9 February 2011

Who is the cleverest of them all?

From the mirror on the wall to the princess and the pea, the stories we are told as children are not inclined to encourage women to be smart. Attractive and sensitive, sure, but the smart girl is always the one in specs who doesn't get the boyfriend. And in case you think this is rather personal, I didn't get my own specs until I was 24 and already had one child.

To make this discussion rather more academic I would like to share some of the findings of an interesting paper from Danny Dorling published in the journal Significance, one of the peer-reviewed outputs from the Royal Statistical Society. It is a statistical analysis of the gender distribution of the allocation of Nobel Prizes and its findings are rather disturbing.

Dorling demonstrates that, since 1901 when the first prizes were awarded, only 35 of them have been given to women. Five were awarded to women the following year, suggesting that somebody had become concerned this might be noticed - one of those was the very first prize to be given to a woman for economics (this is not actually a Nobel Prize at all, just an opportunity for the economics discipline to impersonate the hard sciences).

The author's most sarcastic remarks are reserved for economists, who Dorling claims are not judging the best in the field but, rather, rewarding those who are like them and who fit in. Since the economics profession is dominated by men this has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy:

'It is possible that only men are able to be good economists. . . It is possible that just a chosen few are able to glimpse economic truths and reveal them to the small minority of their fellows who can understand the maths, while we masses are permitted to applaud. It is possible, but it is quite unlikely. Alternatively, it is possible that we have here a group of men awarding each other prizes if they fit in. . . Orthodox economists produce “dictionaries” of their subject where all those listed are men, and almost 90% of the “great economists” listed are men from just eight United States Ivy League universities.'

The Association of Heterodox Economists, discussed in the article as an academic society challenging the groupthink of the neoclassicals have made The Economists of Tomorrow the theme for their conference this year. Papers from women are particularly welcome.

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