Part of the Gender Gap in Majors May Lie in Intro Courses (Sort Of)

The following describes an interesting morphing of memes on the web and something that might be especially relevant to me and my colleagues at Mills College in our role as advisors.

Harvard Economist Cladia Goldin posted a piece back when Janet Yellen was first nominated to head the Federal Reserve. She wondered whether this new “role model” might increase the number of women who major in economics. She wrote about some of her own research as well as that of others relevant to the question. In particular she discussed some work in which she discovered that
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.
In other other words, on average (assuming lots of things are equal) women may take a stronger “you can’t do this” signal from not getting an A in intro courses than do men. Evidence shows it happens in economics and some STEM fields too.
This does NOT, of course, imply we should pursue gender equity through grade inflation, but it does suggest that those of use who teach and mentor young women might focus on this particular point of leverage. Not unrelated is research by Chambliss and Takacs on how important intro courses are for influencing college major and career decisions. We should, perhaps, stop focusing our energy on distribution requirements and instead focus on what goes on in intro courses and in the first year advising context that surrounds them. It’s not unrelated to the message of a graduation speech I gave a few years back.

One can imagine that similar effects might exist in connection with other demographic differences.
The internet meme part is that the blog post was picked up the other day by a Washington Post writer, Catherine Rampell, and mixed in with some other research (finding that disciplines with lower grades had higher career payoffs) in a piece titled “Women should embrace the B’s in college to make more later.” On Slate the headline read “Women May Be Underrepresented in STEM Because They’re Too Concerned With Grades” but the article went in the direction of saying maybe it’s not all about wanting to find a major where one can do well grade-wise but rather a rational assessment of the likelihood of career success in various fields.  I’m sure a little googling will turn up even more morphs.

Will more of our daughters grow up to be economists?

Likelihood of Continuing in Major by Intro Grade and Sex

Claudia Goldin: Bloomberg View
Published: October 17, 2013 – 07:13 PM

Cambridge, Mass.: The nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve is an important milestone. But will her appointment as the central bank’s first female chief draw more undergraduate women to the field of economics?
Yellen’s emphasis on the human toll of recessions, along with her humanity, brilliance and intellect, could spur a greater number of women to become economists. But if history is any guide, there still is a long slog ahead.
Economics is an extremely popular major — for men. Ten percent to 20 percent of all male undergraduates concentrate in the field at the top 100 universities and top 100 liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.
Nationwide, however, for every female undergraduate in the major, there are three males in the major, adjusted for relative numbers of bachelor’s degrees by sex. Among the top 100 liberal arts colleges, there are 2.6 males for every female economics major; there are 2.5 males for every female at the top 100 research universities.
Worse, these differences have widened over the last two decades.
Students often realize too late in their undergraduate studies that an understanding of economic concepts, modeling, statistics and econometrics is a helpful career and life tool. Many initially believe economics is only valuable for those who want to work in the financial and corporate sectors. (This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences are Eugene F. Fama, Robert J. Shiller and Lars Peter Hansen, men whose work focuses on financial markets.)
Many young women don’t seem to understand that economics is also for those who have broad intellectual interests and for those with research and policy interests in health, education, poverty, inequality, crime, obesity, the environment, terrorism or infectious disease. All students should be aware of the broad applications of economics when considering an undergraduate major.


Read the Rest at Bloomberg View

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Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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