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It’s time to diversify economics to help reclaim it

Why does it appear that the economy is failing to meet humanity’s and our planet’s needs? This was a question we pondered as we began work on Rethinking Economics’ new book Reclaiming Economics for Future Generations. It focuses on the need to diversify, decolonise and democratise economics to help address global crises that we face, such as poverty, inequality and the climate crisis.

But when we focus on diversifying economics, why is there a need to do this?

Many economics graduates go on to work in influential careers such as banking, finance, and politics. Diverse representation is important to have a diversity of ideas as the identities of economists influence how they think about the economy, which leads to research, theory, and teaching going in certain directions and not others. For example, women in economics are significantly more likely than men to recognise and interact with economic issues affecting women, such as Covid’s specific impacts on industries dominated by women[1], and unpaid domestic labour[2].

But economics is not diverse in terms of who studies, teaches and works in the profession.

Map

A map showing winners of the prestigious Nobel prize in economics 1969-2018. The bigger the country, the higher number of prize winners are from there. Source: https://worldmapper.org/nobel-prize-worlds/

In the UK there are fewer women in economics [3], as well as people from specific social[4] and ethnically minoritorised backgrounds[5]. When we explored the social class background of economics undergraduates[6], we discovered only 2.3 per cent at the top research-focused Russell Group universities were from the lowest-income families in 2018/2019 despite this group representing about 6 per cent of the population. In stark contrast, 41 per cent of economics undergraduates at these universities came from the highest earning households in the country. This group only made up 1 per cent of the population.

Overall, this means people who in the majority have been educated at fee-paying or selective schools and are men, are overrepresented in the discipline, though not if these men are of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean or Black African heritage who along with women with these identities, are underrepresented in academia[7]. Shockingly, there are still no women professors of economics with a Black African or Caribbean heritage at any UK university[8]. But this is part of a wider intersectional representation problem in higher education that includes only twenty-five Black women professors of African or Caribbean descent[9].

Our interview research showed that women students and scholars of economics, particularly women of colour, noticed that aspects of their identities were not represented in the discipline. Gina, a British, Black undergraduate student at a Russell Group university observed:

‘To this day I haven’t learned about a Black economist. Like I know Arthur Lewis was a Black economist, that’s the only one I know of. I haven’t heard of another Black economist, let alone a Black female economist!…So I get why there aren’t a lot of Black people in economics because there’s no representation.’

Diversifying economics is a start to help reclaim it, but it is imperative we decolonise and democratise economics too. This means economics education must recognise and teach that our economy today grew out of colonialism at the expense and oppression of people in countries it once ruled, with the negative legacies of European empires and settlements still apparent. Mainstream economics education in the UK skims over this economic history, but by focusing on it, different ideas including from critical and postcolonial researchers in former colonies can help to analyse the links between colonialism and current global inequities.

Decolonising economics also includes providing reparations to those oppressed and dispossessed by colonialism, as well as enabling former colonies and communities within them to have economic autonomy, rather than be pressurised to follow the same path to organising their economies that the UK has. Linked to this, democratising economics includes enabling those furthest from power to participate in economic decision-making processes within different levels of society so that their voices are heard, and their needs are met.

While all of this requires a transformational shift in economic education and governance processes, the struggle to reclaim economics could not be more crucial as our futures depend on it.

[1] See the Women’s Budget Group’s briefings on Covid-19, available at: https://wbg.org.uk/topics/covid-19/

[2] For example, see Nancy Folbre’s work, available at: https://people.umass.edu/folbre/folbre/books.html

[3] The Royal Economics Society’s Women’s Committee found “in 2018, women represented 32 percent of economics undergraduate students, 50 percent of economics graduate students (both masters and Ph.D.) and 26 percent of academic economists.”, p1. Available at: https://www.res.org.uk/uploads/assets/575c241a-fbff-4ef4-97e7066fcb7597e0/women-in-academic-economics-report-FINAL.pdf

[4] Tim Gill, Provision of GCE A Level Subjects 2017, Statistics Report Series No. 123 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessment, 2018),p. 6. Available at: https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/520413-provision-of-gce-a-level-subjects-2017.pdf; Civil Service HR, Civil Service Fast Stream: Annual Report 2017 and 2018 Table 15, p. 56. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/767789/Civil_Service_Fast_Stream_Annual_Report_2017_-_2018.pdf

[5] Arun Advani, Sonkurt Sen and Ross Warwick, Ethnic Diversity in UK Economics, IFS Briefing Note BN307 (London: Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2020). Available at: www.ifs.org.uk/publications/15133

[6] Based on our Freedom of Information requests to Russell Group universities.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See https://blackfemaleprofessorsforum.org/

[9] See Nicola Rollock, Staying Power https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10075/Staying-Power/pdf/UCU_Rollock_February_2019.pdf