This year’s Nobel awards have been helpful for the image of the economics profession. Of the three academics honoured for their research on poverty alleviation on Monday, Esther Duflo is only the second woman to win the 50-year-old economics prize, and her husband Abhijit Bannerjee is only the third non-white man.
Yet, despite a growing number of high-profile female economists — including Gita Gopinath at the IMF and Pinelopi Goldberg at the World Bank — the subject still suffers from a chronic lack of diversity.
The UK’s Royal Economic Society this week launched a plan with the aim of tackling the profession’s image problem and attracting more women, state school pupils and ethnic minority students to study the subject.
“We’re recognising that there is a long pipeline problem,” said Arun Advani, assistant professor at Warwick university, who is co-chairing the campaign. Employers’ efforts to broaden recruitment to under-represented groups had made limited headway, he said, because the pool of graduates they recruited from was itself heavily skewed towards privately educated men.
This reflects choices made in schools: one in six boys studying for A-levels takes economics compared with one in 17 girls; and one in five students at private schools takes A-level economics compared with one in 12 in the state sector.
Mr Advani said many teenagers still had a preconceived idea of an economist as “a boring white man in a suit” and had no idea of the range of issues economists could work on — from climate change, to health policy or happiness. The lack of diversity was a problem, he added, “because economists, who occupy key policy roles in society, need to reflect the world that they are helping to shape”.
The society wants to partner with universities so that students can find out more easily which institutions might adapt their entry requirements for those from different backgrounds, and which courses would best suit their interests — with, for example, a focus on behavioural economics or on climate change.
It also wants employers to fund a programme in which current economics students would teach classes in related disciplines, such as maths or business studies, in local schools.
Large employers of economists, including the Bank of England and Government Economics Service, already have their own programmes to promote and explain economics more widely in schools. The society wants private sector employers — who say a lack of diversity in the pool of graduates hampers their own efforts to boost diversity — to help broaden the pipeline.
“The economy affects everyone. Yet at present economics is not for everyone; it is neither diverse nor inclusive along many dimensions,” said Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England. “It is for the economics profession, including employers of economists, to fix it.”