Effect of Female Role Models in Young Women’s Intended Major

Ryan Kilgallon ’21

Women in STEM fields (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Women in STEM fields (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A study from Houston’s Southern Methodist University (SMU) reveals the effectiveness of using an enthusiastic female role-model to inspire young women to major in male-dominated fields such as economics. Nationally, the ratio of women to men majoring in economics is 1:3, a clear indicator of a discrepancy. The research provides a low-budget solution to bridging the gender disparity between men and women in STEM fields – a hot-topic issue in modern education and employment.

Co-authors Danila Serra and Catherine Porter are both female associate professors in economics with the former at SMU, where the study was conducted, and the latter working out of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Serra speaks of how her personal experience with a female mentor in economics led her to conceptualize the study claiming that “inspiration is not about meeting any female professor – it’s about meeting that one person that has a huge charisma and who is highly inspiring and speaks to you specifically,” going so far as to attribute her Ph.D. in economics to her advisor Professor Abigail Barr.

With Professor Barr and other female mentors in mind, Serra and Porter went about conducting the experiment, starting by asking two top undergraduate female economics students at SMU to choose role models from a pile of economics alumni. After orchestrating interviews with a shortlist of 18 candidates, the students landed on Julie Lutz and Courtney Thompson as ideal role-models for their peers.

Julie Lutz, a 2008 SMU graduate, worked in management consulting originally after graduating but soon switched to working for a NGO in Nicaragua. Subsequently, she became director of operations at a toy company in Honduras, and she currently works at a fast-growing candy retail company based in the United States. Due to her young age and interesting international experiences, Lutz was deemed easily relatable for SMU students deciding on their major.

In a similar thread, Courtney Thompson, SMU Class of 1991, had the rare distinction of being both a female and African-American economics major in a time when neither category was particularly well-represented in economics, making her story particularly inspirational. After receiving her degree, Thompson worked her way to become the senior director of North American Marketing and Information Technology at a large international communications company.

Each woman spoke for less than 15 minutes about their experiences in economics to four randomly selected Principles of Economics classes, which are roughly gender-balanced. The gender gap becomes pervasive the next year in particular with Intermediate Microeconomics, a class that is required for upper-level economics courses and can be considered a good indicator of students intending on majoring the subject. From the classes who participated, there was a 12% increase in female students enrolling in Intermediate Microeconomics course for the next year. Of particular note is the effect on high achieving female students (defined as 3.7 GPA or higher) where a 26% increase was seen.

It can clearly be concluded that even a limited exposure with an enthusiastic and inspirational career woman can greatly affect the attitudes of young women as well as their academic interests. While this offers an easy solution to the problem at hand, it also speaks to a larger issue: passionate women in advanced STEM fields are difficult to find. Young women are unable to have organic conversations with outgoing women in STEM because there are simply not enough women in most STEM jobs. Future implications of this research, however, are broad reaching and Serra hopes to encourage more universities throughout the country to implement similar programs in an attempt to rectify the inequality in the economics workforce.


Southern Methodist University. (2018, January 23). Brief exposure to charismatic career women inspires female students to pursue same field: Easy, inexpensive experiment briefly sent inspiring role models into intro to econ classes and sharply increased college female interest in the male-dominated, well-paying field of economics. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 29, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180123121048.htm

Porter, C., & Serra, D. (2017, June 9). Gender Differences in the Choice of Major: The Importance of Female Role Models. NOVAFRICA. Retrieved January 29, 2018 from http://novafrica.org/novafrica-seminar-gender-differences-in-the-choice-of-major-the-importance-of-female-role-models/