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Posts Tagged ‘mathematics

Bad boys, what you gonna do?

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Bad-Boys

A social revolution is underway that most of us are blissfully unaware of. Its causes are fuzzy, but its consequences are likely to be significant: it could radically alter how we work, whom we marry, how many children we have, and, perhaps in the extreme, the likelihood of conflict. This social revolution is a relatively recent phenomenon. We’ve seen it emerge only in the last two decades, but it’s accelerating at a rapid pace. Welcome to the era of the widening gender gap in education.

Girls, nowadays, outperform boys at astonishing rates, both at school and at university. Two new studies, both by economists at Stellenbosch University’s Research in Social Policy unit, attest to this. First, a study by Chris van Wyk, Anderson Gondwe and Pierre de Villiers follow all 2007 Western Cape Grade 6 learners (77,633) until matric in 2013. They find that men are 29% more likely to have dropped out of school by 2013 compared to their female counterparts. These results confirm nationally representative studies of reading and math scores. Hendrik van Broekhuizen and Nic Spaull show that the gender gap in reading at South African primary schools is one of the largest in the world. But it is also in mathematics, a subject where boys traditionally outperformed girls, where the closing and then widening of the gender gap is most evident. Says Van Broekhuizen and Spaull: “In the 2000 and 2007 rounds of SACMEQ, South African grade 6 girls outperformed their male counterparts, but this difference was not statistically significant. However, in the more recently conducted TIMSS-Numeracy assessment of 2015, grade 5 girls outperformed grade 5 boys by a statistically significant margin of 16 points. This was the fourth largest (pro-girl) gender gap in mathematics of the 49 countries that participated.”

SchoolPerformance

Source: Van Broekhuizen and Spaull (2017)

Not only do girls do better than boys at school, women outperform men to an even greater extent at university. Van Broekhuizen and Spaull follow the 2008 matric cohort, and show that, while girls obtained 27% more bachelor passes in matric, more females access university (34% more), and considerably more females complete any undergraduate qualification (56% more) or any undergraduate degree (66% more). These gaps exist for all of South Africa’s race groups, although it is slightly bigger for white and coloured students. The pyramid summarizes the gap at every level: for every 100 females in matric in 2008, there were only 8 females that earned any undergraduate degree by the end of 2014, and only 5 males.

We don’t yet know what explains this gap. One argument, with some supporting evidence, is that women have more traits and behaviours that are favourable to schooling in its current form, also known as non-cognitive skills. These skills include self-control, self-motivation, dependability, sociability, perceptions of self-worth, locus of control, time-preference and delayed gratification. But why exactly these non-cognitive skills have become more valuable in the last two decades is not entirely clear. Others have pointed to technological change, particularly in computer and video games, as an explanation for why men are performing worse. But that does not explain gender differences at very young ages.

What is more interesting, though, is to think through the likely consequences. The most obvious is the effect on the job market. Graduates have a much lower unemployment rate (5%) compared to those without any tertiary qualification (33%) in South Africa. If more women have degrees, women are likely to have significant lower unemployment rates than men. And because the best students in almost all subject fields are now women, they are likely to find the best jobs, and move up the job ladder quicker.

We know that men have historically held the majority of high-ranking positions in the workplace, and this outcome can do a lot to balance things out. But it is also important that we think carefully through the full range of consequences. People prefer to match on education, meaning that women prefer men with a similar level of education, and vice versa. What does the gender-unbalanced pool of graduates mean for finding your soulmate? If women become the main (or only) breadwinners, how will that affect family planning? Women already face a more difficult trade-off than men between having to balance a family and career – will this cause fertility rates to fall further, especially for those at the upper-end of the income distribution where the gender gap is most pronounced?

And what of the men? Will they be happy to step in and take up more of the family responsibilities? In a world that increasingly rewards human capital, a large pool of unskilled men will find no outlet for their only productive resource: manual labour. If these men, without proper interventions, become more indolent and isolated, what are the likely political and social consequences? It is not surprising that the political extremes are often dominated by men. Men already outnumber women in all major crime categories. If unchecked, violence and conflict, at the household, community and international level, will in all likelihood increase.

