A low-budget field experiment to tackle the lack of women in the male-dominated field of economics has been surprisingly effective, says the study’s author, an assistant professor of economics in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

Top female college students were inspired to pursue a major in economics when exposed very briefly to charismatic, successful women in the field, according to SMU economist Danila Serra. The results suggest that exposing young women to an inspiring female role model succeeds due to the mix of both information and pure inspiration, Serra said.

SMU economist Danila Serra

Danila Serra

“The specific women who came and talked to the students were key to the success of the intervention,” she said. “It was a factor of how charismatic and enthusiastic they were about their careers and of how interesting their jobs looked to young women.”

Given the simplicity and low cost of the intervention, similar experiments could be easily conducted in other male-dominated or female-dominated fields of study to enhance gender diversity.

Serra’s results showed that among female students exposed to the enthusiastic mentors, there was a 12 percentage-point increase in the number of female students enrolling in the upper-level Intermediate Microeconomics course the following year — a 100% increase, or doubling, for that demographic.

Not surprisingly, given that the intervention was targeted to female students, Serra found that the role model visits had no impact on male students.

But astonishingly it had the greatest impact on high-achieving female students.

“If we restrict the analysis to the top female students, the students with a GPA of 3.7 or higher, the impact is remarkable — it is a 26 percentage points increase,” Serra said. “So this intervention was especially impactful on the top female students who perhaps were not thinking about majoring in economics.”

The results were surprising to Serra, who teaches the upper-level class Behavioral and Experimental Economics. Serra’s research relies on laboratory and field experiments, a relatively new methodology in the field of economics. She launched and is co-leader of the Laboratory for Research in Experimental Economics at SMU.

“I didn’t think such limited exposure would have such a large impact,” Serra said. “So this is telling me that one of the reasons we see so few women in certain fields is that these fields have been male-dominated for so long. This implies that it is very difficult for a young woman to come into contact with a woman in the field who has an interesting job in the eyes of young women and is enthusiastic about her major and her work. Young men, on the other hand, have these interactions all the time because there are so many male economics majors out there.”

— Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog