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Every day we use economics - why are women abandoning it?

01 May 2019

ABE Westpac Student Event

It’s Monday afternoon. It’s 3.30pm. There are approximately 200 high school students on function centre seats facing two hours of Economics. It sounds like a recipe for restlessness.

Students are an authentic audience. They are unforgiving, visibly switching their attention if you lose their engagement. And yes, some of the audience at the ABE (Australian Business Economists), UTS (Business School) and Westpac “Economics and Schools” event did flick their eyes and fingers to their mobile phones, as well as suppress unsolicited group laughter but, aside from these few minor perforations to the attention fabric, the young women and men in the room were engaged.

If I had to guess why, I would say it came down to the content. It was not just what the presenters had to say but who they were and how they delivered their message.

Surprisingly, fewer and fewer young women (in fact students in general) are doing Economics at school. Of the 200 or so students attending this first-ever Economics and Schools event, around 60 were girls.

However, that was where the inequality stopped.

Firstly, the supervising teachers in the room – and I am assuming they were the economics teacher – were mainly women.

Secondly, the presenter line-up was weighted to women. Chief Economist for the St George Group, Besa Deda (above, far left), who was the prime mover in getting the event up and running, had chosen to make sure women were well-represented. This decision painted a novel, attention grabbing picture of a profession known to be male dominated. The strategy also highlighted the diversity of possible roles and role models.

The keynote speech was given by Alex Heath, Head of Economic Analysis, Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), and someone at the top of the totem pole.

The rare opportunity to ask questions of a senior RBA official did not go unmentioned or unnoticed. One student wondered if there were jobs or internships available straight from school. According to Alex’s knowledge, there aren’t, but the RBA does take on students on their way to their Honours Year in Economics.

Alex’s presentation focussed on relating various economic forecasts - job and labour market graphs, interest rate graphs, local, regional and global economic graphs - to the real-world futures of her audience.

The economy, according to Alex, is subdued, but the strength of the labour market will see wages growth. Both these pronouncements caught your attention, as did her thoughts on the future of work.

Why will the study of economics support you in the jobs of tomorrow?

Alex was quick to point out that while no-one could predict what jobs would exist in the future, futurists do - in more general terms - identify the sorts of skills that will be in demand.

They have identified four quadrants into which job skills fall, and by which work can be classified: routine and non-routine, manual and cognitive.

In the workplace of the future: routine and manual work, which is probably already highly mechanised, will, as technology advances, be roboticised.

It is the work that requires relationship building skills (non-routine) and complex problem solving (cognitive), and into which the skills of an economist fit, that is growing.

Economics touches us all.

If you consume more than you earn for any length of time you will be affected – often profoundly – and that’s economics. According to the economists in the room, understanding this seemingly simple equation – well the affects it has on us all - will help anyone in life and their career.

Alex also had some thoughts on training and learning. They elicited an audience groan.

The way of the future is ongoing customised formal training. School then university and that’s the end of study is a thing of the past.

Following Alex was a panel discussion: Economics in Practice, moderated by Besa Deda. The panel covered a range of ages and talents in which economics played a part or formed the basis for a career (panelists above): Elysse Morgan, Business & Finance Journalist, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) wished she’d done economics earlier; Alex Joiner, Chief Economist, IFM Investors was uninterested as a school student but really flourished as he came to understand and engage with the subject more; Dena Jacobs, Associate Director, Deloitte Access Economics had already sampled a career in market economics, policy and is now working on anti-slavery policy with Deloitte; Emily Blythe, Associate, Westpac Treasury, is now working in global funding having rotated as a graduate through various areas of Westpac.

The four (relatively) youthful economists discussed economics in the real world and how the study of economics has been critical to their professional success and lives.

ABE Economics In Practice Panel Emily Blythe Westpac Treasury

Emily (above), who is 18 months out of finishing her Economics degree, summed up why she valued her choice: “When I look at the panel and also the friend group I formed at university, we have all ended up in very different careers despite having done the same undergrad course.

“When I was at university, a professor we had challenged us to think of one topic that he couldn’t relate back to economics – none of us could.

“Understanding economics has helped me form valid opinions on the world and real life events – what the outcome of the election means for Australians, for example.”

Finally, Shade Zahrai, Chief Positive Influencer, Influenco Group, and a Westpac Future Leader, wrapped up with a little positive psychology and some tips on reducing stress by getting perspective.

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