Most undergraduate students in the UK who find their way into an economics degree do so through studying A-level economics in their last two years of secondary school. Although no university requires economics A-level or its equivalent, more than 70% of students come to university having taken it – unless they have had some experience of economics at school, it tends not to be on their radar (Crawford et al. 2018).
As an A-level subject, economics is doing pretty well – it has been growing in popularity and ranks tenth overall in student numbers. But look more closely, and there are some serious concerns for a subject that already struggles with diversity.
Roughly one in ten A-level students takes economics – but one in six boys compared with one in 17 girls (Figure 1). That gender gap at A-level has been growing (Figure 2). At A-level and university, economics lags behind social science and most STEM subjects in the representation of women (Figure 3).
Figure 1 The gender gap in economics at school
Figure 2 The widening gender gap
Figure 3 Economics education lags behind social sciences and most STEM subjects in the representation of women
The gap between the private sector and the state sector is also a concern. One in five students takes A-level economics at independent and grammar schools (rising to one in four at all-boys schools), compared with one in 12 at comprehensive/academy schools (Figure 4) (Gill 2018). The future of UK economics is looking predominantly male and disproportionately privately educated.
Figure 4 Under-representation in the state sector
This matters because economics graduates go on to positions of power at the heart of policymaking – and they should reflect the society that they are helping to shape. The lack of diversity directly affects economic policy – for example, economists’ views on key issues such as the fairness of the labour market and the desirability of government intervention have been shown to vary systematically by gender (May et al. 2018). A lack of diversity may also stifle creativity and new economic thinking.
At the root of the problem is that many students do not see economics as an interesting option. One important reason is because economics is not taught in all schools: it is more likely to be taken by students at independent schools because they are more likely to be offered it as an A-level option.
Economics is also poorly understood as a subject and seen as focused on money. It offers few relatable role models for many students – ‘a boring man in a suit’ is how one fairly typical teenage girl described an economist (Financial Times 2018). By contrast, many girls study psychology (the most popular subject among girls and taken by nearly one in three) and geography, which cover similar topics to economics. This suggests that more students might consider economics if they knew what it was about.
The lack of diversity is beginning to be recognised. The Government Economic Service (GES) has introduced a new apprenticeship scheme to attract students who might otherwise not think of going to university. The Bank of England is actively promoting diversity and inclusion.1 And many employers are beginning to think about new ways to recruit – for example, targeting internship opportunities at under-represented groups, and offering application advice sessions to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds to apply.
These changes are welcome, but more needs to be done to change perceptions of what economics is about – to reach students who would otherwise not even consider it. A clear message from recent discussions with students from black and ethnic minority groups is that they want to hear from people with similar backgrounds talking about economics – and why they love it – and to offer examples of what economists do.
This is why the Royal Economic Society (RES) is launching a new three-year campaign to increase diversity in economics. The #DiscoverEconomics initiative aims to attract more women, minority students and students from state schools and colleges to study the subject at university.
The campaign already has the support of a wide range of institutions involved in economic research, communication and policy-making, including the Bank of England, the GES, the Society of Professional Economists, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and CEPR.2
The aim of the campaign is to change perceptions of economics and what economists really do. The first phase of the campaign will raise awareness of the problem, and work with universities and employers to increase information about routes into economics. It will develop a website and a range of outreach activities, including a student ambassador programme. The second phase will be a wider launch to the key target group of 15-17 year olds from September 2020.
The RES already supports outreach #DiscoverEconomics events, which bring together students from a wide range of schools for interactive games and discussions and to hear from economists.3 Evaluation of these events has shown that they change students’ perceptions – there just needs to be a lot more of this kind of activity.
It is hugely important that, as a profession, we reach out to schools and colleges and start talking about the great things that studying economics has to offer. After all, economists should be among the first to know that by not appealing broadly across the population, we fail to attract the very brightest and best – and that in the end, this will be to the cost of economics.
Gill T (2018), Uptake of GCE A level subjects 2017, Cambridge Assessment.
Crawford, C, N M Davies and S Smith (2018), “Why do so few women study economics? Evidence from England”.
Financial Times (2018), “Where are all the female economists?”, 12 April.
May, A M, D Kucera and M G McGarvey (2018), “Mind the Gap: Differing perspectives of men and women economists may affect policy outcomes”, Finance & Development 55(2).