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Where are all the female economists in Australia?

Federal Reserve board chairwoman Janet Yellen. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde. Photo: JOSE LUIS MAGANA
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In my job as a financial journalist, I spend a lot of time with blokes.

I interview blokes. I go to lunch with blokes. I listen to blokes deliver budgets. I read statements by blokes on interest rates. I write up research by blokes. I compete with blokes to write the best economics columns. Which is odd.

Economics – more than any other discipline – puts high value on the importance of individual choice, free markets, fierce competition and efficient outcomes.

The dearth of senior female economists in Australia doesn’t fit the theory.

As gender barriers are torn down in other industries, economics remains a distinctly masculine pursuit.

If Australia has ever had a female chief economist of one of the big four banks, I can’t recall. Of the 49 distinguished academic economists on the Economic Society of Australia and Monash Business School’s national panel, just six are women.

We’ve certainly never had a female federal Treasurer. A woman has never headed the federal Treasury department – nor is she likely to anytime soon after the clear out of senior women that occurred after Tony Abbott’s dismissal of former Secretary Martin Parkinson, who was a champion of women and now heads the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Women are inching up the tree at the Reserve Bank, with Luci Ellis, Michelle Bullock and Alexandra Heath in senior positions. But I suspect we’re still at least another Reserve Bank governor appointment away before a woman is seriously considered as a leading candidate to pull the monetary policy strings.

There’s greater progress overseas.

The most powerful financial job in the world – head of the US Federal Reserve – is now performed by a female economist, Janet Yellen. Although most news stories about her appointment (including, mea culpa, my own) couldn’t help but mention she’s married to the famous economist George Akerlof.

The head of the International Monetary Fund also wears a skirt. Under the tenure of Christine Lagarde, the IMF executive board has finally begun considering the idea of gender diversity. Of the 24 positions, just one  is occupied by a woman: Chileshe Kapwepwe from Zambia.

Together with Australia’s representative on the IMF board, Barry Sterland, she has been leading a push to promote women.

To Sterland, the economics of promoting women is simple.

“Diverse boards are more effective because they have access to more talent. Talent is evenly distributed among men and women, hence there is talent in our member countries that we are missing out. This is about ensuring the widest range of talent to make for a better board.”

And there’s the crux: talent is evenly distributed.

Statistically speaking, that means that for every top man, there is an equally talented top woman. For every second best man, a second best woman. So if you have a team comprising the four top men, your team is, by a matter of statistically certainty, not as strong if you had the two top men and the two top women.

The maths is simple, which is why most of the male economists I know are unabashed feminists.

So why aren’t there more senior female economists in Australia?

A large part is just the usual toxic combination of unconscious bias, old boys networks, women’s traditional role of being responsible for child rearing responsibilities etc.

When it comes to why more women aren’t quoted more often in the media, I can speak with more authority.

First of all, there are definitely fewer of them.

But it’s not just that. In my experience, male economists are also more likely to have honed their “dial a quote” skills, so valued by journalists. Quotable economists need to be quick on the draw and confident in their assertions. Male economists are, in my experience, more likely to feel very well informed across a broader range of topics. They’re also more prepared to stick their neck out with an opinion, even if they’re not entirely across all the details.

On a recent visit to Australia, American economist Betsey Stevenson, a former adviser to Barack Obama, made the excellent point that women – herself included – tend to focus on the “confidence interval” surrounding their findings and not hammer home their “point estimate” as hard as men

But over-confidence is not genetic: it’s a skill that can be easily learned and must be, I’d argue, for female economists to succeed.

At a retreat in the McLaren Vale  a few months ago, the Economics Society fo Australia organised for some of Australia’s most senior female academics economists – Alison Booth (ANU), Deborah Cobb-Clark (University of Sydney) and Lisa Cameron (Monash) – to mentor and network with some of most talented upcoming female economists.

As a result, a new Australian Women in Economics Network is being established. Such networks are common in other male-dominated disciplines such as maths, science and engineering.

The goal is to promote the talents of female economists across the private sector, academia, education and government.

A registry of female economists will be established to help media and other institutions to identify female talent.

Any female economists wishing to join should look up the Facebook public group “Women in Economics Australia”, which already has about 150 members, or contact Leonora Risse at RMIT or Danielle Wood at the Grattan Institute.

So ladies, brush up your dial-a-quotes and focus on your point estimate. And expect my call.

Ross Gittins is on leave.

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