No woman won the John Bates Clark Medal in the first 60 years that the American Economic Association awarded the prize, considered by economists as second in prestige only to the Nobel. Last month, however, MIT professor Amy Finkelstein became the third woman in the last five years to gain the honor, which recognizes the top US economist under 40.
This recent history may be a sign of progress for women in the male-dominated field of economics, but it is advancement that is coming slowly. Just one-third of PhD economists today are women, a percentage that has changed little since 1995, according to the American Economic Association. And while the share of women with tenure in university economics departments has doubled since 1995, women still hold just one in eight of these positions.
“That’s saying to me there’s a problem,’’ said Susan Athey, a Harvard economics professor who became the first woman to win the John Bates Clark medal in 2007. There are “women out there who would be fabulous economists who for some reason were turned off from the field.’’
There are many possible reasons, from the choice between children and career that many professional women face to a lingering societal bias that discourages women from pursuing math- and science-related disciplines. But these don’t seem to fully explain women’s slow progress in the field.
The National Science Foundation, for example, found that the number of engineering PhDs granted to US women nearly doubled to just over 900 in 2010 from about 500 in 1995. During the same period, the number of women receiving doctorates in economics declined 7 percent, to 157 in 2010 from 169 in 1995.
Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor, said the problem could lie in the way economics is taught. She said undergraduate courses are often too theoretical and abstract to win the attention of women who may want to engage in real-world problems.
That can lead women to consider careers in biology or psychology, where more than half of all PhDs in the field in 2009 were granted to women.
“Women lose attention more than men when people are called ‘X’ and ‘Y’ and they become abstractions. In psychology, they’re always talking about real people,’’ Goldin said. “If it was up to me, I would teach the [introductory economics] course differently. I would always remind people what the big questions are and [that] the biggest questions concern the everyday decisions people make.’’
Of course, Goldin added, the place of women in economics has improved since her early years teaching at Princeton University. She said she doubts a woman professor today would have the same experiences she did in the 1970s, when a “doddering old faculty member’’ handed her something to type.
It is also true that women are moving to the top of the profession. Women, including vice chair Janet Yellen, hold three of the five filled seats on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. In Europe, Christine Lagarde leads the International Monetary Fund.
Finkelstein, Athey, and Esther Duflo, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who won the John Bates Clark Medal in 2010, are among the superstars of economics. Athey was one of the most sought after young scholars after completing her PhD at Stanford University at age 24 and earned tenure at Stanford at 29. Duflo has done groundbreaking work on the economics of the poor, changing perceptions and approaches to attacking poverty. Finkelstein has gained acclaim for her large-scale studies of the effects of Medicare and Medicaid, the government health care programs.
Like many of the women economists interviewed, the three women winners of the John Bates Clark Medal said they never viewed their sex as an obstacle. Finkelstein, 38, said she rarely even thought about being a female in a male-centric field.
“I don’t think about it - it’s never been an issue,’’ said Finkelstein, the mother of two. “Though the fact I haven’t doesn’t mean those barriers don’t exist.’’
Duflo, who received tenure at MIT in 2002, said she didn’t think being a woman “posed obstacles for me at any point.’’
“There was an earlier generation of women for whom I think it was harder,’’ she said. “Thanks to their effort and persistence, things are now much easier for women of my generation and you find women at the top everywhere.’’
Four of the five economists elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association are women, including Goldin, the president-elect, noted James Poterba, president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Cambridge nonprofit that coordinates, publishes, and disseminates the research of the world’s leading scholars.
There are other signs of progress, including the large increase in the number of women gaining tenure, he said. But concerns remain, he added, that the share of women achieving the rank of full professor remains substantially below the share receiving PhDs or appointments as assistant professors.
“This has been the case for a long time,’’ he said. “There is some evidence of a narrowing gap in the last decade.’’
Women who choose academia must navigate tricky career obstacles trying to balance a push for tenure at a time that often collides with the end of their childbearing years. Achieving tenure at a top school can take up to a decade.
Harvard’s Athey recalled being one of the first tenured faculty members at Stanford to become pregnant. Now 41, she is the mother of three, ages 8, 5, and 17 months,
“It’s a challenge,’’ she said. “I personally feel incredibly thankful that I started [in economics] young and didn’t have that conflict.’’
When she mentors up-and-coming women economists (and that has included Duflo and Finkelstein) she advises them to buy a smaller car and a less expensive house and save the money for childcare. “It’s a better investment in your long-term career,’’ she tells them.
Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas who studies women and minorities in the field, said she thinks the recession may draw more women to study economics, because of its profound impact on the lives of so many Americans.
“I think there’s a lot of evidence that for the women superstars, the sky is the limit,’’ she said. “But for the average economist, the average man still has advantages the average woman probably doesn’t have.’’Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.