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The Importance of Female Role Models in the Classroom

A recent study finds that female students are more likely to enroll in an upper-level economics class if they have encountered successful women role models in that field.
New students sit and wait to be welcomed in one of the lecture halls of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, on April 9th, 2008.

Representation matters. But just how important is it? New research suggests that representation is significant enough to influence what classes, and potentially what major, a female college student will pursue.

A recent study co-authored by Catherine Porter of Heriot-Watt University and Danila Serra of Southern Methodist University found that female university students were more likely to enroll in an upper-level division microeconomics class if they had first encountered successful women role models in the economics field.

To test the impact that female role models would have on students, Porter and Serra randomly selected four lower-level SMU economics classes to receive a 15-minute visit by two "charismatic" and successful women in the economics field. In all, 339 students—38 percent of whom were women—were in this "treatment" class; six other classes, and a total of 346 other students, were in the control class.

Porter and Serra found that women in the classes who had been visited by career women were 12 percent more likely to take the next-level economics class, and were 6.7 percent more likely to report intention to major in economics.

The effect of strong female role models was even stronger among high-performing female students who had a grade point average of 3.7 or higher. For them, researchers saw a 26 percentage point increase in enrollment in the next-level economics class.

Having career women speak in front of the class had no effect on male students. This suggests a lot of things: Perhaps it may mean that male students already enjoy enough role models in economics, or that male students don't see women as role models.

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Serra was surprised at the effects of such a small intervention on female students—simply having two 15-minute visits by female role models per semester improved female enrollment and intention to major in economics. Such a fix is relatively low-budget and can easily be implemented elsewhere.

"I'm happy that it happened because we want to attract high-performing students and women that would major in economics." Serra says.

Economics is a male-dominated field and has been for a long time. Unlike other majors, economics has not seen the same growth in female graduates as other fields, like mathematics, physical sciences, and business. In 2016, only 30 percent of economics bachelor degrees were given to women—about the same rate it was in the 1990s.

Whether women are choosing economics as a major may not seem like a big deal. But, as noted in the study, which was presented at the annual meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Association earlier this month, choice of major has quite a bit to do with future income. And of the social sciences, economics majors are the highest earners.

"One of the motivations of the study was to try and balance out the allocation of talent in society," Serra says. "And so one of the processes here is to try and see whether we can convince high-performing and high-talented women to choose careers that will lead to leadership positions."