It is natural to ask what can be done about this. Those who argue that the cause for the gender gap is the sudden increase in rewards for non-cognitive abilities would argue that the schooling system can do more to nurture these traits in men. Others would argue that the technological change that make men less productive – like video games – should be taxed.

Others, again, will say that it is pointless to intervene – why should we care about men when women have been suppressed for centuries, and many remain the victims of abuse and dominance? I would argue that that is exactly why we should care about the rising gender gap in education: if we don’t, the consequences are likely to be dire, for men and women.

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Written by Johan Fourie

March 26, 2018 at 08:30

Again: What to study in South Africa

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Big shots: Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and Edward Glaeser, amongst others, were at the ASSA meetings in San Francisco

Big shots: Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and Edward Glaeser, amongst others, were at the ASSA meetings in San Francisco

My most popular post on this blog – by far! – remains the Why and what to study in South Africa entry I wrote in May 2013. My advice was pretty simple: if you can do math, study a degree where you will develop your math skills further. Math and statistics, combined with economics, computer science and/or engineering sciences, will make you an incredibly desirable employee: both in South Africa and abroad.

I was reminded of this advice when I attended the world’s largest gathering of economists last week in San Francisco. The ASSA meetings spanned three days, had more than 500 sessions with more than 12 000 participants. I presented a paper with Dieter von Fintel (on persistence and reversal of fortune) in a session on apartheid – with excellent papers by Johannes Norling (on fertility), Dan de Kadt and Melissa Sands (on voting), and Martine Mariotti and Taryn Dinkelman (on remittances and migration). And there were many other excellent sessions: notable ones I attended was a session on long-run inequality (with a very entertaining Philippe Aghion), a session on writing books (see photo), and a session on early childhood development (where Melissa Kearney presented a paper I reported on here).

But what reminded me about my math advice was a discussion during one session about the need to diversify academia. One commentator mentioned that the reason for the slow diversification of economics faculty is the high level of mathematics required to do a PhD in Economics in the US. (The slow transformation was quite apparent at the conference: the vast majority of attendees were white males.) Much like in South Africa, black students in the US would often opt out of math courses because of poor grades or a bad experience at school. They are thus more likely to end up in the humanities and less likely to study more ‘mathy’ degrees, like economics.

Yet, there is an increasing realisation that the current state of affairs – the white, male bias – is neither fair nor sustainable. Harvard’s chair of the Economics department, David Laibson, confirmed this: he was quite explicit that Harvard will focus on hiring more diverse staff during his tenure. This is likely to increase the demand for female and black economists (and engineers, scientists, actuaries, statisticians) significantly in the foreseeable future. But to suspect that the market will automatically adjust – that the higher demand will induce more black students to study economics – is unlikely. That is why there are several programmes in the US to inform high school students of the possibilities that economics can offer, showing them the wide applicability of economics in their daily lives. (Economists, for example, study how Discovery Vitality can get their members to live healthier lives, they study how to make things like Uber and Airbnb more efficient, they study what’s wrong with the school system and how to improve it, they study how firms compete and grow, they study the minimum wage and its impact and, yes, they also study financial markets and the banking system. Just watch this video).

Economics departments in South Africa are certainly not doing enough to promote the field to young scholars. Prospective students have a very narrow view of what an economist does, if they have a view at all. I know I never thought much about Economics before I arrived in my Economics 1 class. But the truth is that there is a massive demand for good economists, both in South Africa and, as I witnessed for myself in San Francisco, abroad. South Africa’s services industry needs far more graduates with strong mathematical or statistical backgrounds; the industries of the future will require the analyses and interpretation of (big) data, skills for which economists are well-equipped.

