Top female college students were more likely to consider majoring in economics when exposed briefly to inspiring and charismatic women in the field, according to an easy and inexpensive study led by Danila Serra, assistant professor of economics at the Southern Methodist University (SMU).
The study was funded by the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge, which was created by Harvard University economics professor Claudia Goldin to address the the gender gap in economics majors. Currently, the national average is just one female student for every three male students, with SMU falling below at one female student for every four male students.
The study was conducted by Serra and Catherine Porter, associate professor of economics at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, after SMU was randomly chosen as one of 20 universities to participate in the Challenge. Each university was given $12,500 to develop a program that would test the effectiveness of a deliberate intervention strategy to recruit and retain female majors.
“The gender imbalance in economics has been in the news a lot lately, and much of the discussion has been very negative,” Porter said in a statement. “This study offers something positive: a cheap way of improving the gender balance. The results can hopefully be used by other schools in order to redress the low numbers of women that major in economics – women have a lot to offer and should consider economics as a subject that is interesting and varied for a career.”
In designing SMU’s program, Serra was influenced by her own experience as a Ph.D. economics student at the University of Oxford.
“As a student, I had met many female professors in the past, but my own experience taught me that inspiration is not about meeting any female professor — it’s about meeting that one person that has a huge charisma and who is highly inspiring and speaks to you specifically,” she said in a statement.
In the spring of 2016, two professional women were invited to speak at four large introductory economics courses for just 10-15 minutes. The classes were comprised of about 700 students of all majors.
The following year showed that among those female students exposed to these speakers, there was a 12-percentage point increase in the percentage of students enrolled in the upper-level Intermediate Microeconomics course. This was a 100 percent increase for that demographic.
The experiment had the largest impact on the highest ranked female students. There was a 26-percentage point increase for students with a GPA of 3.7 or higher.
Choosing the role models
Once Serra decided on this type of project, she realized the best way to pick the role models would be to ask the students themselves.
Serra recruited the help of two of MSU’s top undergraduate female economics students, Tracy Nelson and Emily Towler, to pick the role models.
After sorting through lists of SMU economics alumni, Nelson and Towler chose 18 men and women with interesting careers, and then carried out scripted interviews with each to find the most charismatic ones.
The two students ultimately decided that Julie Lutz and Courtney Thompson were the most inspiring candidates.
Lutz, a 2008 SMU graduate, began her career in management consulting before making a career switch to an international NGO (non-governmental organization) in Nicaragua, followed by employment as director of operations at a toy company based in Honduras. Lutz is employed in Operations at a candy retail company.
Thompson, a 1991 SMU graduate, has had a successful career in marketing. She is the senior director of North American Marketing and Information Technology at a large international communications company. Thompson majored in economics at a time when few women chose that major, and is African American in a traditionally white dominated field.
Though each woman spoke for a short period of time, their charisma, success and relatability resonated with female students.
“I didn’t think such limited exposure would have such a large impact,” Serra said in a statement. “So this is telling me that one of the reasons we see so few women in certain fields is that these fields have been male-dominated for so long. This implies that it is very difficult for a young woman to come into contact with a woman in the field who has an interesting job in the eyes of young women and is enthusiastic about her major and her work. Young men, on the other hand, have these interactions all the time because there are so many male economics majors out there.”
What this study tells us
While this project was carried out with the specific intention of recruiting and retaining female economics majors, Serra believes this model can be applied to other majors with imbalances of one kind or another.
“I believe that the study could be replicated in all fields of study that present severe gender imbalances,” she said. “This means also fields of study that are female-dominated and for which it would be desirable to have higher gender diversity among students. Of course for such fields there would need to be male role models, selected with the help of current male students. I hope that our study and results will also spark ideas and initiatives employing carefully chosen role models to address other imbalances commonly seen in our college student populations, e.g., ethnic and racial imbalances.”
There are often many factors associated with gender-imbalanced careers, but this study suggests that simply giving students access to relatable, successful people within the field can inspire them.
“The study is important because, as my coauthor and I state in our paper, it suggests that the long-term goal of moving towards gender parity in the economics profession at all levels could be achieved at a relatively low cost by exposing female students to successful and inspiring alumnae,” said Serra.
A broader lesson is that young women need and want to interact with successful and charismatic female role models who could tell them about their study choices and subsequent career experiences.
Moving forward, Serra will be developing research projects elsewhere with the aim of replicating the study at a larger scale, and possibly with high school students.