When Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, first took over the job she tweeted a photo of herself with the 24-member governing council, gathered around a grand table. Lagarde was the sole woman, surrounded by men in suits. Respondents pointed out there were more women in the room’s oil paintings than with a seat at the table.

Change to make economics more representative is overdue. This week two of Europe’s top female economists — Isabel Schnabel, an executive board member at the European Central Bank, and Margarita Delgado, deputy governor of the Bank of Spain — told the Financial Times that the profession needed to do more to help women advance. Schnabel pointed to “hidden barriers” that have kept it a job predominantly done by men.

In part, the issue stems from the recruitment pool: academic economics has long had a gender problem. The profession struggles to recruit women to undergraduate courses — the proportion studying in the US has remained roughly stable since the 1980s even as science has become more gender balanced. Women are disproportionately likely to leave the profession at every subsequent stage: fewer stay on to graduate study and, of these, fewer become senior academics.

The struggle to recruit women may be linked to embedded stereotypes. The world of money has, historically, been the province of men. Women are over-represented in other social scientific disciplines, such as sociology and psychology, with less emphasis on monetary matters and, within economics itself, are more likely to specialise in labour or development economics while macroeconomics and finance are more male-dominated.

It also, however, has something to do with the attitude of economists. Economists of both genders complain about an aggressive attitude in seminars and conferences. This culture intersects nastily with gender: an analysis of posts on a popular website for graduate students found that comments about men were more likely to focus on their academic record while women were discussed in terms of appearance.

Not only does this harm economics itself — depriving it of talent; existing inequalities are exacerbated, too. Economics graduates tend to be, on average, among higher earners and can go on to powerful positions in business and government. Studying economics can lead to materially rewarding careers — and influential ones: women may be over-represented in sociology but there are fewer senior sociologists in government.

Policymaking institutions face many of the same challenges as other parts of society — recruiters looking for people who are similar to themselves and mid-career women who drop out to take care of children. Schnabel said she was “very lucky” to find a position with flexible hours. A world view that focuses on rational self-interest can be blind to prejudice. Economics’ diversity problem is not limited to gender: the British and American economics professions are unrepresentative of the multicultural societies they serve.

The situation is improving. Along with Lagarde, many of the world’s senior policymakers are women: including Janet Yellen, the US Treasury secretary, and Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the IMF. They are joined by Cecilia Rouse, head of the US president’s council of economic advisers, Laurence Boone, chief economist at the OECD, and Gita Gopinath, her counterpart at the IMF. Role models like that can challenge the stale, male image of economics and help turn the exception they represent into the rule.

Letters in response to this article:

Economics faculties should boost diversity / From Duncan Brown, Principal Associate, Institute for Employment Studies, London TW10, UK

A Harvard course that does not alienate women / From Diana D’Souza, Dartmouth College, Edison, NJ, US