Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Female Econ Majors: It's Not About Grade Grubbing

Claudia Goldin's analysis of male and female undergraduate economics majors is getting a lot of press. Goldin writes:
"Women who thought they would major in economics often become discouraged when they don’t get sufficiently high grades in introductory courses. Men are far less likely to be discouraged by similar grades. In other words, the gradient of major choice with respect to grades in the “gateway” courses is steeper for women than for men."
Amanda Hess at Slate summarizes the article, "Women May Be Underrepresented in STEM Because They're Too Concerned With Grades." Similarly, Catherine Rampell writes that "Women should embrace the B’s in college to make more later." These articles, I think, miss a bit of nuance. 

I don't think the real issue is that young women are just more "grade-grubby" than young men-- which is actually a pretty harmful stereotype. Grades serve as a signal, both to others and to the student. As Goldin notes, male students disproportionately choose to study economics before entering college. Economics professors are also disproportionately males. Economics grad students, who will be the undergrads' teaching assistants, are disproportionately males. A female undergrad may wonder if she really "belongs" among economists. So if she gets a B in Econ 101, she may put more weight on that than a male student would. If she already had doubts about whether she belonged in the major, she's going to put more weight on the signal from her grade. 

I don't think Goldin meant to imply that college women are just "in it for the grades" more than college men. Their decisions on major are more sensitive to grades, but for reasons other than perfectionism. This is why Goldin emphasizes Janet Yellen's nomination to head the Federal Reserve as an important milestone that could draw more women into the field, by showing them that they belong. She writes, "Yellen’s ascension at the Fed will show more women that economics isn’t an exclusively male field."


  1. The question is "what are the alternatives?" I think that part of what you're arguing here is that most people feel more comfortable if they are not the only woman (or the only man) in the room. So women, if looking for alternatives to economics, are going to be looking more at female-dominated fields, while males are looking more at male-dominated fields.

    However there's some evidence that female-dominated fields tend to be ones with more generous grading. For example, a paper in Canadian Public Policy by Paul Anglin and Ron Meng found little grade inflation in fields like mathematics, which have been – and remain – male dominated, but more inflation in biology and English, which have seen a large influx of female professors.

    (Why might this be? Some research has found that female professors tend to give out higher grades. My own work fiddling around with rate my professor scores found that women tend to get hit in terms of lack of hotness, poorer evaluations when they have low "ease" ratings, whereas men can be hard and still be perceived as good profs.)

    So one possible take on this is that women look around, figure they can get better grades and be in a more comfortable environment in poli sci or psyc or soc or music, whereas men don't find these female-dominated fields so appealing.

    Another theory is that men who are doing econ undergrads don't have a lot of other alternatives - they aren't good enough at math to succeed in physics or engineering, and aren't good enough at writing essays to succeed in English or poli sci. Whereas the females who do poorly in econ often do well in other fields e.g. law.

  2. There is a paper related to your hypothesis by Carrell, Page, and West (QJE 2010). I haven't read these studies carefully, but based on what I've seen, I think your thoughts are on point.

  3. Nice post! In my day (let's just say Gerald Ford) was President - there were only a few women entering graduate school. Our history of economic thought professor was a fan of Joan Robinson but he did lament the fact that the only superstar economist in the olden days was a very heavy set woman. Me? I was more impressed with her writing than concerned that she did not have a 24 inch waistline.

  4. Nice post, though I have criticisms of the arguments of Claudia Goldin and Catherine Rampell. Well worth arguing about.

  5. Econ is a pseudoscience. Why would a math major do it? My advice as a physician: Quit econ and go into experimental psych, a real field, or hard science, or medicine, or engineering, or math.

    Econ is trash, known to be so, completely un-respected by the in other fields. Get out while you can.

    I work in Pullman WA, a university community. Although I am a doc, not an academic, quite a few of my friends are. They shake their heads sadly at econ.

  6. One important question- how do male and female applicants to obviously-related jobs and grad school in econ fair with regard to what grades they *need*? If women are gravitating toward fields where they get good grades, because women without good grades have a harder time finding jobs/grad school acceptance than men without good grades, then we've explained women's behavior quite rationally. Economists should like the rationality, right?
    It's a little bit like "women don't ask" (the book about women and negotiating for raises)... it impressed me quite a bit when it came out, until I grew a little in my feminism and understood more of the literature out there. There is a *penalty* to asking. And there is likely a *penalty* to poor grades-in-harder-subjects that is differentially rough on women (and likely underrepresented minorities as well).

  7. Horace Boothroyd IIIMarch 13, 2014 at 4:10 PM


    I like to tell the story about Barry Sharpless throwing a party that was fueled by repurified lab grade alcohol, and ended with Nobel Prize winners riding tricycles.

    That and the one about Dick Schrock & Malcolm Chisholm taking so much LSD that they vomited on each others' hands and giggled at the colors.

    Had you been my student you no doubt would have sniffed that you prefer to read their articles - which I doubt that you could have understood anyway.

  8. You have good instincts.

    What makes women weight the grade differently is stereotype threat. Basically, when someone is faced with a negative stereotype they care whether their actions fit with the stereotype or not. In a lot of cases, even if their actions fit with the stereotype they can just get comfortable with that. I don't like the stereotype that girls like pink, but I do like pink, and I am feminine-identified, so liking pink doesn't cause any kind of crisis for me. When the stereotype is something like "girls are bad at math" it causes problems. When I get a bad grade on a math quiz, it's a BIG DEAL for me. I (representing the normal feminine-identified student) take this kind of error very seriously, and it might cause me to wonder if I'm cut out for math. Conversely, a man who does poorly on a math quiz might wonder if he should study more. "Not an A" might constitute evidence in favor of negative stereotypes for these women, and many of them respond by avoiding the opportunity to continue confirming the stereotype.


Comments appreciated!