Do mentoring, information, and nudge reduce the gender gap in economics majors?
Initiatives providing mentoring, additional information, and nudges to encourage more female economics majors have a greater effect on female students with above-median grades, increasing their likelihood of majoring in economics.
In the 2014-2015 academic year, women made up 57% of all bachelor’s degree recipients. However, they only received 18% of bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences, 19% of those in engineering, 38% in physical sciences and chemistry, and 43% in mathematics and statistics. Although most existing research and reporting has focused on female under-representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, there is also a persistent gender gap in economics, as women received only 31% of these bachelor’s degrees in 2014-2015. While the evidence is inconclusive as to why this gap persists, the authors sought to test three mechanisms that may be effective in closing the gender gap.
This study investigated whether any of three possible interventions (1. inviting students to participate in a peer mentoring program, 2. giving students additional information about economic majors’ career prospects and their class grade distribution, or 3. nudging students by sending them a message encouraging them to major in economics) would be successful in encouraging female students in an introductory economics course to major in economics.
Initiatives to provide mentoring, additional information (about career prospects of economics majors and the grade distribution of their class), and nudges to encourage female students to major in economics are most impactful on female students with above-median grades in an economics class, increasing their likelihood of majoring in economics by 5-6 percentage points.
- None of the interventions had an impact on the likelihood that female students with below-median grades in the class would major in economics.
- The initiatives had a greater impact on younger (freshman and sophomore) female students with above-median grades in the class, increasing their likelihood for majoring in economics by 11.2-12.6 percentage points.
- The initiatives increased the likelihood of female students with above-median grades to take additional economics courses by 16 percentage points and increased the likelihood of younger (freshman and sophomore) female students with above-median grades to take additional economics courses by 27.1 percentage points.
- Prior to taking the introductory economics course, female students made up 14.3% of the economics majors in that group. After taking the course, among the students who did not receive interventions, female students made up 22.2% of the economics majors. After taking the course, among the students who did receive interventions, female students made up 41.7% of the economics majors.
- Receiving information on the career prospects of economics and the grade distribution of their class may decrease male students’ likelihood of majoring in economics by 2.67 percentage points.
- This negative effect is particularly impactful for younger (freshman and sophomore) male students, for whom receiving such additional information decreased their likelihood to major in economics by 5 percentage points.
- This negative result may be attributed to some students’ reaction to performing in the class more poorly than they anticipated. Male students in the class over-estimated their grade by 1.05 points (on a 0–4 scale), and female students over-estimated their grade by 0.929 points.
- The intervention had no impact on male students with above-median grades in the class.
In the spring semester of 2016, researchers conducted a randomized controlled experiment on students in introductory economics courses (five sections of microeconomics classes and three sections of macroeconomics classes) at Colorado State University, a large, public, four-year institution. Out of the students enrolled in these courses, 788 students participated in the study’s first survey, administered in-class at the beginning of the semester, and 450 students participated in both surveys (the beginning-of-semester survey and the end-of-semester survey). A limiting factor in participation is that the surveys were administered in-class, and students absent on those days could not participate. (Among students who attended the beginning-of-semester class, the participation rate for the first survey was 95.1%. Among students who attended both the beginning-of-semester and end-of-semester classes, the participation rate for the second survey was 91%.) T
he participating students were randomly sorted into a control group and two treatment groups, in which they were either given additional information (through video clips and information pamphlets about economics majors’ career prospects and the class’s grade distribution), given a nudge (receiving a message that encouraged them to major in economics), or invited to participate in a peer mentoring program. Information about whether a student majored in economics or took additional economics courses was obtained one year later from the university’s administrative records. Because the opportunity cost of switching majors increase as students progress through their college career, the primary effects of the interventions from the study are particular salient among young female students in freshmen and sophomore years.