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Gender Gap in Economics Raises Questions About Objectivity

Barack Obama apparently cannot manage the U.S. economy because he never ran a lemonade stand. Mitt Romney presumably won’t ever understand the struggle of paying for college because his dad always covered his bills.

Such personal charges and countercharges in the past few days at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions are a reminder why it’s good that American universities are supplying the country with trained professional economists. Economists, after all, can be counted on for sober and dispassionate fact-based evaluations of what really works in the areas of taxes and government spending.

Or can they?

A new study from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln may be cause for doubt about how much of cold economic analysis is based on objective fact and how much is personal philosophy.

The study, led by Ann Mari May, a professor of economics, was based on survey results from 143 members of the American Economic Association who hold doctorates in economics from U.S. universities.

It found that the female economists were 41 percentage points more likely than men to favor a more progressive tax structure, 24 percentage points more likely than men to believe the size of the U.S. government is too small, and 20 percentage points more likely to reject the idea that the United States suffers from excessive government regulations.

Such large gaps indicate an even greater gender divide among economists than among the population in general. In the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Obama won among female voters, 56 percent to 43 percent, and a poll last month by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation showed him leading Mr. Romney among women by 53 percent to 39 percent.

The University of Nebraska survey, based on responses from 78 male economists and 65 female economists, showed little gender disparity on matters of theory and methodology, Ms. May said. “But when you get to policy questions in economics,” she said, “then you’re sort of heading into an area where people might have different experiences that lead them to see different things in the data.”

All sciences are subject to some forms of personal bias, Ms. May said. But economics may be even more vulnerable, she said, because it’s not possible to run experiments where some variables are changed and others are held constant. “So you have to rely on theoretical propositions,” she said.

The study results don’t necessarily mean economists can’t be trusted, she said. Instead, the results are a reminder of the need to encourage greater numbers of women to enter the field, said Ms. May, who serves as executive vice president and treasurer of the 600-member International Association for Feminist Economics.

Women accounted for about 35 percent of doctorates in economics awarded by U.S. universities in 2010, up from 27 percent in 2000, Ms. May said. “If we learned anything from this study,” she said, “it’s the importance of making sure that you have diverse viewpoints at the table when you’re debating these things amongst experts.”

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