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Why Aren’t There More Women Economists at the United Nations?

Female economists are rising to the top—everywhere but the U.N.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Then-European Parliament Vice President Isabelle Durant
Then-European Parliament Vice President Isabelle Durant, who currently serves as acting Secretary General of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, attends a yearly remembrance ceremony for the Jewish deportees of World War II in Mechelen, Belgium, on Sept. 9, 2012. KRISTOF DEBECKER/AFP/Getty Images

From all appearances, it is a golden age for women in economics, a traditionally male-dominated field that has recently seen women appointed to the top jobs at the U.S. Treasury, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund—the latter, twice in a row. The World Bank’s chief economist, Carmen Reinhart, is a Cuban American woman.

So, why is the United Nations struggling to appoint qualified women economists? A top U.N. trade and development official said her agency is grappling with a shortage of female economics applicants with a doctorate, undermining her agency’s efforts to hire enough qualified women to meet the U.N. goal of reaching gender parity in its hiring practices before the end of the decade. A number of female economists say there are plenty of qualified women in the market and that the U.N. is just not working hard enough to recruit women.

The most credentialed women economists are generally underrepresented throughout the workplace, with more than two-thirds of economics doctoral degrees in the United States awarded to men, and only 40 percent of entry-level economists in Europe are women. That disparity shows up in big institutions. The World Bank, for example, employs more women (53.2 percent of its core operations workforce) than men (46.8 percent). But among staffers with “economist” in their titles, men outnumber women 784 to 514, according to World Bank figures.

From all appearances, it is a golden age for women in economics, a traditionally male-dominated field that has recently seen women appointed to the top jobs at the U.S. Treasury, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund—the latter, twice in a row. The World Bank’s chief economist, Carmen Reinhart, is a Cuban American woman.

So, why is the United Nations struggling to appoint qualified women economists? A top U.N. trade and development official said her agency is grappling with a shortage of female economics applicants with a doctorate, undermining her agency’s efforts to hire enough qualified women to meet the U.N. goal of reaching gender parity in its hiring practices before the end of the decade. A number of female economists say there are plenty of qualified women in the market and that the U.N. is just not working hard enough to recruit women.

The most credentialed women economists are generally underrepresented throughout the workplace, with more than two-thirds of economics doctoral degrees in the United States awarded to men, and only 40 percent of entry-level economists in Europe are women. That disparity shows up in big institutions. The World Bank, for example, employs more women (53.2 percent of its core operations workforce) than men (46.8 percent). But among staffers with “economist” in their titles, men outnumber women 784 to 514, according to World Bank figures.

The figures are even more lopsided at the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) a Geneva-based agency that promotes investment, development, and trade in the developing world. At UNCTAD, women account for only 36 percent of professional staff, placing it among the worst U.N. departments when it comes to gender parity in the workplace. The head of UNCTAD is now trying to turn that around with a drive to recruit more women.

The pursuit of greater female representation at UNCTAD is part of a wider push by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to achieve gender parity for senior U.N. officials by the end of 2021 and throughout the organization by 2028. The U.N. says that it achieved parity in senior ranks as early as January 2020. U.N. figures indicate that there are currently more women than men, 57 percent, at the undersecretary general level and nearly 50 percent at the assistant secretary general level. But the representation of women falls sharply in U.N. peacekeeping missions, particularly in Darfur and Libya, where less than a quarter of staff are female, and the U.N. Department of Safety and Security, where only 22 percent of posts are held by women.

In an effort to reverse that trend at UNCTAD, Isabelle Durant, a former Belgian politician and UNCTAD’s acting secretary-general, instructed her senior managers last month in an internal memo to scrap a requirement that new hires have doctorate degrees, saying that it limits the pool of potential female candidates. She also insisted that women be included in shortlists for potential job recruits, that managers undertake training to detect potential unconscious bias against women in their hiring practices, and that women serving in the lower and middle professional ranks be given “priority consideration” during the hiring.

“We know that it is a difficult task to identify a diverse and significant pool of qualified female candidates, noting that statistics reveal that female graduates in economics are overall still underrepresented,” she wrote in an internal April 16 memo to staff. “Nevertheless, there is a substantial pool of competent women economists, also reflected in the fact that many institutions dealing with economic development are led by women.”