So, what should you study? This is an incredibly tough decision to make at a young age, and it almost certainly will have a big impact on the quality of your life. But here goes: if you have the ability, you can narrow the risk that your choice will turn out to be a bad one by developing your math and stats capabilities. And if you really want to enjoy what you’re doing (yes, I’m biased), combine it with Economics.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 13, 2016 at 19:00

More math and science, please

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Princeton University professor Leonard Wantchekon was the keynote at the African Economic History Workshop in Wageningen, the Netherlands

Princeton University professor Leonard Wantchekon was the keynote at the African Economic History Workshop in Wageningen, the Netherlands (31 October 2015)

I had the good fortune last week of meeting Leonard Wantchekon, Professor of Economics at Princeton University. His is an incredible story: student protester in Benin, sent to prison, tortured, escaped, fled to Canada, shifted from math to economics, and moved up the ranks to be professor at an Ivy League university.

But apart from these gripping experiences, he noted how important the study of mathematics was in his life, and still is for many students in Benin, a country ranked 167th poorest out of 187 countries in the world. That is why six of the top ten mathematicians in Africa are from Benin (his fact), and why he has opened the African School of Economics in the country.

This got me thinking about a topic I’ve written on before: what do the best and brightest South African high school matriculants choose to study? Of course, their choice is influenced by a multitude of factors. Parents have certain expectations, friends weight in, teachers have their say and there are often financial realities at play. They see adverts for different occupations in newspapers and online, they watch series which portray romanticized images of certain careers, and they dream about working with people, or with animals, or ‘not-in-an-office’. (If I had a Rand for every time a student told me that they just don’t want to work in an office… and these are Commerce students. Buddy, you’ll plead for an office after you’ve spent a few years in a cubicle!)

But a new paper by Biniam Bedasso of ERSA suggests that there are other factors, too, which shape our behaviour. Your science teacher is one. The most significant determinant of choosing a major at the University of Cape Town, according to Bedasso, is the number of science courses an applicant took in high school. The more science courses you take, the more likely you are to choose high-earning degrees like Engineering. Not all schools, however, are equally endowed with good science teachers, which means that inequalities at school translate into inequalities at university: black students who are more likely to go to schools with no science teachers are more likely to end up choosing degrees in the Arts and Humanities, for example.

Peer pressure is another factor that influences degree choice. Using enrollment at UCT between 2010 and 2013, Bedasso finds that if your friends choose a Humanities degree, you are 10% more likely than someone with your exact same characteristics that live elsewhere to also choose a Humanities degree. In his words:

Neighbourhood effects shape the choice of individuals through the influence of near-peer role models. Correcting for possible clustering of unobserved preferences along postcodes, a one standard deviation increase in the ratio of near-peers who were admitted to a certain faculty during the last three years is shown to increase the probability of choosing the same faculty by around 10 percent.

He also finds, interestingly, that politics matter. Black South African matriculants are more likely to choose Commerce or Arts degrees, instead of Engineering or Science, if they live in a neighbourhood that is governed by the ANC. It’s difficult to think why this would be: perhaps this confirms the old adage that it is not what you know but who you know. In economics-speak: social capital trumps human capital.

As we would expect, the quality of high school attended also matters. Says Bedasso: “High-achieving applicants who come from less competitive high schools tend to choose high-return majors than similar students from more competitive high schools.” So, if you’re from a poor school but do very well, you are more likely to study Math and Science than if you do equally well in a good school.

Surprisingly, whites weigh expected earnings more heavily in their choice of degree: “White applicants are more responsive to differentials in aptitude-adjusted expected earnings than black applicants.” In other words, whites are more likely to switch to a degree where they can earn a higher salary.

Bedasso thinks these results have profound implications for South Africa:

The gravitation of the children of the political elites towards less technical majors may deprive the political class of sufficient interest in productive activities. This, in turn, is likely to leave the elites with little incentives to respect property rights in the future. Hence, policy measures that will improve the availability of science education at high school level or account for the effect of near-peer role models in college admissions may go a long way in terms of shaping the path of economic development.

