PM&C-backed program finds mentoring initiatives support women in pursuing economics careers

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday February 10, 2021


A collaborative project between the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Behavioural Economics Team (BETA), the ACT Women in Economics Network, and the Australian National University has found that mentoring programs could help retain women in the ‘economics pipeline’.

A report released by PM&C on Monday noted that economists play a key role in public policy and decision-making, and are “central to decisions affecting the wellbeing of the community”.

Despite this, women are underrepresented in these roles — particularly senior leadership positions — both in Australia and overseas.

Around 30% of senior management at the commonwealth Department of the Treasury and the Reserve Bank of Australia are women, according to the report. The role of Treasury secretary, which is currently filled by Dr Steven Kennedy, has never been held by a woman.

Women are also underrepresented in the economics departments of Australian universities, and in ‘analyst’ or ‘economist’ roles at Australia’s major newspapers.

This is concerning for many reasons, the report said.

“Where there is imbalance, policy issues affecting women may not be adequately recognised. This is partly because women and men have different views on these issues,” it said.

“Research from Europe and the US found women economists focus on different policy problems and reach different conclusions on fundamental issues like the role of government intervention versus market solutions, free trade and labour standards, the minimum wage, environmental protection, and the gender wage gap.”

Attracting and retaining women in the economics pipeline is a challenge. There are around twice as many male students as female students enrolled in economics at Australian universities, and the number of women studying economics may even decline over the course of their degree, the report noted.

This ‘leakage’ of women from economics is not only occurring during university, it’s also happening in their early career, due to several factors, including:

  • A lack of female role models,
  • Women may find they relate less to highly theoretical subject matter,
  • Misperceptions about career paths for economics graduates,
  • Women may perform more strongly in other subjects relative to introductory economics,
  • Women may find a competitive class environment more off-putting than their male counterparts do.

To address these factors, PM&C, the ACT Women in Economics Network, and the ANU set up a one-year mentoring program in 2018 to encourage women to continue with their studies and pursue a career in economics.

The program involved matching students enrolled in economics courses at ANU with mid-level or senior women economists, and encouraging them to meet at least four times over the year. Three networking events were also held.

BETA evaluated the mentoring program using a randomised controlled trial, drawing on a combination of university administrative data and surveys at the beginning and end of the program.

The 55 students who participated in the mentoring program were around 13 percentage points more likely to continue with economics than the 33 students in the control group. An end-of-program survey also found that 70% of student respondents were more likely to pursue a job in economics due to the program.

The evidence suggests the program had a “material impact” on students’ decisions to continue with economics, the report noted.

“It is likely mentoring had a positive impact on students’ decisions to continue with economics. Mentoring programs should, therefore, be considered in the suite of options for encouraging women to pursue economics,” it said.

“However, the potential benefits need to be considered in the context of the moderate confidence we have in our results … The potential benefits should also be weighed against the program’s costs and sustainability relative to other possible options.”

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