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Monday, May 17, 2021

We need many more women in the field of economics

It is crucial for young girls to have female mentors because research shows that it encourages them to persevere ahead, despite difficulties.

Written by Shamika Ravi |
Updated: October 27, 2019 9:36:35 am
'More women is good economics — economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics. (AP Photo: Michael Dwyer)

The person who convinced me to do a PhD in economics was Abhijit Banerjee of MIT, when I worked with him on one of the first randomised controlled trials in the field of economics in the late 1990s. During my PhD, I had the good fortune to work closely with several exceptional scholars. Jonathan Morduch, William Easterly, Andrew Schotter and the legendary William Baumol — each have made a lasting impression on my worldview and philosophy of life. I did not, however, see enough women faculty around. I was surrounded by extremely smart and driven people, but mostly men. You think that you are gender-blind, but in reality, one begins to internalise the highly unequal world of the economics profession. Reality kicks hardest when, as a young economics faculty, you choose to also become a mother. There is so little support forthcoming that you have to put up a fight almost every step of the way. I think this is why most female economists at the top are battle hardened (given the survivor bias!). I firmly believe that we need many more women in the field of economics — but this will only begin to happen when we equalise all the costs (explicit and implicit) for men and women in the profession.

It is crucial for young girls to have female mentors because research shows that it encourages them to persevere ahead, despite difficulties. I have been teaching at the Indian School of Business for last 15 years, and sometimes in lighter moments the male students have remarked that I am too tough on them, but “nicer” to the female students during class participation which is an integral part of the MBA training. It is an early training for future leadership role, and therefore, I like to encourage the women to speak up.

It is important, first of all, to remember that there are no silver bullets in economic development. But a massive amount of evidence from the experimentation of three decades in micro-finance has shown that women can be agents of change in the economy and larger society. It makes good economic and social sense to target women for development of micro-entrepreneurship. Economic empowerment of women through small financial instruments (loans, savings, insurance) can have long term impact on their well-being and the well-being of their children in particular. My own research shows that female borrowers are more empowered in their health-seeking behaviour than other women in similar conditions. There is also research which shows the strong demonstration effect that working women have on school retention rate of girl students. So there are empirical evidences which help in designing policy interventions to combat patriarchy, while we continue to research newer pathways.

I do not see women as equal participants in India’s growth today. This is why I think that human capital of women is one of our most under-exploited potentials. We are locked in a bad equilibrium which is also unfortunately, a very stable equilibrium. To get out of this, we will need policy shocks. These can take the form of legislation (tax incentives, women’s reservations, maternity benefits, required board directorships etc.) and concerted government policy efforts aimed at reducing the cost of economic participation by women (safer workplaces, public transport, well lit streets, targeted policing, scholarships, hospital protocols targeting women patients, awareness programmes etc.). But the larger problem cannot be addressed by governments alone. For instance, one of my research papers shows that despite similarity in costs across genders, nearly 49 per cent of female patients are missing from our apex public hospitals. This shows the gross neglect and discrimination in health-seeking within our society. The malaise runs deep and will require small social revolutions in many spheres. This is where, I derive comfort in the fact that several states (Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Goa, Sikkim) and sectors (banking, aviation etc.) within our own country lead the way towards gender parity, and provide a blueprint for others to follow. We don’t necessarily need to look towards the Scandinavians for inspiration.

One of my simplest studies, yet most powerful in implication, documents the significant rise of female voters in India. The study shows that increase in female voter participation was not an outcome of any concerted policy of government or the Election Commission of India, but a “silent revolution” of self-empowerment. This trend has only become stronger in the last two decades with better connectivity and out-of-state election policing etc. Yet, at a more fundamental level, we know that a significant number of women “electors” are missing — this is partly because they are not registered on the electoral rolls but partly because these women do not exist in our society. They are missing from our society because many die at birth, many die in infancy, many die in adolescence, very many die in childbirth (maternal mortality), many die due to lack of access to quality healthcare in older age groups etc. So the electoral outcomes only reflect the preferences (will) of those who survive. Therefore to make our democracy more representative, we have to ensure that more and more women survive in our society.

I am excited by this year’s Nobel award in Economics despite my doubts regarding the RCT approach to poverty reduction. Beyond methodological concerns (external validity etc.), RCTs are great to measure impacts of specific interventions. If the objective, however, are policies for poverty reduction, then evidence from India and China strongly reaffirm the power of structural reforms and economic growth. In many cases, the small tweaks that RCTs carefully measure (e.g. extra teachers, meals, cameras etc., in schools to raise overall performance) keep us from considering more fundamental structural reforms (like privatisation of schools for instance) which are important policy counterfactuals. Yet, the prize to Esther Duflo especially is being celebrated because, as a recent CGD (Center For Global Development) blog noted, “…feels like a win for women and for dual career couples struggling to balance work and family in a profession that has historically been dominated by older men whose wives were at home warming their slippers and typing up their lecture notes.”

Eventually, we must aspire towards equality in opportunity which is much more important than equality in outcomes. Every society must struggle to create equal opportunities for its women citizens. Only then can we compare the outcomes and know whether men and women have distinct preferences and interests or are there innate differences in their abilities. This holds true for economies as well as for prestige careers of economists.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2019 under the title ‘More women is good economics — economists’. Ravi is Director of Research at Brookings India and teaches economics at the Indian School of Business.

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