I think this is stretching the results, and would be more optimistic. Successful businesses require more than just breakthrough innovations; many of our top accountants and business students end up running technology companies because they know that running a business is not an algorithm to be programmed for success. As a new wave of young, successful black South African entrepreneurs strut their stuff in the business world and the barriers to entrepreneurial and managerial success appear less daunting, the attractiveness of a political career (and academic) will seem less appealing. This young generation, I would argue, is unlikely to cede property rights.

That being said, the need to promote math and science at schools remains imperative. We need more scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and computer programmers to remain competitive in the knowledge economy. We should start by appointing more and better math and science teachers, as Bedasso’s evidence suggests. It would also help if parents support their children to choose these (tougher) subjects. And if friends encourage each other.

I don’t know how to incentivize this change in behaviour. What I do know is that math and science can open doors that, if they remain locked, bar entry to a better life. Just ask a former prisoner from Benin.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 5, 2015 at 08:26

Why and what to study in South Africa

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Career_LetsTalkAboutVarsityIt’s exam time at universities across South Africa, which means most students will suddenly have too much time to ponder the existential questions of life: Why am I here? What am I doing? Why am I doing this? (If you haven’t had these thoughts yet, try studying econometrics.) So I thought I’d provide some answers so that you can get back to thinking about the more pressing matters, like passing Ecos 2.

Why study?

A new research paper by two Stellenbosch economists provides the answer: South Africans (of all races) with a university degree (not a diploma or certificate) enter a labour market with an unemployment rate of 5.9% (in 2012), compared to the 25% unemployment rate for the total population. In other words, a university qualification reduces the odds of you not finding a job from 1 in 4, to 1 in 17. The more surprising thing is that this result holds across all universities and disciplines: a degree – no matter where or what type – makes a significant difference in your likelihood of finding a job.

From the existing data and research there is not much statistical evidence that either the type of degree acquired, or the university attended, leads to a greater likelihood of being unemployed for a graduate (although we still need better data and more research to understand these aspects fully). Unemployment rates are relatively low even amongst black graduates who currently are more likely to enrol for courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences and attend ‘formerly disadvantaged’ universities. While the composition and quality of a degree may play a role in black graduate unemployment being higher than for white graduates, black graduates still experience lower graduate unemployment than in the European Union, for example.

What to study?

So what you study doesn’t seem to matter? No. The above study measures your likelihood to get a job. And even though an art historian is as likely to get a job than a chemical engineer, their remuneration (salary) is likely to be different. Few of us are only concerned about getting a job; most of us care about the financial rewards (and auxiliary benefits) that that job offers.

A recent list by PayScale, a US company, ranks the top-paying degrees in the United States. I think this is a pretty accurate reflection of South Africa too, with one exception (which I’ll get to later). If you want to earn the big bucks, engineering is a good place to start, occupying six of the top seven highest paid degrees. Only Actuarial Mathematics – Actuarial Science in South Africa – can compete. An obvious feature of the top thirty top-paying degrees is that they require a heavy dose of mathematics, and one could argue that, given the poor performance in maths at South African schools, the premiums on these degrees would be even higher. The point is this: if you get an A for Matric maths, your best option is to enrol in an undergraduate degree that further develops your math skills (Engineering, Physics, Actuarial Science, Statistics, Applied Mathematics, Computer Science). Studying mathematics is an excellent core skill to have; it opens up doors (at the graduate level) to many other applied fields, from the medical sciences, to software programming, to game theory, to managing your own business.

But not everyone can or want to (or should) be mathematicians. As the PayScale list shows, there are many other rewarding fields. One underrated field I consider to be increasingly important is supply chain management (or Logistics). Coding and computer programming will become increasingly important. And, as an economist, I must recommend Economics (and History): if you don’t believe me, read Noahpinion on why a PhD in Economics is the best thing since sliced bread. (Michael Jordaan, CEO of First National Bank, recently retweeted Noah’s post…)

And, remember, it is actually really really really important to do something you enjoy doing. You will spend most of your waking hours at work. You don’t want to hate it. (I’m happy that Ben Bernanke, chairperson of the Federal Reserve, shares this view. See point 7.)

