davos 2015

Female Economists at the WEF – Unfortunately, Pretty Much as Expected

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DAVOS, Switzerland — A quick analysis of the list of academic economists present at the World Economic Forum in Davos yields a somewhat unsurprising insight: women are under-represented in the economics profession. A rough estimate puts the share of female economics professors and researchers attending the WEF at around 19 percent.


The WEF is a gathering of mostly elites and there are many good reasons to worry about the small female ratio at such gatherings. For example, they suggest that as a society we fail to adequately take advantage of female talent at top decision-making positions. However, there are even more reasons to worry about this in the academic sphere, where rank should be determined by intellectual contribution to the field. While some deviation from the 50/50 parity might be permitted, 81/19 definitely does not cut it.

At the same time, discussions on female ratios need to do justice to the complexity of the question.  In 2012, for instance, only 32 percent of Ph.D.’s in economics awarded in the US were given to women, according to the National Science Foundation, which may reflect a tendency for more men than women to pursue an academic career in economics. Also for 2012, a survey by the American Economic Association found that women accounted for 40 percent of untenured associate professors but only 11.6 percent of full tenured professors. The point is that female economists are over-represented at the WEF compared with their actual numbers in economics departments. This, of course, says nothing about how those numbers came about.

It’s complicated, but it would be unfortunate if the 19 percent was representative of a wider challenge of the WEF to balance the overall female-male ratio of its attendees. Out of over 2600 participants only 17 percent are women, compared to 15 percent last year. And this ratio hasn’t changed much over the past years. According to Time, it fluctuated between 9 percent and 15 percent from 2001 to 2005 and between 15 percent and 17 percent after 2006.

The lack of progress on this front is surprising given the widespread recognition of the problem. In October 2014, the WEF’s very own Young Global Leader (YGL) community hosted the YGL Gender Parity Conference at Stanford University, which highlighted a number of practical steps to address gender inequality. One of them was equal duration for maternity and paternity leaves, a measure confirmed as effective by the International Labour Organization and the WEF. The WEF’s own policy to allow its male employees three days of paternity leave is then completely at odds with its public advocacy.

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