Economists wield significant influence over the ideas and policies determining how our lives and our societies will change. To benefit all of society, economics must aim for more diversity. The text is an essay written for issue 3/2020 on Adult Education and Numeracy & Finance.
Our world is changing rapidly. Whilst we continue to grapple with age-old problems such as poverty, inequality and global conflict, we are constantly faced with new and unprecedented challenges like the threat of pandemics, which has been brought into focus by the current COVID–19 crisis.
Economists wield significant influence over the ideas and policies that will ultimately meet these challenges, and therefore, in determining how our lives and our societies will change and adapt to them. But the economics profession has its own problems.
Economics is woefully un–diverse across multiple dimensions. For example, 2016 US and UK survey results show that women remain the minority in academic economist positions, with available updates showing little improvement since then; in the UK, women accounted for only around a third of higher education enrolments in economics in 2018, with the corresponding figures for BAME groups being slightly better; and other evidence from the UK shows that students from the most–deprived backgrounds are less likely to study economics than those from the least-deprived.
To benefit all of society, economics must aim to engage the widest range of perspectives and ideas.
This lack of diversity affects the questions economists ask, the attention they give to some issues and areas of research, and ultimately, limits the effectiveness of the solutions they are able to create. Measures to address, say, inner city deprivation would benefit from the input of experts who approach the issue guided by their lived experiences. To benefit all of society, economics must aim to engage the widest range of perspectives and ideas.
What can we do to make this happen, and where would we start?
We frame our suggestions around improving racial and ethnic diversity. This discussion can, however, be easily be applied to other dimensions of under-representation.
The classical problems of supply and demand
Economists are not naturally occurring intellectual beings. Their knowledge, thought processes and approach to problem-solving are, typically, hewn and shaped over varying stages of education.
The core problem is that perceptions of what economists look like, and what they do, may not align with how aspiring scholars from Black backgrounds see themselves, and they may find economics downright unattractive and intimidating as a result.
The profession is widely seen as a club of white, privately educated men in suits, and focused on a technical study of money and finance. This is far from the truth, but may make it seem a totally foreign world. Low Black representation in the field means that Black students are unlikely to find role models who look and sound like them practising economics, and may therefore be dissuaded from studying it.
In this respect, the lack of diversity can be somewhat self-perpetuating, but it is also compounded by implicit biases and discriminatory practices, which result in under-selection of Black economists for further education and employment.
Education as a pillar of change
Fixing the ‘supply’ problem would mean opening the pipeline to economics for Black students and repackaging the profession so that it appears less…dismal.
Targeted outreach programmes, wherein economists visit schools and centres in order to talk to Black students about their journey in the profession, to introduce them to the reality of what economists do and their career prospects, is a great place to start. The most effective way to demonstrate that a career in the field is attainable and worthwhile, is to show good examples of exactly that.
To make economics more relatable, the language of economics and the way it is used would also need to be improved. The technical jargon used in economic commentary and public discourse drives a wedge between economists’ and the public’s understanding of commonly discussed economic concepts. How we speak determines who can engage with what we say.
The curriculum and essential reading that ultimately shape the economics conversation, remain mostly unchanged.
In addressing the ‘demand’ problem, employers across industry and academia must address the implicit bias and systemic discrimination that influence under-selection. Improving recruitment processes, offering targeted internships and placements to Black economists, and setting up retention support systems – such as mentorship programmes that would help to provide a sense of belonging, build confidence, and sustain performance – are all necessary steps in achieving this.
Educational institutions, in particular, have a further part to play in how all of this comes together. Despite the emergence of more progressive economics education in recent years, the curriculum and essential reading that ultimately shape the economics conversation, remain mostly unchanged.
They do not reflect the diversity of our societies and have had a lasting effect on perceptions of economics and where different groups of people fit within it. Curricula must move in parallel with other measures to ensure the entire economics landscape moves at the same time.
Initiatives like TBEN and Discover Economics in the UK, D-Econ in the US, among others, are championing diversity in the profession, and making meaningful steps, but there is still much to do. We must continue to strive to ensure a diverse range of views filter into our efforts to make our society better.
In a sense, its own crisis of under-representation is the most urgent problem that economics must solve.
The Black Economists Network (TBEN)
- TBEN is an organisation which seeks to challenge the lack of diversity within economics-related fields by bringing together and raising the profile of Black people in economics.
- TBEN is dedicated to providing a platform through which professionals and students of African and Caribbean descent in economics can connect, collaborate, share ideas, and support each other.