How to improve diversity in the economics department – reflection

Economics is a popular major in the United States, but relatively few women and historically underrepresented minority students choose it as their field of study. This reality is reflected in stagnant graduation trends in the United States. Women earn nearly 30% of economics bachelor’s degrees, while black, Hispanic, and Native American students earn less than 15%.

It is important to have a diverse economics class, because it brings richness in intellectual exchange, and because economics deals with issues of contemporary politics that affect everyone–not just the visible majority. Lawrence University, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, we’ve studied ways to increase the diversity of our disciplines while improving the professional climate in our department.

We developed our diversity plan for the 2021-2022 school year and immediately began working on implementation. This brief reflection on our inclusive approach to diversity offers some advice for academic departments looking to make a difference.

1. Acknowledge the problem but highlight strengths

Before investing in diversity initiatives, it is important to make an honest assessment of the current situation. Using institutional data from 2011 to 2015 curated by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, we took a critical look at the demographics of our majors and found that women tended to major in economics at lower rates, both in St. Lawrence and in the “New York 6” liberal arts college peer group.

However, 21.7% of African American men at St. Lawrence major in economics, more than double the rate of any other school in the peer group. St. Lawrence also has significantly higher rates for Asian American men (31.3%) and Asian American women (14.8%) than comparable schools. Lawrence), ethnic minorities tend to choose economics as their major at relatively higher rates and this is something that must be acknowledged.

Economics is a global profession. According to the 2020 NSF Survey of PhDs Earned, 56.6% of US PhD holders in economics were temporary visa holders. Likewise, our department includes economics professors from six different countries. To harness this strength, we have developed an educational goal centered on understanding inequalities both in the United States and abroad, a focus that will expose students to international perspectives on economic issues.

We also found that faculty in our department teach diversity or equity content in 10 regularly offered courses, including topics about discrimination, income inequality, and how macroeconomic policy affects different demographic groups. This provides a strong starting point for integrating these issues more broadly into our curriculum.

2. Start small

The lack of diversity in the economy may seem overwhelming, but starting small has helped our department build momentum. We first focused on things we could do immediately, such as updating our website images and creating a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion tab that provides the department’s diversity statement and resources to both faculty and students. We also expanded our elective course offerings to include the economics of gender, migration, and the Chinese economy to attract students from a variety of backgrounds and make better use of our faculty’s expertise.

Furthermore, by utilizing our existing research seminar series, we invited a speaker to discuss gender pay disparities. We were also able to support the founding of the Women in Economics Club, a student organization focused on professional development, financial literacy, and creating an inclusive environment for students of all genders. These simple efforts have garnered support from across the University, encouraging us to continue working towards greater aspirations.

3. Addressing issues from different angles

Diversity issues affecting our students are inherently related to issues affecting faculty and vice versa. In recent years, the economics profession has faced reckoning in response to a longstanding culture of prejudice and discrimination.

We recognize that these issues in the wider profession affect all departments and we understand the importance of proactively maintaining an environment that is welcoming to all. Specifically, we have examined the challenges international faculty face and are exploring ways to improve the orientation of faculty across diverse cultural backgrounds. In fact, the foreign-born faculty in our department may play an important role in improving the diversity of our undergraduate majors as they include both women and people of color.

Recent research indicates that students are more likely to choose economics as their major if they learn from a faculty member who is similar to them. Therefore, fostering an inclusive environment for the current diverse faculty can improve student outcomes, especially for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

4. Anticipate challenges

There are many challenges in promoting diversity initiatives. We learned to expect resistance and respond, not with frustration, but with careful thinking and improved communication.

Resource constraints can be difficult to overcome, which is why it is beneficial to take advantage of external software. We have developed a relationship with the University of Chicago’s Expanding Economic Diversity Summer Institute, an undergraduate workshop aimed at increasing diversity in the profession. Last summer, two St. Lawrence University students took part in this competitive and prestigious opportunity, enrolling in skills-development courses taught by leading scholars in the field.

Diversity and inclusion work also involves taking risks, because not every effort will be effective. For example, a recent study suggests that “light touch” or “nudges” interventions such as emails with background information about an economics major do not increase the likelihood that female students will continue to study economics. Our knowledge of what works continues to evolve, but if we extend our efforts across many dimensions, we are more likely to be successful.

5. Document your efforts

We’ve found it important to outline diversity initiatives in writing to encourage commitment, promote transparency, and think concretely about our efforts. We have developed a comprehensive strategic plan that contains specific steps, responsibilities and timelines to put the department’s goals into action.

Documenting efforts can also make it easier to apply for external funding or prioritize existing resources. It also helps ensure that goals are feasible, evaluable, and forward-looking. Most importantly, we must recognize and rank diversity work as a valuable service in the economics profession.

We have already noticed students’ interest in diversity issues in response to our action plan. A course on the economics of gender, offered in Spring 2022, filled on the second day of registration with many students asking for a place on the waiting list. At our university’s Student Activities Fair, 80 students signed up to receive information about the Women’s Club in Economics.

While this is promising, it will take time to fully realize the benefits of our efforts. We need to be comfortable with the fact that diverse work will be ongoing and will require perseverance, flexibility and pragmatic solutions.

Image header credit: Pixabay.com

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