Within the economics major in Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business, there are four students who identify as male for every one student who identifies as female.
According to Assistant Professor of economics and Adviser of Women in Economics Stefanie Fischer, this ratio is worse than the nationwide average.
“The disparity is puzzling because those with an economics degree earn among the highest starting salaries,” Fischer said.
Nationally, women make up 30 percent of the workforce in economic professions on average. However, from 2008 to 2014, women made up between 15 to 24 percent of economics students at Cal Poly.
“A lot of women leave [economics] classes,” Fischer said. “It’s not exactly clear why that is.”
Fischer said the most common problems expressed to her by women in the economics major are that they feel uncomfortable asking questions and feel left out of groups. Fischer noted that many of the men in the major met previously outside of class.
“One girl had to do a class project alone because she was the only girl and other groups claimed they were full,” Fischer said.
However, Fischer emphasized that none of the women she has spoken to mentioned anything about sexism. She thinks these experiences are the result of being a minority, rather than the male economics students at Cal Poly being sexist.
Fischer did her doctoral dissertation on a topic that looked deeper into this experience. Her study is called “The Downside of Good Peers: How Classroom Composition Differentially Affects Men’s and Women’s STEM Persistence.”
She found through her research that women tend to opt out of competitive environments more than men. The most common reasons for this were dissatisfaction with grades, rigorous course loads and the competitive culture.
Fischer does her part to combat the gender diversity problem.
In 2016, Fischer, along with partner Jacqueline Doremus, founded Women in Economics. The group is a branch of the Cal Poly Economics Society (CPES).
“One of the goals is to try to provide information for networks for first and second-year female students in the business school or taking a principles of econ class,” Fischer said.
To Fischer, the main benefits of achieving gender diversity in the economics world include narrowing the gender gap and allowing for more female representation in public policy. However, given the current disparity, these goals may not be easily executed.
“Having more women studying public policy and weighing in on those debates is important,” Fischer said. “I’m not sure that men would really study paid leave and gender pay gap, for instance.”
Aside from starting Women in Economics, CPES is taking several initiatives to make its program more inclusive.
“We’re trying to create a positive environment for different groups, especially women,” economics senior and CPES president Danny Klinenberg said. “We all need role models and I think the econ department is doing a great job of that.”
On Thursday Feb. 9, the CPES and a few economics professors hosted guest speaker Merry Brown, who received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cal Poly. In 2014, Brown graduated with a Bachelor of Science in quantitative economics. In 2015, she received her masters of science in quantitative economics.
Brown experienced male-dominated classes in her undergraduate courses at Cal Poly, but in graduate school, her graduating class consisted of six men and six women.
Brown understands the importance of encouraging more women to pursue economics, but unlike several of her counterparts, being a minority in the field had no influence on her experience.
“Being a woman just made me value that it was very merit-based,” Brown said. “I didn’t feel like because I was a woman, I was treated differently.”
Economics senior and board member of CPES Emilee Matthews said her womanhood can be very empowering, even though she’s had some awkward experiences in her classes.
“In the class I took last quarter, I had a professor who would constantly comment on the fact that there’s no girls in econ and that he notices they are more intimidated in classes, so when he calls on them they divert from answering questions,” Matthews said.
Matthews added her professors won’t give “brownie points” to women or cut them any slack, but if they say something smart, they’re more likely to get an enthusiastic response.
Several on-campus clubs are taking initiative to help women in the field.
“We need everyone’s opinion. If we only have one group’s opinion, we’d never get it right,” Klinenberg said. “We’d be doing a disservice if we looked at things from one angle. Everyone has different experiences.”