Accounting for accounting

At this point, let me say something about the study of Accounting. Advising brilliant students (students that has the ability to study anything), school councillors in South Africa would most often suggest a career in either Actuarial Science and Accounting. To become a Chartered Accountant (following four years of study and two board exams) is seen as a ticket to riches and the logical option for many high-school students. To give one example of the preference for accounting; the School for Accounting at Stellenbosch now constitutes a third of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, which also include Economics, Management, Marketing, Logistics, Actuarial Science, Statistics, Industrial Psychology and the Business School.

This is a peculiar choice, and is unique to South Africa. Accounting is not a career choice for the brightest students in Europe or the United States, as is also clear from the PayScale list (Accounting doesn’t rank in the top 50). There are historical and institutional reasons for Accounting’s dominance at South African universities: the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants sets strict guidelines as to what should be included in undergraduate and graduate training, determines the difficulty of the board exams, and can thus limit the supply of Chartered Accountants (CAs) in the market. A limited supply increases the price, meaning qualified CAs earn well, which makes it even more sought-after. It is also a well-defined career path: get your Honours, write two exams, and you’re set. Make no mistake: these are some of the toughest exams to write, requiring years of hard studying. Only the toughest survive. The pay-off is a qualification with nearly limitless job opportunities (at least until the financial crisis hit) and guarantees high incomes.

Well-trained accountants have certainly contributed to the quality financial institutions South Africa is known for.  But – and this is a question I have no answer for – at what cost for the individuals and for society? I have not met many accountants who enjoy their job; they enjoy the benefits, yes, but not necessarily the auditing. These are driven individuals (you have to be to pass those exams) and they often rise quickly in an organisation, but is it because of the knowledge they gained studying Accounting or is it because they are inherently intelligent, motivated individuals? Would they not have climbed the corporate ladder in any event – perhaps even faster – with some other degree? More importantly for society, what if the most brilliant of South African high-school students, instead of learning auditing rules and tax principles and accounting standards, were grappling with the Hodge conjecture (in mathematics), the Gettier problem (in epistemology), the Golgi apparatus (in cell theory), the Equity Premium puzzle (in financial economics), or supermassive black holes (in astrophysics)? Or instead decided to create something brilliant: as authors, as artists, as entrepreneurs?

If Einstein was born in South Africa, he would probably have studied accounting. I’m not sure that he – or South Africa and the world at large – would have benefited much from such an arrangement.

I’m still at school and don’t know what I want to study

The good news is that it doesn’t really matter what you study, as long as you study something and make sure you get your degree. That degree – regardless of what you know – is already a sign to potential employers that you can work hard. But there are a few things you can do to improve your salary and job satisfaction:

  • Learn a computer language at school. Coding will open many job opportunities that probably don’t even exist yet.
  • In a world of information overload, writing succinctly is a skill that will be prized in all professions. To write well, read. Why not learn another language while you’re at it? (I would recommend Portuguese (for the fast-growing markets of Brazil, Mozambique and Angola), Swahili (East Africa), Mandarin (China), Spanish (the Americas) or French (West Africa, and to impress girls).
  • Of course, the richest people under 30 in the world are not the ones who studied. They are the entrepreneurs that had a great idea and put in a lot of effort to make those ideas a reality. Entrepreneurs are the life-blood of society. I can think of nothing more rewarding than building your company from a small garage workshop into something that has a profound impact on society, employing dozens or even hundreds or thousands of people. The sooner you start, the better.
  • If you need more information of university life, please read this book. It’s available (for free) on Google Books. If you’d like a hard copy, I still have thousands in my garage. (I started too late.)

Written by Johan Fourie

May 25, 2013 at 10:19