Can you explain the Dow?

A cocktail conversation about women in the economy


I’m 16 and I’m watching Margot Robbie explain subprime mortgages while she’s taking a bubble bath in the film, “The Big Short.”

“These risky mortgages are called subprime, so whenever you hear subprime, think s––t,” she said and tosses back a glass of champagne.

We watched this film in my high school economics class when my teacher needed an excuse not to teach us. I don’t think I got a very good mark on the exam, but I got the definition of subprime mortgage correct. This happens to be the only thing I can remember from that economics course, so you can see the profound effect of Margot Robbie and bathtime. 

I am less than proud of how utterly stupefied I am when it comes to the economy. In fact, I see it as one of my worst qualities. It makes me feel, well, kind of basic. 

If I were ever thrown into a cocktail party discussion about the economy, I would have nothing to say except for, “Oh yeah, I heard the Dow is like totally up right now.” 

Obviously, I would have no way of explaining what Dow is exactly, just that it is up. 

So I made a resolution this year that I was going to skip the celebrity news and read the finance section. Soon enough I would be rolling the fanciest of economic terms off my tongue — like value-added tax, systematic risk and purchasing power parity. That last one definitely has a nice ring to it. 

I recently caught up with a friend from high school who is majoring in economics and finance. She told me that whenever she goes to undergraduate conferences, she is always one of three to four women in a room with a hundred students. I wondered if this disparity in gender equality is a trend. 

About a month ago, I read a New York Times article, “Why Women’s Voices Are Scarce in Economics,” which brought to my attention the disproportionately small role that women have in the field. Only a third of the nation’s undergraduate students majoring in economics are women. The numbers are more staggering for women currently in the professional academic field — making up only 13 percent of the workforce.

It would be easy for me to say that this is preposterous and that more female students should enroll as economics majors, even though I would never do this. I am a film major, so my excuse has always been that I am an artist. But I think that I have been a part of the problem in my apathy. 

Every young woman out there reserves the right to speak for themself, but I think the notion that Wall Street is a man’s world seeped into our subconscious at an early age — maybe high school. So when the time came to fill out applications for our major area of study, no one took interest in economics. 

Maybe it was movies like “The Big Short,” where the most-important female role was sexualized, or “The Wolf of Wall Street.” When I think about the actual Wall Street, I picture Leonardo DiCaprio in a suit and tie, leading an army pack of brokers and prostitutes. That’s a fairly extreme image, but it’s the one that comes to mind first. 

Men’s voices will be dominating and controlling our economy for years to come and the economy has arguably the largest influence on public policy. This is a fairly jarring concept when you consider that women and men often show disparities in opinion polls. In a 2014 survey of economists, 45 percent of men agreed that wealth should be distributed more evenly in the United States, while 64 percent of women said the same, according to The New York Times

But who is going to hear our voice if only a handful are speaking up? 

It’s too late for me to change my major, and I don’t think I have room in my academic schedule to take an intro to economics class. Still, I think that playing dumb makes me part of the problem. I may never play a direct role in Wall Street, but I can understand how it works. I can learn about economic policy, and vote accordingly. I think there is something to be said for that. 

Isabella Nurt is the assistant features editor and can be reached at isabella.nurt@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @Nurt_Spectrum.