A little empathy would be good for economics

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In this second part of the letter to his niece, Professor Kay discusses the gender bias that is prevalent in economics.

Dear Sarah,

If you do go ahead and study economics, you will certainly meet boys: two out of three A-level economics students are male. This is one of the highest ratios of any subject. Whether they are the sort of boys you want to meet, I am less certain. They may be the sort of boys your mother would want you to meet, though I am not even certain of that.

This gender bias goes right through the profession. Most people studying economics at university are men. Not one woman has yet received the Nobel Prize for economics. Some people think that Joan Robinson, a Marxist and disciple of Keynes, should have been a recipient. But she is probably the only woman even to have been in contention. And perhaps the best-known female economist today is Deirdre McCloskey, a colourful figure who is still better known to many from her earlier career as Donald McCloskey, economic historian.

It is hard to argue that the economics profession discriminates against women when male domination begins with the choices people make at school. The causes seem more likely to lie in the nature of the subject itself. When you start economics, you will quickly be introduced to rational economic man. It is always rational economic man, not rational economic woman, even in the most politically correct of classrooms.

Rational economic man – self-absorbed, calculating, maximising – is recognisably a male stereotype. Many economists have given an evolutionary account of why it makes sense to use this character as the centrepiece of their models. They claim that rational economic man predominates because he would triumph in the survival of the fittest. I have always been sceptical of this explanation. I suspect that rational economic man would die out because no one would want to mate with him.

Many students are repelled by the caricature of human behaviour that is rational economic man. And women more so than men. Your teachers insist there is no difference between the nature of male and female intelligence but most people know this is not true – and there is increasing scientific support for their beliefs. You should read Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book The Essential Difference: his thesis is that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, the male brain for understanding and building systems. If that argument is correct, it becomes easier to understand why more female students than male are drawn towards the social sciences.

But, among those who are attracted, women tend to do sociology and psychology and men economics. It takes a peculiar kind of personality to be interested in human behaviour but to have that interest satisfied by mathematical modelling. And that peculiar personality is more often found among men than women.

Some argue that we need feminist economics. At first sight this sounds as silly as the idea that we need feminist physics but it is not quite as silly. The speed of light ought to be the same whether it is measured by a man or a woman. Many economists imagine that they are searching for fundamental empirical truths about the world, like physicists measuring the speed of light. But more thoughtful economists realise that interpreting social phenomena is very different. There are many contrasting but valid perspectives. There can be no single explanation of how events such as the recent stock market bubble came into being. Any satisfactory account will want to draw not only on a variety of economic models but also on insights from psychology – and even literature and epidemiology.

I suspect economics will be more eclectic in the next 50 years than the last: the fixation of the profession with rational economic man will decline. Women should, therefore, be able to make a larger contribution in future than they have been allowed to make in the past and the subject will be richer for it. Perhaps you can help provide more empathy, and less system-building. It is encouraging that Gus O’Donnell, in his letter to the FT on Monday, has offered you a chance to do that in the Government Economic Service.

Best wishes, Uncle John

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