For undergraduates interested in high earnings after graduation, majoring in economics is an obvious step towards success. With the highest lifetime earnings potential of any undergraduate major, economics also prepares students for executive positions. Flynn and Quinn (2010) looked at the CEOs of the S&P 500 companies and found that “the share of graduates who were Economics majors who were CEOs in 2004 was greater than that for any other major.”
It is no surprise then that the ambitious student body of Columbia would be interested in obtaining their degrees in the subject. From 2001 to 2016, undergraduate participation in the Columbia Economics Department nearly doubled, with a 78% increase in students whose first major was Economics. Other popular majors such as political science, math, and psychology did not see any similar trend in the fifteen-year period. Among the majors that did experience a sizable increase, computer science and mechanical engineering can attribute much of their newfound popularity to the increase in female participation, which quadrupled and grew nineteen-fold respectively.
The increase in Economics majors at Columbia, however, is due in large part to a rise in the major’s popularity among male students. Female participation only increased by 66% in the time period that male participation grew 84%, despite a significant increase in female undergraduate enrollment. Consequently, Columbia women are being left behind in the trend toward economics education, and gender disparity within the department is growing.
The issue of underrepresentation in economics is not only present at Columbia, and it is certainly not limited to gender. Knowing the value of an Economics degree, economists have discussed the problem of gender and racial disparity in Economics departments. Many theories have emerged that may help explain the national disparity in the major as well as the disparity within Columbia College.
In an essay published by The Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, Lisa Saunders, an economist at UMass Amherst, reflects on her experience as a black woman majoring in Economics at an institution where Economics majors were mostly white men. She describes the negligence of her professors to discuss the issues that affected her as a person of color and as a woman; only in other social science classes did she find that attention was paid to issues that affected parts of society beyond the educated white American male experience. The content of economics courses and the way that certain information is privileged to exclude variables of class, gender, and race could possibly fuel female and minority disinterest in the field. This phenomenon may explain why female undergraduates interested in social science pursue other, albeit usually less profitable, courses of study such as Sociology, Psychology, or Urban Studies. Female majors in these areas of study far outnumber their male counterparts at Columbia.
Perhaps not coincidentally, these other social sciences have a greater share of female professors. At Columbia, more than two-thirds of the faculty in the Economics department is male. The absence of female academic role models in lecture halls on campus may stunt the participation of female undergraduates in economics programs. The Feedback Effect tells us that the underrepresentation of a group in an occupation or field becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which may help to explain the diminishing share of women economics majors.
However, the absence of female role models on campus may not get to the core of why more Columbia women are not majoring in economics. Decisions about what subject to major in are often made before students arrive on campus. Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University who has led much of the recent research on women in economics, has found that male students enter four-year schools already disproportionately interested in economics. Male students are more likely to take the AP exams in high school and to take the introductory college course.
Goldin and others are not yet sure what causes this predisposition, but long-run labor market outcomes may show other forces at play. Just as there is an under-representation of successful female economists in department faculties, there is a lack of successful female economics majors in the marketplace. The US Census Bureau data shown below reveals that female economics majors, fewer in number, make less on average than their male counterparts. Moreover, over 20% of female economics majors are not in the labor force, unemployed or not seeking employment.
These figures may point to an even greater feedback effect on Columbia undergraduates, one which signals to female undergraduates that pursuing economics will not be as profitable for them as it would be for their male classmates. Such an effect could impact students earlier than on-campus factors. This theory is also supported by Carroll, Asane, & Busker (2014) who found that the income differential for Economics majors compared to other majors is twice as high for men as it is for women, even after controlling for demographics, job type, and location. Meaning, the monetary benefit of majoring in economics as opposed to something else is considerably lower for female majors. The unequal return on a degree in economics may explain why, as male participation in the major surged at Columbia, female participation lagged in its growth. Perhaps women at Columbia feel that they are not missing out of much.
Are you a member of the Barnumbia community with a story to share about majoring in Economics? Let me know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org