A Wellesley Education is a Powerful Factor for Women in Economics

Clara Chambers ’24 studies at her thesis carrel in the library.
Image credit: Shannon O'Brien
Author  Danna Lorch
Published on 

At U.S. colleges and universities, men are twice as likely as women to major in economics. But a team of three Wellesley economists has concluded that among students admitted to Wellesley, those who ultimately enrolled at the College were 94% more likely to receive an economics degree than those who chose to study elsewhere. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently released the team’s findings in a working paper: “Women’s Colleges and Economics Major Choice: Evidence from Wellesley College Applicants.

“At the College we often say that Wellesley encourages women to go into fields that they might not have had access to if they had gone to another school,” said Kristin Butcher, Marshall I. Goldman Professor of Economics and one of the paper’s co-authors. “[We] set out to see if that was really true.”

Butcher, who is also director of microeconomic research at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago, Patrick McEwan, Luella LaMer Slaner Professor in Latin American Studies and professor of economics, and Akila Weerapana, professor of economics and faculty liaison to the Office of Institutional Research (OIR) at Wellesley, wanted to understand what factors contributed to that high percentage and the key lessons that might help other institutions close the gender gap in economics and other mathematically intensive majors.

Butcher, McEwan, and Weerapana dubbed the series of environmental factors responsible for the higher rate of economics majors at the College the “Wellesley Effect.” That includes gender-related variables such as Wellesley being a women’s college and the proportion of female students and faculty. It also includes variables not related to gender, such as applicants’ average SAT scores and the fact that Wellesley is an undergraduate-only institution.

But how could the team assess whether students at other institutions were in fact having different outcomes than they would have had at Wellesley? During their research process, they quickly realized that thanks to the Office of Admission they had access to rich data. They were able to assemble a dataset tracking every admitted applicant to Wellesley from 15 cohorts spanning fall 1999 to fall 2013, linked to their eventual degree and major outcomes.

Staff in admission and in the OIR helped them link those applicants’ data to the records in the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that provides educational verification and reporting to colleges. The clearinghouse reported the degree attainment of every student from the 15 cohorts that had chosen not to attend Wellesley. McEwan then used advanced statistical matching techniques to identify and follow all those admitted to Wellesley, no matter where they ended up going to college.

The massive undertaking paid off. “Our project confirms that evidence-based policy analysis only comes from good collaborations,” McEwan said.

The results revealed that the large gap between the number of economics majors among enrollees at Wellesley and the number of economics majors among admitted students who chose another college was explained in large part by increased exposure to female-identifying faculty and fellow students. McEwan said they determined this by linking every applicant’s record to federal data obtained by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, which also monitors proportions of female faculty at American higher education institutions. They also relied on data collected by the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession.

“We then used statistical methods to determine that a substantial portion of the Wellesley Effect on majoring in economics is because of [the College’s] unique gender environment,” McEwan said.

Weerapana explained, “Whether we looked at students with high or low SAT math scores, students from underrepresented groups or non-underrepresented groups, students who had declared a prior interest in majoring in economics or not, we found a robust effect of enrolling at Wellesley on the likelihood of being an economics major.”

The team also followed admitted students who attended colleges with less varied distributions of female students and faculty. “The data indicates that one’s life trajectory—including the choice of a college major—is shaped by college environments,” McEwan said. “Wellesley College is a unique educational experience, and our research suggests that its gender environment is an especially important factor in encouraging women to choose economics as a field of study.”

Economics major Clara Chambers ’24 said her own experience at Wellesley echoes the researchers’ conclusion. Seeing female economics professors contributing valuable research to the field offered more than great optics. “If you don’t see yourself represented, it’s hard to envision that career as something you can also pursue in the future,” she said. Last summer, she worked on campus for Tyler Giles, assistant professor of economics, collecting data and conducting research on the criminal justice system in Illinois as a Case Summer Fellow.

As a first-year, Chambers didn’t land a high grade on her first economics midterm, but she didn’t give up on the discipline. Instead, she focused on learning how to study for college-level economics, finished out the semester with an A-minus, and was so engaged with the subject that she promptly enrolled in additional economics courses the following term.

She decided to stick with the subject largely due to support from the faculty, she said. Economics professor Joe Joyce emailed to urge her to declare a major, and Rachel Werkema, lecturer in economics, encouraged her to write a thesis. Werkema also “put the idea in my head of pursuing a Ph.D., which is something I’m seriously now considering,” Chambers said.

Emily Cuddy ’12 believes there is causality between the number of economics majors and the behavior of Wellesley professors. After she took a health economics course with Professor Robin McKnight, who taught students to decipher academic papers and studies, something clicked in her mind. She knew that economics was her future.

She said Butcher—who was her honors thesis advisor and majored in economics at Wellesley herself—influenced her choice to continue down an academic path.

“She told me that if I really enjoyed the research process, I should think about pushing this further and pursuing a Ph.D.,” Cuddy said.

She and Butcher kept in touch when she worked as a research associate at the Federal Reserve after graduating, and both Butcher and McKnight offered advice and letters of recommendation when she was applying to graduate schools. “If I hadn’t been encouraged to write a thesis and interact with Kristin, I would have had no inkling that continuing on with econ was a feasible option,” Cuddy said. She earned a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton in 2021.

The paper’s co-authors are optimistic that their research process and findings can apply to other institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities, other women’s colleges, and even large co-ed universities.

“There is a tendency to think that women and underrepresented minorities just don’t like economics,” Butcher said, “but the fact that a women’s college can produce a good number suggests that it’s not about students’ preferences, but rather about the environment they find in many higher education institutions.”

Cuddy was recently hired as an assistant professor of economics at Duke University. With that role comes the chance to make her own classroom feel like a space in which every student belongs. She’s aiming to encourage her introduction to health economics students to stick with economics and even consider it as a major, bringing the Wellesley Effect full circle.