Are boys better at economics than girls?

By: Ivo Arnold

Gender diversity in the economics profession can be negatively affected by study choice, study success and the career path that students take after graduation. To begin with, female students are much less likely to choose economics. Until recently, it was also assumed that males outperform females during the study. In recent years, however, the evidence supporting this gender gap has dwindled. This raises the question what the data from our own school tell us. 

Disappointingly low interest in studying economics among females

I have collected data for the Dutch-language bachelor programmes in Economics & Business and Econometrics & Operations Research, offered at Erasmus School of Economics. The data cover the period from 2009 to 2015. During that period, the female share of enrolment increased slightly from 25.8 to 28.5 percent in the economics programme. For econometrics, the increase is much larger, from 17.9 to 28.5 percent. These numbers show that female interest in studying economics or econometrics, while on the rise, is still disappointingly low.

Gender differences in track choice

Any analysis of gender differences in study success needs to take into account students’ background characteristics. We know that high grades in secondary education increase study success in economics. The track choice at high school is also relevant. The Science & Engineering track attracts analytically adept students and provides students with a better preparation for studying economics than the Economics & Society track. The gender difference in track choice is large: 21.5% of our male economic students has done the Science & Engineering track, compared to 15.8% of our female students. This may reflect the fact that girls are still underrepresented in this track. I also find that our female students have obtained significantly higher grades at high school.

The effect of gender on success in the bachelor programme 

How do female students perform in our bachelor programmes? When students fail, they usually fail in the first year. Therefore, I have first looked at the effect of gender on first-year survival. Students are allowed to continue their study programme when they receive a positive binding study advice after their first year. A negative binding study advice implies that a student cannot re-register for the programme. I have estimated the effect of gender on the probability of receiving a positive binding study advice, taking into account a host of background variables, such as age, high school grades, track choice and ethnicity. I find that gender has no effect on first-year survival.

'I find that female students have a higher four-year graduation rate than their male colleagues. This gender effect is particularly strong in econometrics: for a female econometric student'

How long does it take female and male students to graduate?

Next I have looked at the effect of gender on the time it takes students to complete their programme. A common measure is the four-year graduation rate, which measures the share of students completing their programme within four years. I find that female students have a higher four-year graduation rate than their male colleagues. This gender effect is particularly strong in econometrics: for a female econometric student, the probability of obtaining a bachelor’s degree within four years is 0.113 higher than for a male student, again taking into account all the relevant background characteristics.

The gender gap has been closed 

The gender gap in economic education has been closed. At Erasmus School of Economics, female students have a better graduation rate and do not drop out more often than their male colleagues. We can thus safely discard the notion that boys are better at economics than girls. Women are also increasingly interested in econometrics and perform well in this programme. Since many academics in the economics discipline have an econometric background, this bodes well for the ability to tackle the academic staff’s lack of diversity. The challenge is now to persuade this female econometric talent to pursue a PhD and choose an academic career path.

About the Researcher

  • prof.dr. (Ivo) IJM Arnold

    prof.dr. (Ivo) IJM Arnold

    Since September 2010, Ivo Arnold is part-time professor of Economic Education at ESE. He also fulfills the function of vice dean. This chair focuses on…