During the third week of my internship at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, our department organized a baby shower for a female economist who is going to give birth to her baby next month. Almost everyone in the research department — from senior research economists, analysts, to interns and assistants — was present. I couldn’t describe how warm I felt being surrounded by this group of caring co-workers, but looking around in the room, I also strangely noticed that there were only two female economists among almost thirty male economists.
Such disproportionate representation of female among economists reminded me of the times when I was always one of the few females during economic seminars in Paris, and when most of the economics courses I took at Brown were taught by male professors. More specifically, among all the economists I’ve seen so far, the majority of them appear like the same type of people: male, white, a bit socially awkward but super smart.
Why does the field of economic research often favor this type of people? Why aren’t there as many female economists as males? In the United States, with the idea of equal employment opportunity, there shouldn’t exist any discrimination against female economists at an institutional level. Perhaps, male dominance in economic research might be the result of not having as many women who focus on economics. A study by Harvard professor Claudia Goldin shows that “for every female economics concentrator today there are almost 2.9 male concentrators”, which also supports the point.
Then another question arises: why are so few girls entering this field? Are girls less interested in economics, or are there other reasons? Even for girls who study economics in college, will they continue to graduate school? When the discussion comes to such personal level, the reasons behind an individual’s choice get subtler and more complicated.
As kids, we used to dream about all kinds of jobs that we would do in the future, but when we finally arrive at the time to pick a field or career, how much of the choice is attributed to pure interest? How much parental, peer and social influences are there, invisibly but powerfully shifting us away or toward a certain path?
As for me, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the advice that starts with “since you are a girl” and ends with something about the importance of relationship, marriage or even child bearing, and the irrelevance of having a successful career or a career that I want to pursue.
“You’re a girl, so you don’t have to work as hard as boys”,
“Girls will eventually become mothers and focus more on their families”,
“By the time you finish your PhD, you’re be too old to get married as a girl”
Even though I always remind myself that I should listen to my own voice, I am more or less influenced by those opinions, because they don’t arise from anywhere. In nowadays’ world, I do have the option of not working hard as long as I find a hardworking husband who makes enough money; I will very likely become a mother and will have to take care of my kid; doing a PhD does require a substantial amount of time commitment, and girls approaching their thirties are often considered as “old” for marriage in China. The advice does reflect most part of the reality that girls are facing, so if the reality doesn’t change, following such advice might really make my life “easier”, because I won’t need to deal with all the debates that will arise from the mismatch between my own life goals and the expectations of my parents.
However, an “easier” life doesn’t necessarily lead to a “happier” life. Working on various tasks during the internship, I gradually realize that I am never satisfied with doing easy tasks, and I do want more challenge, because it is solving a hard problem or exploring a new research idea that stirs my passion, no matter how time consuming those challenging tasks might be. I understand the good intentions behind the advice that makes my life “easier” in the current society, and I also notice some people live happier with such lifestyle, but I do know that’s not what I want. I don’t want to be just a wife and a mother; I want to assume more roles — researcher, innovator, leader, etc.
Still, however, idealistic my life goals are, I do hold reservations about completely following my heart. I’m afraid that my views might change when I get older, and I’m afraid that I’m not mentally strong enough to confront the long established values of our society. My passion and my fears are dragging toward different directions, and I find it hard to reach equilibrium.
On the other way round, boys might get too few advice on things other than career.
“You’re a boy, so you should have a successful career”,
“Man should make money to feed his family”
Maybe for boys, there’s been too much expectation on careers and success, so I rarely hear people persuading boys against later marriage or against working too hard. Isn’t such expectation also unfair for boys who want to do more “girlish” jobs, like nursing or kindergarten teachers, which don’t seem to be on the traditional path to success?
Each individual values career, family and other elements in life differently, and it shouldn’t be gender that determines their relative importance in a person’s life. I think the issue here is not simply to encourage more women to pursue traditionally male dominated careers or to tell men to take up more responsibilities at home, but to let us, whether girls or boys, make our own choices, and let us figure out for ourselves what’s important to us in life, and what we want to pursue and achieve.
Fang is a senior at Brown University. You can contact Fang Guo at firstname.lastname@example.org.