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Illinois State chosen to help boost women in economics

image of men and women in business attire

Currently, men outnumber women 3:1 when it comes to majoring in economics.

Illinois State University has been chosen to take part in a national initiative to boost the number of women in economics majors across the country.

Known as the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge (UWE), the three-year project will implement strategies for women in introductory economics courses designed to encourage them to stay in the major. Spearheaded by Harvard University and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the program is administered by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“The hope is to see a marked difference in the proportion of women who enter the major, a difference in GPA, a reduction in time to complete the major, or other markers of success,” said Illinois State’s Department of Economics Chair David Cleeton.

One of 20 schools chosen—alongside Yale, Princeton, and Brown universities—Illinois State will begin “interventions” in several sections of the Principles of Economics course this fall.

According to Cleeton, interventions will include additional advising and information to female students. “We’ll explore whether women are receiving the message of what they can do with an economics degree,” he said.

Studies show that the ratio of men to women in economics majors in the U.S. is about 3:1, and even higher when the institution has a business school. “Business schools tend to pull female students away from the economics major, and we hope to level the playing field by making sure females know how competitive economists’ career opportunities and salary profiles are,” said Cleeton.

He noted that those with economics degrees consistently set the highest average scores on the LSAT exam for law school. “It might not be well known that economics is a great major if you are on a pre-law track, as much as it is for business or public policy,” Cleeton said “The idea is to fully inform students—particularly female students—about opportunities the major can provide.”

The UWE project will also include mentoring opportunities for undergraduates with female economics professors and graduate students at Illinois State. “Along with formal mentoring, we’re looking to have informal sessions where professors can talk about what drew them to economics,” said Cleeton.

During the project, the department will track the progress of female students and gather data to share with the national study. “We’ll pool efforts with the other 20 schools to see if we can disentangle which interventions might be more effective,” said Cleeton. “We hope it helps get the word out that economics is a rigorous, interesting discipline that leads to a variety of productive career paths.”