Although some of Australia’s finest economic minds are women, they remain under-represented in the discipline’s highest ranks
Speaking to the Women in Economics Network this year, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen was on the money when he raised an issue too often ignored – the “dearth of senior women in economic roles”.
He pointed out that Australia has never had a female Reserve Bank Governor, never had a female secretary to the Treasury and never had a female chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
I wholeheartedly agree with the Shadow Treasurer that the lack of women in senior roles in business and economic policy making is bad for this country’s economy. He warned that the nation was “missing out on the potential contribution [women] have to make as our most senior economic policy makers.”
A lack of senior female figures across the sciences is well known. But there is equally a problem in the social sciences.
A US study of female academics in social sciences found women with children were less likely to be in professorial roles. The exception was economics, where women - with or without kids - were 20 per cent less likely than men to be promoted to professor after 11 years. That suggests an issue of bias rather than circumstance.
Women’s lack of visibility in economics isn’t helping the cause, because the thing is there are accomplished senior female economists out there in Australia.
In my short time here – I arrived from Canada a year ago – I have had the pleasure of meeting some of this country’s finest economic minds – and a number of them have been women.
Women like Karen Chester, Deputy Chair of the Productivity Commission, Deborah Cobb-Clark, Professor of Economics at the University of Sydney, and Alice Hill, Director of the Antipodean Family Foundation.
Women like Professor Xin Meng, who specialises in economic development at ANU, and Professor Jenny Williams at the Department of Economics at the University of Melbourne. And at the Melbourne Institute we have several senior women – Professor Guay Lim, Professor Guyonne Kalb, and Professor Lisa Cameron. All of these women are seriously impressive.
And of course, the list does not stop there. There are many more prominent senior female economists working across academia, business and government in Australia.
But too often they are simply overlooked when it comes to positions of prominence.
They are overlooked to speak at conferences, overlooked for promotions and overlooked to comment in the media. An analysis of experts across Australian metropolitan print media found just nine per cent of ‘economists’ or ‘analysts’ quoted were women.
I raise questions about the lack of female representation at public forums, only to be told that the organisers did ‘try’ to get a woman involved. I suspect this often means asking one woman, who can’t attend, and instead of seeking out another woman - defaulting to a man instead.
But can I blow my own trumpet? Not yet. At the Economic and Social Outlook Conference, for which I am jointly responsible for setting the program, more than one third of the speakers are female. This is big progress from our last conference, when only 10 per cent of the speakers were women.
Of course the men on the program are critical to the conversation that needs to be had on economic and social policy. I see this conference as an opportunity to lay down the circumstances for change, and showcase the contributions of both men and women.
We need to promote the women we do have, not just on the stage, but in the audience too. Individuals and organisations have the power to create a culture that is inclusive. It’s not enough just to ‘ask’ women to attend – instead we need to consciously seek them out.
As a senior professor of economics, whenever I have been given the opportunity, my experience of speaking and being part of high profile events is always positive. Since arriving in Australia I have felt valued, respected and listened to across academia, government, and industry.
And the good news is there is a clear appetite for change. If women want the opportunities in economics, they are out there. Earlier this year, the Women in Economics Network (WEN) was formed – a 350 member-strong group of female economists in Australia. Its primary focus is to promote and support the careers of female economists.
Economics is a fantastic career - if you embrace and care about issues, this is a great job. And I want more girls and young women to aspire to be this country’s senior economic leaders.
So my cry to the women of WEN, and beyond, is rise-up, be heard, raise your hand, take senior roles, speak out in debates, in discussions, and in the media.
Because in the end, how are we meant to encourage women into the field of economics and through to senior positions if we, as female members of the profession, don’t strive to be more visible?
Professor Abigail Payne is the Director of the Melbourne Institute, Applied Economic and Social Research.
The Economic and Social Outlook Conference is co-hosted by the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Institute, Applied Economic and Social Research and The Australian newspaper.
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