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Interview with FCA Chief Economist, Mary Starks

Category: Employer Focus

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The face of economics looks male-dominated. It’s time to shift gender norms so that more girls take the subject.

Insight: What attracted you to pursue a career in economics? Did you have any female role models?

Mary Starks: I like to understand how the world works, what makes things tick, and I enjoy problem solving – economics is a good field for that.  More prosaically, my undergraduate degree was in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and of the three, economics seemed most likely to pay the rent.

One of my role models is Amelia Fletcher, who was Chief Economist at the Office of Fair Trading when I worked there, and is now Professor of Competition Policy at University of East Anglia and on the boards of the FCA and Competition and Markets Authority. Amelia stood out as a chief economist for being female, young, and a rock star (literally not metaphorically). I learned plenty from her about applying economics to public policy problems, but also plenty about how to present yourself credibly and authentically when you don’t obviously fit the mould.

And there are lots of other impressive female economists in public life – it's not 50% of well-known economists, I grant you, but there's no shortage of role models. For example, Minouche Shafik, Sharon White, Stephanie Flanders, Dambisa Moyo, Kate Barker, Diane Coyle and many others. And over the pond, Janet Yellen, Carmen Reinhart, Cristina Romer. I could go on. Christine Lagarde unfortunately is a lawyer. But according to Wikipedia, Margrethe Vestager has an economics degree. And yet, I believe the Nobel prize in economics has only once been awarded to a woman (Elinor Ostrom, 2009) – that's worse than physics.

Insight: Around 15.5% of UK academic economists in permanent posts are women and only 26% of students. Why do you think women are under-represented in economics?

Mary Starks: Economics teaching has become very maths-heavy in recent decades, which I guess is a part of it. Obviously maths has its own issues with gender balance: the proportion of girls to boys taking further maths A-Level is about 30:70. 

There's also the face the discipline presents to the world – it looks male-dominated, and some girls are bound to feel it's not for them. And that's a crying shame. 

Insight: What can schools, universities and employers do to encourage more women into studying economics?

Mary Starks: There's a growing school of thought – see for example CORE economics, or the Post-Crash Economics Society - that economics should be less maths-based, and that history, politics, psychology, anthropology and ethics should be more prominent in economics teaching. I think there's a lot in that. And those disciplines are less skewed in terms of gender mix. So that would help. 

Insight: Have you noticed any difference in the way that female and male economists approach economic problems?

Mary Starks: No I haven't. I know there are studies that have detected subtle differences across samples, but I don't see it day-to-day.  Of course, there are huge differences between how different people approach economic problems, and diversity of approach and thought are crucial for problem-solving. But gender diversity is only one aspect of that, and not necessarily the most important - compared to, say, diversity in experience or personality type.

Whether or not there are differences between how men and women work, there are differences in how they are perceived - by women as well as men. The Heidi/Howard study described in Lean In makes for depressing reading, suggesting as it does that women have a hard time being both successful and likeable. [The study involved presenting a case study based on real-life entrepreneur Heidi Roizen to two groups of business school students. For one group, the name Heidi was changed to Howard. The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, but Howard came across as more ‘the type of person you would want to hire or work for’. Other research shows similar results: success and likeability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women.]

COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg argues that women succeeding in a man's world violate gender norms. So we have to shift those norms. And that's going to be harder in fields where women are under-represented, like economics. So – my goal is for people to think I am completely normal!

Insight: Last year, American student Alice Wu published a study that made headlines – revealing that the language used to describe female economists was frequently derogatory. Is this a pattern of behaviour that you have come across or are aware of elsewhere in the economics profession?

Mary Starks: I haven't encountered that kind of thing – but I have been lucky to work in supportive enviroments. The FCA takes diversity and inclusion, and more generally being a good workplace, very seriously. But I know others have had different experiences. 

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please call 02037405973 or email info@vercida.com for more information.

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