We Can and Must Do Better on Gender Diversity

Apr 24, 2018

National Celebrate Diversity MonthOver the last year, the discussion of the gender gap in economics has gained important new momentum. On one hand, it’s troubling to think that we’re still having many of the same conversations as were happening in 1971, when the American Economic Association (AEA) first took steps to promote women in the field and monitor their progress. But when viewed within the context of Alice Wu’s condemning look into gender stereotyping in academia and the frank conversations of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, this decades-old problem is leading to an era of self-reflection that I don’t recall seeing before during my 30 years in the field.

As an economist, a researcher, and a CEO, I’m left puzzled by what the data show for economists as a whole, and proud of how we’ve been able to buck those same trends at Mathematica.

There’s little question that econ programs have made important strides since the early 70s. In fact, the most recent data from the AEA show significant gains at all levels of academia.

Representation of women at each level of the academic hierarchy

  1972 2017
New Ph.D.s 7.6% 32.9%
Assistant professors 8.8% 28.8%
Associate professors 3.7% 23.0%
Full professors 2.4% 13.9%
Source: American Economic Association Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession 2017 Annual Report

But there are also warning signs that beneath these overall improvements, progress is stalling. The same AEA report showed that the share of women entering Ph.D. programs has not increased in the past 20 years, while the share of women undergrads who majored in economics is actually decreasing. For years, many have argued that the best way to address the gender gap among economists is to get more women into the pipeline, so both trends are truly troubling. 

As an economist, I read those reports and immediately start thinking of possible explanations or additional areas to study. But as a public policy researcher and the CEO of a company, I’m more often left with a simpler thought—we can do better.

I know that because I live that every day at Mathematica.

Yes, my undergrad and Ph.D. programs closely tracked the kind of male-dominated experience that the AEA has highlighted. But when I started at Mathematica in 1988, I found a much more balanced picture of gender in the workplace and almost immediately saw the benefits of that balance.

Of course, not every employee at Mathematica is an economist, and we do tend to draw from a part of the economics pool (applied social policy researchers) that has better gender balance than the field broadly. With more than 1,200 employees, our expertise runs the gamut across academic, public policy, data science, health, and other fields. But when I read those numbers, I can’t help but think about how different our data are and how that has positively shaped my experience over the last 30 years at Mathematica.

Our most recent data show that women make up almost two-thirds of the overall workforce at Mathematica. Most importantly, that same ratio holds true across senior leadership roles as well as years of seniority. So while a woman who holds a full professor position may be lucky to encounter another similarly situated woman within her economics department, a senior vice president at Mathematica routinely encounters situations where she and her female counterparts make up the majority of employees present at meetings across all of our business units. That’s certainly the case whenever I sit down with the senior leadership team, where women make up 64 percent of executive positions.

While I don’t believe that a specific level of gender diversity has ever been a goal for us, we consciously tended to gender equity along the way.  And  I have no doubt that our gender diversity  helps make Mathematica a better place to work for everyone.

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work closely with two incredibly talented economists who also happened to be women, Rebecca Maynard and Barbara Devaney. They showed me the value that different perspectives bring to our research and our interactions with clients. They were also early examples to me of how when you bring your A-game every day to every assignment, not only do people line up to work with you, they also tend to care less about details such as whether you’re a man or woman.

I’m glad that as Mathematica has grown over the last decade, we haven’t lost sight of the value of diversity. Instead, our gender diversity has pushed us to be a better workplace. It made us sensitive to what it takes to successfully attract and retain women in research and leadership roles. It made us improve our workplace flexibility and other work–life balance policies that are paying dividends across the entire organization. It helped push us to create a chief diversity officer position, held by Diane Herz who is helping us find new ways to demonstrate that diversity and inclusion are both a business imperative and a core value at Mathematica. Although we’re ahead of the curve in this, our record is by no means perfect. But by making diversity and inclusion a priority, we’re surfacing other areas where we can improve and identifying the strategies to do so.

So for this Celebrate Diversity Month, I applaud the progress we’ve made over the past several decades, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with such an amazing group of women (and men) who are leading their fields and leading our company to new heights. But it feels premature to celebrate when there is so much more that we can and must do to close the gap further and harness the true power of different perspectives, thinking, and experience.


The opinions expressed on the Evidence in Action blog are those of the author(s).

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