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Women think differently -- even in the 'dismal science'

Economics is becoming less of a man's world, and new research implies that as more women enter the profession that could lead to changes in economic policy.

"Without a doubt it will change policy," said Ann Mari May, an economics professor at University of Nebraska in Lincoln and one of the study's authors.

May and her co-authors surveyed hundreds of members of the American Economic Association for the study, which is due to be released in an upcoming issue of the journal Contemporary Economic Policy.

What they found was surprising: Despite similar training and background in economic principles, male and female economists tended to hold sharply different views about some of the biggest and most hotly debated economic issues.

For example, female economists were more likely to say employers should provide health insurance and that income distribution should be more equal. They also were more likely to disagree with the use of educational vouchers.

Women also were far more likely to conclude that job opportunities for men and women are not equal, and that specifically the economic profession favors men over women.

 “We were a little surprised to see that there were these striking differences,” May said.


The findings were especially interesting to May and her colleagues because they had taken great pains to ensure that they were surveying mainstream economists, whose views might be considered more closely aligned.

They also come as more women are pursuing the "dismal science" as a profession. Women earned 34.5 percent of new doctorates in economics in 2010, up from 27 percent in 2000, according to the researchers.

The research for the paper was conducted in late 2008 but took several years to compile and prepare for publication.

May thinks that as more women enter the field their voices will start to be heard when politicians and others craft economic policies. A more diverse group of expert opinions could lead to more rigorous debate and, perhaps, different ways of thinking about the nation’s major economic challenges.

If nothing else, she noted, the study should raise the awareness that all economists don’t think alike.

“It’s just sort of a snapshot that allows us to consider the diversity of the profession and how we sort of shortchange ourselves when we use phases like ‘all economists think this.’”  

Tip of the hat to USA Today, which earlier reported on this research.