My column today looks at whether women are too myopic about their grades, and are letting tough grading curves scare them away from lucrative fields like engineering, math, computer science and economics. Here’s some more detail on one of the ongoing academic projects examining this question.

Claudia Goldin, a labor economist at Harvard, began with questions about why so few women majored in economics. She noticed that men disproportionately pick economics as a major relative to their female counterparts. Men are more likely to express interest in the dismal science prior to enrolling, and then also to stay in the department once they start taking courses.

Goldin looked at the grading data for economics classes in an (anonymous) large research institution. She found that grades received in the introductory economics course — let’s call it Econ 101 — had a strong influence on whether women chose to major in economics.

Her findings are in the chart below, which shows the share of students who received a given Econ 101 grade who then go on to pick economics as their major.

Source: Claudia Goldin. Data refer to an anonymous research institution. Bars show share of students who received each grade who ultimately majored in the subject.
Source: Claudia Goldin. Data refer to an anonymous research institution. Bars show share of students who received each grade who ultimately majored in the subject.

As you can see, receiving a lower grade sharply reduces the chances that a female student decides to major in economics. Women who get A’s in the intro class are about twice as likely to major in economics as those who get B’s. But men seem much less likely to get discouraged by low grades: About 40 percent of them choose the dismal science regardless of whether they get an A, A-minus, B-plus, or B. They don’t seem to get too deterred until they drop down to a B-minus.

Now, you might argue that these numbers don’t account for students’ level of interest in economics before they take Econ 101. And men, as I noted, start college with a greater affinity for the subject. Perhaps students who take Econ 101 but expect to major in something else devote less time and energy to their economics classes, which earns them lower grades. In that case, low probability of majoring in the subject might be driving mediocre Econ 101 grades, rather than the reverse.

So Goldin also ran the numbers again, this time including only Econ 101 students who had stated, just before enrolling in college, that economics was one of their likely majors.

Source: Claudia Goldin. Data refer to an anonymous research institution, and reflect only students who named economics as a likely major before they enrolled in college. Bars show share of students who received each grade who ultimately majored in the subject.
Source: Claudia Goldin. Data refer to an anonymous research institution, and reflect only students who named economics as a likely major before they enrolled in college. Bars show share of students who received each grade who ultimately majored in the subject.

As you can see, even among students who explicitly expressed interest in majoring in economics, there is a much sharper drop-off for women as grades decline.

Goldin’s project — which will ultimately investigate ways to encourage women to study economics — is still ongoing. I very much look forward to seeing her results.

Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.