

    N. writes:

    Mike -

    I think that is an excellent partial list; could you flesh out the 'etc.' as exhaustively as you can?

    zul writes:

    mike, very good points. I mostly agree. Except that it is exactly things like "an understanding of unintended consequences" that are not unique to the field of economics.

    Roger M writes:

    Women also take more humanities classes where a strong bias towards socialism is taught.

    To think like a good economist, Bastiat wrote, is to look beyond the immediate and the visible. A lot of economists are bad economists. You don't have to be an economist to think like one, but you need to have better vision than most people.

    Matthew Cromer writes:

    Here's a thought.

    Offer to switch for one class per semester with one of the professors advocating socialism (I think you can figure out which departments teach that sort of mindset). They will teach one of your classes explaining the evils of the capitalist running dogs, and you will have to opportunity to explain the economic factors involved in a particular social issue.

    That sort of cross-pollination can provide a great opportunity to show that Economics professors don't all have horns and a tail, and your students can be exposed to some different ideas as well.

    Tom West writes:

    Two points: I find "think like an economist" quite amusing, as economists are famous for no two thinking alike. ("Ask 3 economists and get 4 opinions...") I suspect that Bryan may be betraying his "economist = Libertarian" bias...

    However, more relevant to the topic at hand, I suspect that once again we are dealing with the uneducated lacking the tools to properly describe why they disagree with certain policies.

    If you don't have a background in economics, it's tremendously difficult to say that your against growth. You don't have the tools and knowledge to state that high-growth policies often have side-effects that may outweigh the benefits of growth, so instead you transform your instinctual understanding for why you dislike a high-growth policy into a mistaken claim that such policies do not lead to higher growth.

    It's similar to why people who work with criminals often oppose policies to put "more criminals behind bars". They understand that such policies may successfully put more criminals behind bars, but have side effects that are far more detrimental to the community as a whole than getting a few more criminals off the street for longer. For those who instinctively understand the cost, but don't have the background to forcefully argue that "putting criminals behind bars" may not be the only measure of a law's success, there is a strong tendency to simply argue that those policies don't work at all.

    I suspect that women in general tend to have a higher valuation for security than men do, and high-growth policies are usually ones that trade job and personal security for higher growth. Thus high growth policies will be less popular with women. However, lacking the background to argue that growth isn't the only measure of economic outcomes, they'll simply mistakenly claim that high-growth policies aren't successful for high growth.

    James writes:


    I suspect everyone who has ever read this blog or taken an econ course knows the popular jokes implying that economists can't agree on anything. They are funny, but I've never understood the folks who take these jokes to be evidence that economists really can't agree on anything. Do you find derogatory jokes about groups of people to be convincing evidence that there really is something the matter with members of those groups?

    Bill writes:

    I don't think economists disagree on the fundamentals. If thinking like an economist means reasoning about the economy in terms of fundamental economic concepts, then thinking like an economist is something we should all want more people to do.

    Admittedly, I'm biased. I have a wife that thinks like an economist (because she is studying to be one).

    Corinna writes:

    I noticed that 95% of the professional economists surveyed were men. Although I'm sure Caplan took that fact into account, I wonder about the conclusion. Maybe the correct conclusion is that men are more likely to think like men than women are.

    Maria writes:


    If that were the case, then you would see a gap for people who have not attended college - they are men and women, after all. So that takes care of that explanation.

    Economists don´t always agree, but they do think alike: in order to answer a policy question, they come up with a succint story about how the world works (a model), and try to see what the consequences of that policy would be in their story. Most economists agree on the basic facts that should be in that model (for instance, people being self-interested and having preferences over possible outcomes), but of course, when you go into specifics you realize that depending on other assumptions in the model, you may come to different conclusions. This is, in my experience, the source of differences of opinion between economists - they think in a very similar way, but have disagreements on how to model stuff.

    Now, some of those disagreements can be plausibly settled by empirical evidence, but others cannot. So, there will be differences in recommendations.

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