Diversity in economics: quality, not just equality

The lack of women and minorities in the field means critical subject areas aren’t being adequately researched, says Hélène Rey

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As a young economist, Hélène Rey – now Professor of Economics at London Business School – struggled to find a female role model. There were few women among the higher echelons of economics when she started her career in the 1990s.

“It didn’t seem like a very woman-friendly world. There were a few female role models in economics when I was younger, but not many,” she explains. “Especially in macroeconomics and finance, it was – and is – a very male-dominated scene. You had to fight more to gain influence and reach a high level in your profession.”

While more women can be found in senior roles in economics today, Professor Rey is all too aware that gender imbalance is a problem that persists in her field. Large numbers of young women opt to study economics but, as they progress through the academic hierarchy, many drop out. Men still dominate the highest levels of the profession, with just 15% of senior roles being held by women.

In an effort to address this disparity, Professor Rey has teamed up with Beatrice Weder di Mauro, President of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), the network of European economists, to launch a project promoting the varied and inspiring work being done by women in the field. Professor Rey says: “The CEPR initiative was designed to showcase the work of the best women in the profession and highlight just how diverse and incredibly interesting their work is.”

Future potential

Professor Rey, Vice-President of the CEPR, is spearheading the Women in Economics Initiative, which is also backed by financial services giant UBS. Through a dedicated online platform, around 50,000 people have already watched video interviews and profiles of female leaders in economics discussing their work.

What is evident is the quality and range of research and policymaking being undertaken by female economists; a message to the next generation about the potential for women in economics and how they might broaden the discipline’s focus and reach. Thanks to the initiative, more young people have also become more involved in the CEPR network, gaining visibility as well as receiving mentoring and coaching. Another hope is that the website will appeal to non-academics who will come away with a better understanding of what economics involves and its influence on the real world.

“There are several issues behind the lack of women at senior levels in our profession,” Professor Rey adds. “One is the shortage of role models, which is something of a self-perpetuating problem. Another is biological. Typically, female assistant professors are seeking tenure at the precise moment that’s crucial for them if they want to have a family. There’s a lot of pressure from all directions at that time – getting tenure, being published, having children – which really doesn’t help.”

Combatting the lack of diversity in economics is not just about equality, but the quality and type of research produced, she believes: “An economist will choose a topic that interests them individually. If you have a lack of women and other minorities, it leads to a discipline that doesn’t cover the range of topics it might cover, had there been a greater diversity of people in the field. That’s a clear loss for science and the profession. In terms of culture, it’s also valuable to have a broader range of people around the table discussing issues to avoid a monolithic approach.”

Professor Rey also points out that the profession is not immune to outright misogyny. This was highlighted several years ago by research by Alice Wu, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, whose work revealed shockingly offensive comments commonly made about women on the online forum Economics Job Market Rumors.

Professor Rey believes such attitudes persist in some quarters. She says: “Economics has suffered from some pretty unacceptable behaviour in terms of attitudes towards women and some bad cultural norms exist. It’s a bit of a mystery why economics is so bad for this type of thing. It’s a very male-dominated field and perhaps that type of behaviour has been more acceptable within those male clubs.

“But women are also unequally distributed across different fields in economics. You have a lot more women working on applied labour, applied health economics, education or development. Thankfully, it’s beginning to change.”

“Economics has suffered from some pretty unacceptable behaviour in terms of attitudes towards women.”

As a girl growing up in Brioude, a small town in the Auvergne region of central France, Professor Rey was drawn to the study of economics for its potential to have a real impact on the way people live.

“What appealed to me about economics was the opportunity to study interesting issues that were important for people using tools that were scientific,” she explains. “That brought me towards social sciences and the use of statistics and econometrics to try to understand the world, then using economic theory to try to influence policy and, ultimately, improve things.”

Competition played a part in her life from early on, whether it was playing football with her brother or studying alongside mostly male peers in preparation for the entrance exams to the grandes écoles. Her efforts paid off when she won a place at ENSAE in Paris to study statistics and economics, followed by a scholarship at Stanford University in California. Next came a PhD at the London School of Economics, which led in due course to a professorship at Princeton. She has been teaching at LBS since 2007.

She maintains her involvement with CEPR, which was founded by her economist husband and fellow LBS professor Richard Portes, and says it has proved invaluable to her work in the classroom and in policy circles: “CEPR has been instrumental for the substance of my research and for the opportunities to work with fantastic colleagues all over Europe and the world on policy issues. In my teaching at LBS I always try to bring in high-quality research and current issues, and CEPR and [the CEPR policy portal] are great resources for that.

“All my classes typically have a component of current macroeconomic issues, where I discuss with students how we can use the tools and concepts we have learned in class and apply them to current problems. Our efforts regarding women in economics are an example, but so is the current response to the coronavirus. In real time, I can draw on the CEPR’s expertise, looking at monetary and fiscal policy and how that interconnects with public health policy and financial stability.”

London Business School’s campus closed down as soon as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic became clear, but teaching continues online, with Professor Rey able to demonstrate to students how the economic principles they are learning are immediately relevant in the face of this unprecedented crisis.

“You can see the vital and admirable work being done by health workers, and at the same time we have to try to cushion the macroeconomic shocks the crisis is imposing on everyone,” Professor Rey says. “If we don’t do things properly on the fiscal side, we’re facing an extremely damaging recession. Through our teaching we’re talking about issues that literally affect millions of people right now.

“Being able to bring that to students in real time through the work done at CEPR and through the work we do here at LBS, where our group has been very active in performing research and policy work, is frankly invaluable.”

“If we don’t do things properly on the fiscal side, we’re facing an extremely damaging recession.”

A hugely influential part of Professor Rey’s past work has concerned the role of the US as the world’s banker and the global financial cycle, a term she coined in 2013. What are her expectations – and fears – for the role of the US in the financial crisis unfolding in the wake of the current pandemic?

She says: “The response of the US economy will be important for all of us because it’s just so large. Trump is a science denier and an incompetent president and frankly that’s not helping. Whatever the shortcomings of Trump’s response, in terms of providing liquidity to the international financial system, it’s mostly the Fed that’s in charge. Thankfully, they’re looking at a large stimulus package in the US. It’s the same for Europe, with some heterogeneity. We’re all in a state of shock and having to respond quickly and decisively.

“Fortunately, a lot of governments are stepping in and saying they will pay the bills for workers while they’re in partial unemployment. They’re giving massive guarantees and lines of credit for businesses. There’s a recognition of the need for immediate support and a mobilisation of the community. It requires coordinated help and action from everyone to get us out of this. This will be tough.”

A conference related to the CEPR Women in Economics initiative was planned for the autumn, but has been put on hold while the coronavirus shutdown limits movement. And although the current situation requires Professor Rey to work from the London home she shares with her husband and 13-year-old daughter, she still hopes to make time for some of the more enjoyable things in life.

“Obviously, this is one of the most important issues of our lifetime, but you also need to breathe out and connect to different things,” Professor Rey concludes.

“President Macron said this period of confinement could be a good opportunity to read. It certainly makes you appreciate all those fascinating things like art, music, books and the things we can’t do at present, like going to the theatre and playing sports. Without those things, life is not as rich as it should be. We’re so lucky to live the life that we live. It’s worth reminding ourselves of that.”

Find out more about the CEPR Women in Economics Initiative


Hélène Rey is Lord Bagri Professor of Economics at London Business School


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