An influx of women over the past four decades has increased the relevance of the topics that agricultural economists study, a recent article says.

Susan Offutt, a retired chief economist at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and Jill McCluskey, director and regents professor in Washington State University’s School of Economic Sciences, recently published an article, “How Women Saved Agricultural Economics.”

The article was in the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association’s journal Applied Economics Perspective and Policy.

“We were just thinking about all of the impacts women have made in agricultural economics,” McCluskey said. “I feel like many of them have been unrecognized. We also wanted to point out that adding diversity to the field can make it more creative, more relevant and even more rigorous.”

Women primarily broadened the topics that agricultural economists consider to include food and consumer issues, social safety nets and the environment, the authors said.

Women tend to be more interested in social policies such as labor, education and health, including consumer nutrition and international market development, Offutt said. They’re not necessarily as interested in finance or farm management.

“The women who joined wanted to study those topics,” Offutt said. “We argue that without the momentum the discipline gained by having a significant number of students that wanted to look at those issues, it would have remained much more narrowly focused, and we think not as relevant to national policy.”

Consumer research is vital for farmers, McCluskey said. It helps growers choose the best crops to grow and in which traits to invest breeding research.

“Before you do something, you need to know the impact on consumers,” she said. “If no one’s willing to pay for it, then it’s worth nothing.”

The authors say women are under-represented in the field. They’re often discouraged from entering fields that are math-intensive, McCluskey said.

“We can tackle it with mentoring and high expectations, we can tackle it with work-life programs (and) dual-career hiring programs,” she said.

Many people meet their partners in graduate programs, leading to dual-career academic couples. Women are more likely to turn down or leave a job if their husband doesn’t have a job, McCluskey said.

“If a woman has a child during her time on the faculty, she should be supported,” she said. “With these types of programs, we’re supporting people to work and be successful.”

Once critical mass is achieved, it’s easier to recruit more women into the field, McCluskey said.

Some of the topics that women study the most have the highest citations in published articles, which is “the currency of academia,” McCluskey said. “People are interested and it’s having impact.”

Offutt and McCluskey also point to the contribution of women in leadership roles. Both are former presidents of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association.

Women need more examples of women economists or in high policy positions, Offutt said — “just having visibility to say, ‘Oh, yeah, that is something women do.’”

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