Diversity & Inclusion Series, Part 8: Reducing the Gender Gap in Economics Majors with Nudge

In the final part of our Diversity and Inclusion series, we have selected a sample of iconic and measurably impactful behavioral designs, targeting both staff members and managers, at different moments of the employee experience.

Note that the BVA Nudge Consulting’s behavioral design interventions will generally involve a combination of nudges, so as to maximize impact. We also support companies to more broadly build behaviorally-informed organizations.

This example summarizes the findings from the research paper “Do Mentoring, Information, and Nudge Reduce the Gender Gap in Economics Majors? By Hsueh-Hsiang Li (2018). It is focused on encouraging women to choose an economics major in university.

About the gender gap in economics majors

Even though the majority of college graduates are women, there is an uneven distribution of genders among different specialties. Some majors, including economics, have continued to have far fewer women participating than men. In fact, only 31% of economics degrees were obtained by women, even worse than another stereotypically male field, mathematics and statistics, which has 43% female graduates. To put it another way, for every one female economics major, there are more than two male economics majors. This results in a less diverse field and may deter future women from choosing a major in which they would excel and could benefit from economically.

Many factors have been explored to try to explain this persistent gender gap: lack of female role models among economics faculty, lower perceived aptitude in mathematics among women, greater sensitivity of women to receiving poor grades in introductory economics courses, enjoyment of coursework, expectations about future earnings, and more. None of these factors clearly explained the gender gap among economics majors on their own, but a combination of a few seemed to have some greater collective influence. Together, could these factors point towards possible opportunity for an effective intervention to decrease this gender gap?

The specific case and behavioral diagnosis

The researchers in this study organized a multi-arm, randomized controlled trial that involved providing information, nudges, and peer mentoring. Specifically, the arms were:

  • Control: no intervention
  • Partial intervention: information and nudge
  • Full intervention: information, nudge, and peer mentoring.

The information provided was about career prospects (potential career paths and average annual earnings of economics majors) at the beginning of the semester, and the grade distribution near the end of the semester. The career information was given via a short video clip and a pamphlet, both delivered during class time. The grade distribution information was given via email.

The nudge that was given was directed at women who had received grades during the semester at or above the median. It acknowledged that they had performed well in the class and encouraged them to consider choosing a major in economics.

Peer mentoring was delivered in the form of activities throughout the semester.

Overall, the interventions increased female students’ likelihood of majoring in economics by 6.27%. Among the high-performing freshmen and sophomore female students, the effects were even more significant – up to 12.6% more likely!

The peer mentoring did not appear to have an effect, mostly due to low participation rates. Therefore, this significant change was almost entirely due to simply providing information and bolstering it with a strategic nudge.

The behavioral design

Simply adding a nudge explicitly acknowledging the above-average performance of female students in the economics course at the time they receive their grades, and encouraging them to consider continuing down an economics-focused path, led to a significant increase in women choosing economics as their major. This is a small intervention for a potentially life-changing outcome!

The main levers for success

Making the significance of their above-average performance salient by explicitly pointing it out was an important part of this nudge. Additionally, helping students connect the dots between their performance in the class and their potential career prospects in economics was important, especially for females.

It appeared from this study that men who came in holding certain views about their ability in this area were not influenced much by this nudge and information, but women were more likely to adjust their perceptions when given this new information. Therefore, when it comes to promoting diversity in male-dominated fields, this type of nudge can be especially effective for encouraging women to reconsider their stereotypes in light of their actual ability.

This approach can easily be taken in many business situations, including in performance reviews where positive female performance can be linked to future advancement possibilities and explicitly encouraged.

If you missed them, check out the eight different parts from our Diversity & Inclusion Series, including: How to Apply Behavioral Science for DiversityBehavioral Science Outputs for DiversityReducing the Impact of Stereotypes During Performance Reviews and Reducing the Gender Pay Gap by Reducing Ambiguity around Negotiating Salary.

In this case study series, we have chosen a range of examples that are both impactful and which play on various levers: framing, default option, messenger effect, and many more. To learn more, please contact us.