Margaret Flynn ’22 has felt alienated from math since high school. She can pin it back to a sophomore year class when she was placed in a group with three boys and was asked to complete problems. “They would say, ‘Oh, we don’t even need to do this one, it’s so easy,’ and I wouldn’t speak up even though I didn’t understand it,” Flynn described.
Since then, she has grown accustomed to doubting her ability in math and science courses. This lack of confidence contributed to her being sceptical about taking economics in the first place.
Although Madeline Schapiro ’20 has been a TA for two years, she initially felt a similar hesitation in attempting economics. “I think many girls don’t take economics for the same reason I dreaded it going into my freshman year. Economics is seen as a major for sporty men who want to go into investment banking,” she explained.
This perception that men dominate economics is no accident; the Principles of Microeconomics class, a typical introductory course to the major, is composed of 67 boys and 26 girls. This means that 72% of the 93 students are male. It is important to note that this imbalance is not a problem at Bates alone- Economics is one of the least diverse academic fields nationwide.
The natural majority of men in the class, as well as gender norms that make it easier for them to feel comfortable participating, has repercussions on women’s ability to learn and be involved.
Flynn noticed a lack of women answering questions posed by the professors, and that most conversations were led by men. “[This environment] makes it harder for me to want to raise my hand,” she said in response to how the class demographic has impacted her learning.
Although Zach Birger ’22 acknowledged that his gender had led him to be unaware of the imbalance within his class, he also explained that, “In any class, if there is a large misbalance between any individual group, I assume that the minority probably feels like it’s harder to speak up than if you’re in the majority.” He went on to admit that after having the lack of female participation in the class pointed out to him, he could understand how it could have an effect on women.
Despite the numerous issues associated with having a large, male-dominated class, some students see opportunity in this situation. Schapiro, who is currently one of two female TAs for Principles of Microeconomics class, explained that this environment motivates her to work harder. “I want to prove myself and hold my own in the class so I actually feel more comfortable speaking sometimes in male dominated classes,” she noted.
There have been recent movements to address this issue within the academic department at Bates. A group of female students and professors in the department recently founded Women in Economics at Bates (WE @ Bates) in the hopes of providing a venue for women to talk with other women in the department about their experiences and goals. The group holds weekly lunches as well as events about internship opportunities and career plans.
Schapiro added that another way for women to feel more comfortable in economics was to have professors acknowledge potential discrimination. Her freshman year, her professor asked the class to read an article about women facing discrimination in economics. This was helpful in encouraging women to speak up about their difficulties in being a minority in the class.
Although some women acknowledge an opportunity in being part of a class mostly comprised of men, the overwhelming majority see it as a negative. Hopefully, this will gradually cease to become an issue in the future as more women are encouraged to try economics and professors increasingly emphasize female participation.