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VoxEU Column Gender Labour Markets Women in Economics

Beyond rejection: Exploring gender differences in academic resilience

Underrepresentation of women in high-profile career positions has impacts on the labour market and public policies. This column documents gender inequalities in academia, based on panel data of paper submissions to the largest economics conference in Brazil. When faced with rejection, women are more likely than men to give up on submitting a paper in the following year. This result is driven by younger women and those in lower-quality departments. The findings suggest that promoting a positive attitude towards competition for all genders could improve women’s participation in valuable academic activities.

Female underrepresentation in the labour market, especially in high-earning jobs, is the subject of an extensive literature (Goldin 2014, Goldin et al. 2017, Keloharju et al. 2022). Existing evidence shows, however, that having more women as decision-makers is important, not only due to equality concerns, but mainly because women in high-profile career positions deliver different outcomes, especially regarding public policies – for example, female politicians are less corrupt and invest more in child-care facilities (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004, Beaman et al. 2009, 2012, Duflo 2012).

Gender disparities persist in global academia, with women still under-represented at prestigious universities despite growth in the late 20th century. The same research reveals that until the late 1960s, women were 20–30% less likely to become full professors, with this gender gap in promotions persisting even after accounting for publication records, although it had closed by 2000 (Iaria et al. 2023).

In the field of economics, however, the reality differs significantly. In the US, women held 28.6% of assistant professorships in 2017, while they accounted for only 14% of full professorships (Lundberg 2017, Stearns and Lundberg 2018). A 2017 report by the Royal Economic Society showed that women represented 16.6% of full professors and 35% of assistant professors in the UK (Tenreyro 2017). In Canada, women represented 13.6% of full professors and 46.1% of assistant professors (CWEN, 2017). Finally, in Brazil, women represented, on average, 35.6% of assistant professors but only 16.5% of full professors in 2018 and 2019 (BWE, 2020, 2019).

Gender representation in economics conferences

In academia, gender inequalities in higher career positions are documented in various ways. Valentova et al. (2017) find that, in 2013 and 2014, female scientists were more often represented among holders of the lowest research scholarship levels (level 2), while male scientists were most often found at higher levels (1A and 1B) in ‘engineering, exact sciences, earth sciences’ and ‘life sciences’ in Brazil. Of the 207 scholarships awarded in economics by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), only 29 went to women.

An important issue, but one that has been little investigated in the literature due to data constraints, concerns the participation of women in relevant conferences in economics. Presenting at major national conferences increases the visibility of new articles, facilitates the construction of networks for institutional exchange and co-authorship, and is an efficient way to take advantage of peers’ comments and suggestions (Casadevall and Handelsman 2014, Casadevall 2015, Kalejta and Palmenberg 2017).

In a recent paper (Pereda et al. 2023), we shed light on this issue by looking at gender differences in the decision to submit articles to the largest conference in the country – the Brazilian Meeting of Economics, or ANPEC Meetings. Using almost 10,000 articles from more than 3,500 researchers and web-scrapping data from academic resumes in Brazil, we examine whether there are gender differences in the probability of submitting an article to the meeting after having a paper rejected in the previous year. When a paper is accepted for a conference, it receives first approval from its peers. The prestige of the conference is also a good indicator of the potential for publication.

We find evidence that for a woman who had a paper rejected in a previous year, the probability of submitting again in the next year is 2.9 percentage points lower. This result is in line with other papers that show that women shy away from competition after failing at higher rates than men (Goldin 2015, Buser and Yuan 2019). We also find that the effects are stronger for younger women and that the quality of the undergraduate institution relates to gender differences in decisions to give up. The quality of the institution is measured by a national evaluation in Brazil (Ministry of Education/CAPES evaluation). We argue that competitive women might self-select into higher-quality institutions. Nekby et al. (2008) investigate a similar behaviour when analysing gender differences in a competitive environment. They find that in a large footrace in Sweden, where women self-select into a male-dominated environment, women are more likely to be confident/competitive. Moreover, within this group, performance under competition improves equally for both genders in absolute terms.

Our paper dialogues with the literature for developed countries. For the US, Chari and Goldsmith-Pinkham (2017) analyse the representation of women economists over the period 2001-2016 in the programmes of the NBER Summer Institute, a highly competitive annual conference promoted by economists affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research. Their results show that women represent 20.6% of all authors on scheduled papers but there is a large dispersion across programmes, with the share of women being much lower in finance and macroeconomics at 14% and 16%, respectively. Regarding the rate of paper acceptance for women, they find it statistically indistinguishable from that for men. For Europe, Hospido and Sanz (2021) investigate the gender difference in articles accepted for presentation at the European Economic Association Annual Congress (for the period 2015-2017), the Spanish Economic Association Annual Meeting (2012-2017), and the Spring Meeting of Young Economists (in 2018). The authors find that female-authored papers were 6.8% less likely to be accepted than male-authored papers. These papers suggest that when male economists are in charge of organising a conference or acting as a referee, the share of female authors among accepted papers is higher.

Potential drivers of gender disparities

Our paper is also closely related to a growing body of literature on gender attitudes. For instance, women may show different competitive behaviour than men depending on gender norms that are shaped by culture and institutions. Gneezy et al. (2009) use experimental evidence to show that women raised in a matriarchal society are more keen to compete than men. In contrast, the authors find the opposite for individuals raised in patriarchal societies. Booth et al. (2019) carry out an experiment with individuals from different birth cohorts in China who grew up under different social norms and institutions. They also explore different economic and political environments by comparing regions under mainly communist or market regimes. Their findings suggest evidence that market regimes, assumed to be more competitive, discourage women from competing. The authors emphasise the impact of propaganda and indoctrination in gender equality during the communist period, in addition to the greater appreciation of the work of all, on women’s behaviour.

Regarding risk attitudes, the literature finds that women are more averse to losses and react differently when they fail. This finding is one of the hypotheses behind the lower female participation in high-profile career positions. Buser and Yuan (2019) find that in a lab maths competition, women were less likely than men to keep competing after losing in the first or second rounds. The authors also examine the likelihood of girls who did not make it to the second round at the Dutch Mathematical Olympiad trying again next year and show that it decreases significantly when compared to men under the same conditions. Also, Apostolova-Mihaylova et al. (2015) assess experimental evidence on undergraduate students at the University of Kentucky in the US to show that women do better in a grading scheme in which points accumulate throughout the semester, while men do better in situations where they start with the maximum grade and points are lost as the semester progresses.

The results of our study reinforce the literature findings of gender differences in reaction to situations of failure and rejection. Furthermore, inexperienced women are more likely to give up submissions than men, especially those from lower-quality institutions. On the other hand, experienced women and men from higher-quality institutions are not affected by failures, suggesting that women from those institutions might be more confident and competitive.

Policy implications

In terms of policy implications of the results of different gender attitudes towards failure or rejection, a comprehensive approach involving educational initiatives, mentorship programs, cultural shifts, and workplace interventions is recommended. Policies should focus on early education programmes that promote a positive attitude towards competition for all genders, encourage inclusive sports and activities, and develop mentorship initiatives specifically targeting women in competitive fields. Efforts to challenge gender stereotypes in media and popular culture, along with fostering inclusive workplace cultures that recognise achievements irrespective of gender, are essential.

Editors' note: This column is published in collaboration with the International Economic Associations’  Women in Leadership in Economics initiative, which aims to enhance the role of women in economics through research, building partnerships, and amplifying voices. 


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