New research from the University of Southampton has linked low numbers of girls studying economics to Britain’s gender pay gap.
It found that only 27 per cent of students taking up the subject in UK universities are female, despite the fact that they make up more than half of the nation’s undergraduate population.
The study found that fewer than half as many girls (1.2 per cent) as boys (3.8) per cent – apply to study economics at university, while only 10 per cent of females enrol at university with an A-level in maths, compared to 19 per cent of males.
The University of York’s Professor Karen Mumford, chairwoman of the Royal Economic Society’s women’s committee, says more work needs to be done to prevent under-representation in the field, which means that men continue to dominate the sort of influential, senior positions typically occupied by economists.
She told The Yorkshire Post: “An obvious explanation could be that girls lack the qualifications needed to enrol in these degree programmes.
“We can see that there were fewer girls in the UK studying A-level maths than boys.”
Dr Mirco Tonin, the report’s author, said: “This under-representation could have major implications in policy-making.”
The data showing that girls are far less likely to apply to study economics than boys could be partially due to the choices they make when deciding on A-levels.
Prof Mumford said: “Whilst it might be nice as economists to believe that 16-year-old teenagers make subject choices on the basis of maximising their long-term earnings, it is perhaps more credible to believe there are other factors of the secondary school syllabus that makes economics relatively less attractive to girls.
“And let’s face it, with less than five per cent of this year’s male A-level students studying economics, it’s not that attractive to the boys either.”
The situation has improved in recent years, however.
As recently as 1992 there was only one female economics professor in the UK.
Fortunately, women now make up almost 13 per cent of academics in the field.
The University of Southampton used a random sample of UCAS forms from 2008 and found no discrimination against females in the application process.
Dr Tonin said: “Girls are less likely to have A-levels in maths than boys.
“However, even among those who have studied maths, females are still less likely to apply for an economics degree than males, suggesting that differences in the choice of A-level subjects cannot explain the whole gap.”
The study, which will be published in the CESifo Economic Studies journal, highlights other studies which show a gender gap in mathematics disappears in more equal societies.
Co-author Professor Jackline Wahba said: “This suggests that cultural, rather than biological, factors are behind the gender gap and that a positive loop may develop.”