Sara King couldn’t quite believe her eyes when she walked into her discussion section for an intermediate economics course a few semesters back.
Of the 40 or so students in the classroom, she was the only woman.
Economics has long been a male-dominated field, and UW-Madison reflects that imbalance. Women account for about 28 percent of undergraduate economics majors on campus, a number that’s actually slightly higher than the national average.
But the UW-Madison Department of Economics — home to one of the largest undergraduate majors at the university — is working to address the issue. It is one of 20 departments across the country participating in the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge, an experiment designed to uncover ways of encouraging young women to study the subject and succeed in doing so.
The number of women majoring in economics at UW-Madison is actually the highest it’s been since undergraduate advisor Susan Hering joined the department in 2008.
Hering, faculty associate Maria Muniagurria and a growing group of students like King are leading the department’s efforts. They’ve formed a new student organization — Women in Economics — to build community, facilitate mentoring relationships, and showcase role models in the field.
The students in the group have diverse professional interests that range from public policy to research (like King) to community development and beyond. Economics can be the foundation for a variety of professional pursuits.
“Unlike some majors, economics does not channel an individual into a specific career path,” says King, president of Women in Economics and a senior majoring in economics, mathematics and Spanish. “Rather, it equips a woman with a toolset that is applicable in a wide variety of potential occupations — broadening the future options at her disposal.”
“I cannot think of a more empowering degree for a woman to have,” she says. “It gives a woman clout.”