Brittany Farnsworth Russell and Dr. Eric Eide, Economics Department
For my research I used institutional data from Brigham Young University as well as survey data from students to investigate the effect of gender and grade in Econ 110 on the probability of choosing economics as a major. This topic is of interest because the percentage of female economics majors at BYU is 16%, well below the national average. The aim of this project was to determine whether female students react differently to grades than male students. Previous research has documented a gender gap in grade sensitivity that leads women with lower grades to drop out of economics while men persist, leading to an uneven gender ratio (Rask & Tiefenthaler 2008). Identifying the causes behind the underrepresentation of women in economics is the first step towards changing it.
The institutional data has information on the 950 students who completed Econ 110 during the Fall 2015 semester. Variables of interest in this data set include current major, Fall 2015 major, GPA, gender, grade in Econ 110, and relative grade (grade in Econ 110 divided by cumulative GPA).
To provide context I also wrote and administered a survey to students who took Econ 110 during Fall 2016. Along with gender, major, and grade in Econ 110 it included qualitative questions about interest in economics and the importance of having students and instructors who are similar to oneself. The survey respondents resembled the institutional data set, but with some differences. Of the students who responded, 40% were female, 12% were Economics majors, and the average grade in Econ 110 was 2.99, higher than the institutional average grade of 2.67, so the survey respondents were more likely to be female and have higher Econ 110 grades. In addition, 11% of females in the sample were Economics majors, which is higher than the 6% in the institutional data set.
Using the institutional data I estimated the following binary choice regression model:
Prob (Y |X) = ϕ (X T β)
where Y represents the choice to major in economics, phi is the CDF of the normal distribution, and X is a vector of independent variables including gender, relative grade in Econ 110, and an interaction variable between gender and relative grade to check for different effects of grade on female students.
I administered the survey through email to all students who completed Econ 110 during Fall 2016. Of the 1,146 students in this group, 182 responded for a response rate of about 16%. Survey respondents were then entered into a pool and ten were randomly selected to win a $20.00 Visa gift certificate, paid for by my mentor’s research fund. The methodology for this project was approved by BYU’s Institutional Review Board in May 2017.
Estimation Results and Discussion
I found that being female had a negative effect on the probability of majoring in economics while gender multiplied by relative grade had a positive effect, but neither of these effects was statistically significant. The variable that was consistently significant was relative grade. It had an estimated effect of 0.099, which means that an increase of 1 in relative grade increased the probability of majoring in economics by 9.9%. For example, a student with a B average who received an A in Econ 110 would be 3.3% more likely to major in economics than if they had received a B in the class. I also controlled for Fall 2015 major using indicator variables for having declared a major in a given college. These effects were all around 10% (except for majors in the Marriott School, which was 20%). My findings suggest that grade and previously declaring a major have a more significant effect on the choice to major in economics than gender. Because the data included only Econ 110 students these results are conditional on taking the class and thus only apply to BYU students that have taken Econ 110.
Survey Results and Discussion
Several of the survey questions merit specific attention: why did you take Econ 110?, are you interested in Economics and why?, have you taken or do you plan on taking another economics class?, what is the highest level of math you have completed? (from prealgebra to more than calculus 2), how important is it to you to have classmates who are similar to you in gender/ethnicity/other and why?, how important is it to you to have instructors who are similar to you in gender/ethnicity/other and why?
Of those who responded, 72% took the class because it was required, 76% were interested in economics, and 36% had taken or planned on taking another economics class. Female students’ responses were not significantly different from male students for any of these questions. Reasons students provided for being interested in the subject included the practical skills taught and the ability of economics to explain the world. Many students qualified their interest by saying they were interested, but not enough to major in economics or pursue it as a career. Some said they were interested, but found it too difficult, while others said they weren’t interested because of the difficulty, and some said they didn’t like the way the class was taught.
There were no significant differences in the percentage of male and female students at each level of math preparation. About 37% of students had taken up to Calculus 1 and over 95% had completed at least Algebra 2.
For the questions about the importance of having students and instructors similar to oneself about 61% of the students answered “Not at all important.” However, answers were divided along gender lines, with only 49% of female students answering “Not at all important” for students (54% for instructors). For both students and instructors, female students were more likely than male students to answer that similarities were at least “Slightly important.” They then had the option to give a reason for their answer. Many students wrote that it does not (or should not) matter if other students or instructors are similar to them, that they could get along with anyone, or that they only cared about the teaching ability of an instructor. However, some who responded that similarity is at least “Slightly important” said that similarities make it easier to communicate and easier to learn from instructors.
These results suggest that although many students do not care if students or instructors are similar to themselves, women are more likely to care than men, supporting the theory that women avoid economics due to the lack of other female students and instructors. However, there is no evidence that women are less interested in the subject or that there is a gender difference in math preparation.
My analysis of the institutional and survey data reveal a strong relationship between grade in Econ 110 (relative to cumulative GPA) and choosing to major in economics. There is no evidence that female students react differently to grades than male students, but women in this data set did have lower grades on average in Econ 110, which may contribute to the lower number of women choosing the major. From the survey data, men and women appear to be equally interested in the subject and equally prepared for the necessary math. However, female students are more likely to think having instructors and students similar to themselves is at least slightly important, which may also contribute to the low number of women in the economics major.
Rask, K. & Tiefenthaler, J. (2008). The role of grade sensitivity in explaining the gender imbalance in undergraduate economics. Economics of Education Review, 27. doi: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2007.09.010