The Invisible Hand Doesn’t Work: Underrepresentation in Economics is a Market Failure

Nationwide, the field of economics, being overwhelmingly comprised of middle class, caucasian men to the extreme exclusion of other class, racial, and gender groups, has a diversity problem. This lends to overwhelmingly homogenous perspectives in economics, which really impedes the field from being thoroughly informed by diverse perspectives. The following resources on biases against women and people of color in economics help illustrate the depth of consistent discrimination, microaggression, and systemic obstacles for some individuals of these underrepresented groups to stay in this field. More resources that discuss these issues can be found online. These same issues manifest in our classrooms here at Swarthmore. These dynamics must be acknowledged and addressed explicitly in order to make truly substantial strides toward a more diverse economics community.

The Swarthmore economics department is not oblivious to its lack of diversity. Swarthmore Professors Amanda Bayer, Syon Bhanot, Erin Bronchetti, and Stephen O’Connell engaged this very topic in a forthcoming study for the American Economic Association. The study examined the statistically significant gaps in students’ academic and social experiences within Intro to Economics by comparing “student-reported rates of belonging, material relevance, and growth mindset” for: women of all races and racially underrepresented students in comparison to non racially underrepresented male students. It is important to note that there was not an explicit focus on LGBTQ students as an underrepresented demographic within the scope of these categories.

According to this study on economics at Swarthmore, when compared to white and Asian men, male students of other races and women of all races were, on average, less comfortable asking questions in class and more likely to feel “different” from other economics students. Underrepresented students also felt like their professors cared less about them, and these students disagreed more often that “people like [them] could become economists.” In fact, when asked whether or not they strongly agreed with the statement, “People like me can become economists,” well represented students answered “yes” at a rate of 41% while underrepresented students answered the same question at a rate of 20.7%. 

In examining who can become an economist, one must consider the implications of what it actually takes for people who are “like you” to succeed in the field. As underrepresented students, it means continuously considering an additional set of factors that non-underrepresented students frequently do not have to consider. Underrepresented students must front the emotional energy to deal with, in the long term, the emotional distress as socioeconomic, racial, and gender minorities continually face in this field. Nonetheless, there will always be people of marginalized identities who successfully navigate these obstacles, but we implore everyone to recognize how much extra work they have to put in to get to where they are. 

The aforementioned research says that students who feel more welcomed in the department, in general, felt that coursework was relevant to their lives, had greater senses of belongingness, had stronger growth mindsets, and, ultimately, were more likely to earn higher grades. Who already possesses such sociocultural capital that they feel this way in our economics classes? We have our ideas on what societal structures and social dynamics are at play to create such disparities between different students’ comfort levels in economics classrooms. While there are always outliers to these trends, the overwhelming averages in the data speak volumes. 

We are grateful that the department is working to gain awareness of underrepresented students’ experiences, but we also worry that structural change will require more deliberate work. Several academic semesters ago, the department started the “Visible Hands in Economics” program to provide Intro to Econ students with a peer support network designed to focus on inclusivity. Beyond Intro to Econ, throughout other core econ classes — Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Econometrics — this support network drops off. Support for students in economics should not just be aimed at getting students past Intro to Econ, but instead should be consistent throughout all class years and levels of study. The stats don’t lie.

After Intro to Econ, it is not uncommon for economics classes at Swarthmore to be three-quarters male. In 2018, only 37% of economics majors at Swarthmore were women, even though the College reported that 49% of the class of 2018 were women. The College did not report data on non-binary graduates, and it is unclear how the college takes trans students into accont in these statistics. This tracks with national data: as of 2016, about 35% of undergraduate economics majors were female, despite the fact that over 50% of college graduates nationwide are female. 

Although there is an expressed desire to see more diversity in the department, it does not always translate to effectively fostering a comfortable space for underrepresented students. In our experience, male students often get away with talking over other students in class and taking up ample verbal space to ask superfluous, niche questions. Anecdotally, we have noticed that men’s voices are heard and celebrated disproportionately in class. Perhaps male students blurting out answers while female students are talking is forgiven due to a desire for efficiency. 

Another important factor is the way underrepresented students’ concerns are addressed as they bring up discomfort in the classroom dynamics. Students of these backgrounds are urged to make the changes they want to see in the classroom when they express how they feel. It is not fair that students who are continually drained the most emotionally have to invest substantial amounts of emotional energy and time to fix the classroom cultures which are draining them. Diversity and Inclusion consultants do this type of work for a salary. Many underrepresented students feel tasked to do this very same work as if it is part of a preliminary assignment to their actual problem sets. This is not fair. Overall, it is not an underrepresented minority problem. It is a community problem and everyone in the community should play a role in changing the culture. The first step is awareness!

We are glad to see that the department recognizes a need for a culture change and we appreciate their efforts to make students feel more welcomed. At the same time, in our experience, we have not heard enough professors rebuke male students for talking over other students in economics classes. We have not heard enough professors say that they would like to hear from new voices in class. In situations like these, passive awareness is never enough. Underrepresented students need to be actively welcomed into discussions. But we need everyone, especially other students, to be mindful of the space they take up, and make an effort to make everyone feel like part of the community. In our experience, professors don’t mitigate a culture which is already there in the first place, and that’s on both students and professors. We need racial dynamics, gendered dynamics, and socioeconomic dynamics to be proactively recognized for how they play into the classroom, just as they play into all of society. Even in theory classes, we need to make space to explore how social issues impact the field. Please — no more coded language when we are referring to particular racial, gender, or socioeconomic demographics of people. Be specific. 

Swarthmore College needs to uplift and welcome all economics majors from all walks of life, particularly economics majors who are women of color. Rather than pretending that a student’s gender, race, or class has no impact on their experiences as a student (or addressing these things with roundabout, indirect language), we should all be looking to find ways of supporting one another. This lack of diversity isn’t going to fix itself by being ignored. If anything, it perpetuates a cycle.

Specifically, we would love to see newly structured conversations, and awareness around proactively programmed activities or discussions to mitigate the classist thought patterns that our neoclassical standard  models can perpetuate. If we assume that people act in self interest to maximize consumption, we must address how this alters the perception of socioeconomically privileged students regarding people, for instance, who are on social welfare. We must discuss this bias proactively and not reactively, because this development of biases not news to anyone. This also makes economics more relevant for under-represented students. Why would under-represented students want to stay in an environment that talks about welfare, amongst other things, so detachedly, but can’t talk about structural violence or social contexts influencing behavior. Everyone should feel accountable for that.We would also appreciate more active structural support for students to connect to one another, possibly in the form of an email sign up, just so that students are able to better connect with fellow classmates that have similar needs as them in the course. There is a positive externality to be incurred by this! Underrepresented economists tend to specialize in areas of the field dealing with equity and social progress. Even small changes help, like waiting an extra moment to see if students have questions, or being aware of how much class time is taken up by the voice of a single student. Students, we ask that you make an effort to get to know the people around you. Reach out to new classmates, even if that means simply saying, “Hi!” We need to feel more explicitly valued in a field that continues to be so dominated by a monolith of voices. To professors and fellow students, invite underrepresented students into conversations. Share the work of economists from diverse backgrounds in class and cite them by name. Acknowledge our contributions. You need us here and so does the world.

Featured Image courtesy of Princeton Huang for The Phoenix

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