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Sex segregation set to get worse says RBA chief economist Luci Ellis

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Australia's workforce is sharply divided on the basis of sex and is set to get even more-so as young men and women defy expectations and increasingly self-select into traditional fields of study.

The proportion of women pursuing tertiary studies in traditionally "female" or "caring" fields such as education, health and hospitality has climbed since 2000 while the proportion of men studying science and information technology has soared.

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Pocket money commercial plays at launch of Women in Economics Network. Courtesy ANZ.

"The sex-segregation has, if anything, become more stark," the Reserve Bank's first female chief economist, Luci Ellis, told a gathering to launch a new network of female economists in Parliament House on Monday.

Women make up 70 per cent of the students studying to be teachers at university, more than in 2006, but only 10 per cent of those study information technology, much less than in 2006.

Economics, which was needed to understand these trends, was becoming "dismally male".

In both universities and schools, the proportion of women and girls studying economics was sinking towards all-time lows.


Australia's leading universities employed just one female economics professor for every nine males, making it "no surprise" that the field did poorly in attracting female students.

Partly as a result, male traits such as testosterone had come to be highly valued in dealing rooms, meaning that money was managed in a more risky fashion than it might be if females were in charge.

One way out would be to reconstruct money management as a "caring profession" in order to attract more women. "Perhaps it should be, because we are caring for people's money," Dr Ellis said. "I'm actually serious."

"Nobody can seriously believe that 90 per cent of the talent in economics is male, no one can seriously believe that 90 or 80 per cent of brainy people in the world are male."

"No one would agree with that stated blindly, so how did we end up with these patterns?"

The Reserve Bank has decided to aggressively hire female graduates, offering them jobs earlier than other employers and fast-tracking obviously good candidates.

Nobody can seriously believe that 90 per cent of the talent in economics is male.

Reserve Bank assistant governor Luci Ellis

This year, more than half of the Bank's new graduate hires were female, even though only around 30 per cent of economics graduates were female.

"We are doing better than 30 per cent because the women in that 30 per cent are highly likely to be good," she said. "No female goes into a male-dominated profession in order to be mediocre - they would just stick out. It's the same with men in female-dominated professions.

"To get the best graduates, we've got to do better on female participation than the student body as a whole, that would be my argument: the mediocrities are likely to be more disproportionately male than the profession as a whole."

Dr Ellis has been with the Reserve Bank for 26 years, becoming the first female head of its economics department late last year. Her predecessors in that job include the present Governor, Philip Lowe, and the previous governor, Glenn Stevens.

She said she joined the Bank almost by accident after losing her job in a coin and stamp shop during the 1991 recession and needing a sponsor to fund the honours year of her economics degree.

Her career advice was not to have a five-year or a 10-year plan because "things will happen that you never expected".

"What you need are values. Mine are understanding the world and doing good for the community through that understanding."

The Women in Economics Network plans to publish a list of female experts available to speak in the media and to promote the study of economics to girls in school. The launch featured a video prepared by the ANZ bank examining how boys and girls felt when they were offered different pocket money for the same work.

- with Peter Martin