The World Trade Organization is currently led by its first female director-general, a Nigerian American economist, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who recently appointed two women to fill the organization’s four deputy director-general posts. Only one woman had previously held a deputy spot since the trade organization was established in January 1995.

But as some U.N. agencies struggle, many women economists say there are plenty of qualified women with doctoral degrees, but that the U.N. has done too little to find them, relying on candidates from a tiny handful of elite universities in the United States and Europe.

“I am a bit shocked,” said Emmanuelle Auriol, a French economics professor at the Toulouse School of Economics. “I know lots of women who hold Ph.D.s that would love to join a U.N. organization.”

“It is laziness, they are not reaching out,” added Auriol, who has conducted a study of the representation of women economists along with a group of European economists.

Durant’s memo—which was obtained by Foreign Policy—was prompted by complaints from U.N. headquarters that the Geneva-based agency is falling short of Guterres’s goal of achieving gender parity throughout the international institution’s myriad agencies. Ana Maria Menéndez, a senior policy advisor to Guterres who is running point on the U.N. chief’s gender equality effort, recently expressed concern that UNCTAD is lagging behind most other U.N. agencies, ranking 36th among some 41 non-field U.N. Secretariat departments. Durant said that the trade and development agency has performed poorly, particularly among midlevel professional staff.

“Concern of bias against women, at times unconscious, has been repeatedly brought to my attention,” she said. “Stereotyping of gender roles is a factor that contributes to not giving women and men equal opportunities.”

Some male employees have taken issue with her characterization of bias against women. One male UNCTAD official said managers have recently been hiring as many women economists as male, but that the historical gap is providing an unfair disadvantage to younger men.

“Everyone understands the need for a diverse workforce, but what does that mean for men?” the official said. “We are tackling issues created by previous generations that are now falling on the shoulders of younger generations.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that Durant was guilty of her own outdated stereotyping about gender, pointing to remarks she delivered at a women’s conference in which she said: “There is a gender difference in how women and men lead and approach consensus building. For instance, women are more likely to ensure that negotiations actually happen at the table and not at the golf course.” The younger generation of staffers, he added, are not particularly interested in golf.

A second male U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the sensitivity of fighting a historical injustice. “There are definitely many men who know their chance of getting the next higher grade are greatly affected by the gender parity strategy,” he said. “There is no question about that. Most of us accept that, but some still grumble.”

However, the official added that men are still getting promotions to senior positions.

Men have traditionally dominated economics, with fewer women than most other academic professions. For instance, women accounted for 55 percent of all U.S. undergraduates in 2019, but only 34.1 percent of economics majors in 2020, according to a survey by the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP). In 1972, the earliest period for which CSWEP documented the gender disparity in economics,  only 7.6 percent of new Ph.D.s in economics were awarded to women in the United States, and women held only 2.4 percent of full professorships in economics. Janet Yellen, the U.S. treasury secretary, was the only woman in her 1971 Yale University doctoral graduating class.

The share of female economists has been steadily growing, but women remain underrepresented, particularly in academia. In 2020, women accounted for 35.3 percent of students entering Ph.D. programs in economics in the United States, according to the CSWEP report. An even smaller share of women—27.4 percent—have secured tenured associate professorships, and fewer than 15 percent of tenured full professors are women. In Europe, women account for just over 40 percent of entry-level economic research posts, but they only achieve 22 percent of full professorships.

“Are there too few female economists in international institutions? That must be true,” said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “Can they solve the problem by dropping the Ph.D. requirement? I think not. To drop the Ph.D. requirement will lead to men with more credentials than women and that will likely create unequal work dynamics.”

Stevenson said the U.N. needs to search harder, interview more women, expand its job ads, and consider hiring from less prestigious universities. “I know plenty of women who finish their Ph.D. and are not inundated with job offers,” she added. “There are plenty out there even if they are underrepresented.”

In a telephone interview, Durant acknowledged that her agency needed to do more to identify and recruit qualified women, saying that women account for only 30 to 35 percent of overall job applicants. She said that UNCTAD generally recruits from only a handful of U.S. and European universities. Most hires who come from other parts of the world generally earn degrees from the same major U.S. universities.

Durant touched on concerns among men that they are being denied opportunities, saying she understands “how delicate it can be for men in those levels where gender balance is not achieved. But combating this inequality is our responsibility and duty.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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