economy is popular major in the US, but relatively few women and historically underrepresented minority students choose it as their field of study. This reality is reflected in the stagnant US Graduation Trends; women earn approximately 30% of bachelor’s degrees in economics, and black, Hispanic, and Native American students earn less than 15%.
It is important to have a diverse class in economics because it brings wealth to the intellectual exchange, and because economics deals with issues of contemporary politics that affect everyone, not just the visible majority. At the Faculty of Economics, St. At Lawrence University, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, we looked at ways to increase the diversity of our majors while improving the professional climate in our department.
We developed our Diversity Plan for the 2021-2022 school year and started implementing it right away. This brief reflection on our holistic approach to diversity offers some advice to academic departments looking to make a difference.
1. Acknowledge the problem but highlight existing strengths
Before investing in diversity initiatives, it is important to make an honest assessment of the current state of affairs. Using institutional data from 2011 to 2015 curated by Federal Reserve Bank of New York, we took a critical look at the demographics of our majors and found that women tend to study economics at lower rates, as in St. Lawrence and in our New York 6 College of Liberal Arts peer group.
However, 21.7% of African American males at St. Lawrence majored in economics, more than double that of any other school in the peer group. St. Lawrence also has much higher rates for Asian American men (31.3%) and Asian American women (14.8%) than similar schools. While women continue to be underrepresented in our majors (5.6% of white women and 3.9% of minority women study economics at St. Lawrence), racial minorities tend to choose economics as their major with relatively higher rates, and this should be recognized.
Economist is a global profession. According to Overview of 2020 NSF Doctoral Degrees Acquired, 56.6% of U.S. doctoral economics recipients were temporary visa holders. In addition, our faculty has professors of economics from six different countries. To capitalize on this advantage, we developed a learning objective based on an understanding of inequality both in the United States and abroad, a focus that will introduce students to an international perspective on economic issues.
We also found that our faculty members teach about diversity or equality in 10 regularly offered courses, including topics related to discrimination, income inequality, and the impact of macroeconomic policies on various demographic groups. This provides a solid starting point for broader integration of these issues into our curriculum.
2. Start small
The lack of diversity in the economy may seem overwhelming, but starting small has helped our department gain momentum. At first, we focused on things we could do right now, such as updating our website images and the creation of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion tab, which provides a statement of our department’s diversity and resources for faculty and students alike. We have also expanded our elective courses to include Gender Economics, Immigration, and Chinese Economics to attract students from diverse backgrounds and better leverage the expertise of faculty.
In addition, using our existing series of research workshops, we invited a speaker to discuss gender pay inequality. We were also able to support the creation Women in the economic club, a student organization dedicated to professional development, financial literacy, and the creation of an inclusive environment for students of all genders. These simple efforts received the support of the entire university, which motivated us to continue working towards greater goals.
3. Approach problems from different angles
Diversity issues affecting our students are inextricably linked to issues affecting faculty, and vice versa. In recent years, the economics profession has faced retribution in response to a longstanding a culture of bias and discrimination.
We understand that these issues in the wider profession affect all departments and understand the importance of actively maintaining a supportive environment for all. In particular, we have looked at the challenges faced by international faculty and are exploring ways to improve the mentorship of faculty from different cultures during tenure. In fact, our foreign-born faculty members can play an important role in enhancing the diversity of our undergraduate majors as they include both women and people of color.
Recent Research suggests that students are more likely to choose economics as their major if they study with a teacher who is similar to them. Thus, creating an inclusive environment for existing diverse faculty can also improve student outcomes, especially for students from underrepresented backgrounds.
4. Expect Trouble
There are many problems with promoting diversity initiatives. We have learned to expect resistance and respond not with disappointment, but with careful thought and improved communication.
Resource limits can be difficult to overcome, which is why it’s helpful to use third-party programs. We have established relationships with the University of Chicago Expanding Diversity in Economics Summer Institute, a seminar for undergraduate students aimed at increasing diversity in the profession. Last summer, two St. Lawrence students took part in this competitive and prestigious opportunity where they participated in skills development coursework taught by leading scientists in the field.
Working on diversity and inclusion also involves risk because not all efforts will be effective. For example, recent study indicates that “soft” interventions or “nudges”, such as emails with basic economics information, do not increase the likelihood that female students will continue to study economics. Our knowledge of what works continues to evolve, but if we expand our efforts in many dimensions, we will have a better chance of success.
5. Document your efforts
We have found it important to put our diversity initiatives in writing to encourage commitment, promote transparency and think objectively about our efforts. We have developed a comprehensive strategic plan that contains specific steps, responsibilities and timelines to put the department’s goals into practice.
Documenting efforts can also make it easier to apply for external funding or to prioritize existing resources. It also helps ensure that goals are achievable, measurable and future-oriented. It is important to note that we must recognize and systematize diversity work as a valuable service to the economics profession.
We have already noticed student interest in diversity issues in response to our action plan. The Gender Economics course, offered in the spring of 2022, was filled on the second day of registration with several students requesting a place on the waiting list. At the student fair of our university, 80 students signed up to receive information about our club “Women in Economics”.
While promising, it will take time to fully realize the benefits of our efforts. We need to come to terms with the fact that the work on diversity will continue and requires perseverance, sustainability and pragmatic solutions.
Header image credit: Pixabay.com