Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Economics, Grade Inflation, and Gender

The NSF updates us on the share of economics degrees earned by women:
while the share of female PhD is now up to about one-third, the fraction of undergraduate economics majors has slipped back under 30%.

In a Washington Post column last year, Catherine Rampell argued that the obsession with grades can partially account for the relatively low percentage of women majoring in economics as well as in science, engineering and math fields.  The women don't do worse then the men, but apparently they're more likely to avoid areas where grades are, generally, lower.  She writes:
Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, has been examining why so few women major in her field. The majority of new college grads are female, yet women receive only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics each year.

Goldin looked at how grades awarded in an introductory economics class affected the chance that a student would ultimately major in the subject. She found that the likelihood a woman would major in economics dropped steadily as her grade fell: Women who received a B in Econ 101, for example, were about half as likely as women who received A’s to stick with the discipline. The same discouragement gradient didn’t exist for men. Of Econ 101 students, men who received A’s were about equally as likely as men who received B’s to concentrate in the dismal science. 
One of my ongoing, and largely futile, battles as a college professor is to convince my students that their grades don't matter - or at least, they don't matter nearly as much as the students often think they do.  Alas, obsession with grades is pretty deeply entrenched in young people who've been coached for years to compete to get into college.  This may have gotten worse over time with perceived increases in the competitiveness of admissions (the perception isn't fully accurate: declining acceptance rates are partly due to colleges soliciting more applications to make their numbers look better, as well as the growing ease of applying to large numbers of colleges), as well as increasing anxiety about financial outcomes after college.

Not only does the obsession with grades distract us from the real purpose of learning, the apparent difference between how men and women respond to them contributes a gender gap in fields like economics, which appear less prone to grade inflation (this study from Wellesley provides further evidence on how grade inflation distorts students' choices, though it doesn't consider gender differences).  One could make the case that grade inflation is thus an equity issue.

The better news from the NSF's report is the continued increase in the share of women earning PhDs (though the discipline still faces "leaky pipeline" issues).  I'm not too worried that the decrease in the share of women earning US undergraduate economics degrees will impact graduate education, since US graduate programs draw from a global pool (only about 30% of US PhDs go to Americans).  However, I don't think we should be hopeful that a greater share of female professors will bring more women into undergraduate economics: while a "role model" effect sounds plausible, the empirical evidence does not seem to support it.

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