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Does economics make you sexist?

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Answer: Yes

For those of you who would like to have a more detailed explanation let me guide you through a paper that is making the rounds for a year now and that is causing quite a stir.

Daniele Paserman from Boston University together with Francisco Pino and Valentina Paredes from the University of Chile have asked a large group of economics students from seven universities in Chile about their attitudes towards women. The trick: They asked them during their first year in University and then again during the third year in University. This way they could test for two separate effects. First, they could check if economics students (and by “economics”, I mean economics, business, and accounting here) were more biased against women than students in other faculties. Second, they could check if the attitudes towards women changed as the students grew older and learned more about economics, finance, and accounting.

Now, one may dismiss this study as irrelevant because Chile is a relatively small country far away, but when it comes to attitudes towards gender, Chile happens to be pretty close to the average of all OECD countries.

% of respondents under 25 who agree with the statement: “When a mother works for money, the children suffer.”

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Source: World Values Survey. Note: The UK did not participate in the most recent wave of the survey and is thus excluded.

% of respondents under 25 who agree with the statement: “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.”

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Source: World Values Survey. Note: The UK did not participate in the most recent wave of the survey and is thus excluded.

The first result, I would highlight from the study is that the first-year students had a more negative attitude towards women than the average of the Chilean population. The gap in gender attitudes between economics students and other students was about a fifth to a quarter of the size of the gap in gender attitudes between men and women. Hence, it is quite big in practice. 

Notably, the hostility towards women declined after the #MeToo movement became a global phenomenon. Detailed analysis of the different tests for the participating students showed that much of the decline was due to social desirability effects, that is, while their underlying attitudes about women did not change, students were less willing to provide sexist answers in surveys, etc.  

Finally, if one compares the attitudes between first-year students and third-year students one can observe that male students have become significantly more sexist during their university years (something that is not observed for students of other faculties), while female students did not. This provides a strong indication that studying economics does indeed foster a somewhat sexist attitude in men. Why this may be the case is hard to explain. The authors claim that the increased sexism in male students is driven by “benevolent sexism”, i.e. an attitude that men should protect women and through their jobs and careers provide them with financial security. This, of course also means that men find the gender pay gap absolutely normal and see no element of unfairness in that. 

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