Where oh where are the female economists hiding?
The gender imbalance in SA economics is shocking. A new study finds out why this is so and what can be done
Where are South African women in economics? Lagging behind, despite making strides in the field, according to a PwC analysis.
Women pursuing higher education qualifications increased globally over the past 10 years, while the number of female economics graduates declined.
“Female representation in post-graduate studies in economics is even lower. Our calculations from three universities in SA – the University of Cape Town, Nelson Mandela University and Stellenbosch University – show that the percentage of women completing a PhD in economics is 21%,“ said Maura Feddersen, PwC economist.
She said female representation in post-graduate studies in economics was even lower.“The trend of female under-representation in economics has far-reaching consequences for gender balance in high-ranking positions at universities, banks and in government.
“The average female staff representation in the economics departments of six SA universities is currently at 35%, with little more than a quarter of female economists in senior positions.
“In government positions, both globally and in SA, we have seen low female representation, with SA never having had a female minister of Finance.”
A 2015 Harvard University study found that women are less likely to study economics because of the perception that it is a route to work in the financial services sector, a stereotypically male-dominated domain.
“These perceptions start early, as research at English schools and universities shows that economics textbooks emphasise the role of men as policymakers and business leaders.”
Feddersen said even in case studies, the fictional characters making economic decisions were typically men. In introductory economics textbooks, for example, 77% of named individuals were male.
Studies have also shown that the presence of relevant and inspiring female role models increases the percentage of women interested in an intermediate microeconomics class by nine percentage points, and interest in an economics major by seven percentage points.
“There are a few proposed initiatives to address imbalances in government, one example being the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which aims to ensure the progressive realisation of a minimum of 50% representation and meaningful participation of women in decision-making structures,” said Feddersen.She pointed out that there are SA women who have taken up careers in economics, including Trudi Makhaya, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic advisor; Absa’s CEO Maria Ramos; and Thabi Leoka, an economic strategist and prominent commentator.
“Bringing attention to the exceptional female economists in SA is important. Behavioural nudges, like early exposure to female role models, can attract more women into the field of economics. Observing the lives of successful female leaders can positively impact the perceptions of other women, giving them the confidence that they too can serve in leadership positions.”