WHEN Belinda Pearson first started as an economic analyst at Seattle First National Bank in 1965, the bank had never promoted a woman to be a bank officer before. When she left in 1985, she was chief economist and one of the first women to reach vice president at the bank.
Over the last 20 years, women have made major inroads into the male-dominated economics profession. Many more women now seek masters degrees and PhDs in economics; women win more economics jobs; and the salary gap between the genders has narrowed.
In 1992, women received 28 percent of new doctorates in economics, almost triple the percentage in 1974. And about 28 percent of openings as assistant professors are going to women, according to the Council on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP).
Woman economists now head the Council of Economic Advisors and the Bureau of Labor Statistics; a number of Fortune 500 companies have female chief economists; and women have founded economic think tanks and consulting groups.
Despite these successes, the top tier of business and academic jobs remains surprisingly elusive. ``Breaking through the glass ceiling, taking that last step into the inner circle - that is going to be the toughest step for women and minorities,'' says economist Tucker Hart Adams, a former vice president at United Banks of Colorado.
The barriers come in the form of subtle discrimination, less emphasis on math training for girls in high school, the demands of child rearing and child care, which tend to fall to women, and the scarcity of female mentors.
Women economists still comprise less than a quarter of the nation's economists, receive tenure less often, publish less often, and hold only 4 percent of the nation's full professorships, according to CSWEP.
``I don't know how much discrimination there is,'' says Shulamit Kahn at Boston University. ``It is not overt.... Most men within economics accept women. The question is whether they don't judge them with a slightly harsher rule?''
A salary survey of members of the National Association of Business Economists showed that men earned $67,000 on average in 1992, while women earned $13,500 less, or $53,500.
The challenge for women academics is getting tenure and being made full professors. The percentage of women drops dramatically in the higher echelons. In 1992 women made up 19 percent of assistant professors, 8 percent of associate professors, and just 4 percent of full professors. This is less than half the corresponding percentage of full professors in science and engineering, and just over a third that of full professors in the social sciences.
Dr. Kahn found that only slightly more than 58 percent of women entering academia find tenure-track jobs, while more than 73 percent of men do.
One reason for the disparity might be traced to early schooling. ``Why don't women go to the more prestigious schools'' and receive better training? Kahn asks. ``They didn't do as well in math and quantitative ability. Why didn't they do as well in math? You are back to the whole question of whether girls in grammar school and high school are being taught math phobia.''
Finding employment at the top six economic research departments has proven nearly impossible for women. American University dean Ivy Broder found only two women among the 153 full professors at Chicago, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The number of women faculty at any level -
assistant, associate, and professor - was to under 7 percent.
CSWEP has used economic models to track the hiring of women economists in academia. It has found that the number of women hired as associate and full professors has consistently fallen short of its expectations.
Balancing child rearing and work is another challenge for women. In the academic world, most women get their PhDs in the mid-to-late 20s, are then hired as assistant professors, and then must achieve tenure in six years. The women who want children face a difficult dilemma. ``I don't think I could be where I am if I had had children,'' says Elizabeth Hoffman, at Iowa State University. ``I wouldn't be dean of a college of 12,000, full professor with 35 articles published. It is just not possible.''
Most women who have children while they are assistant professors have a difficult time, Dr. Broder says. ``They feel guilty about one thing or another, about not spending time with their children or not spending time doing enough research.''
Universities have begun to change the tenure system to give parental leave to both men and women seeking tenure.
Lack of mentors to provide critical career advice to young economists is another problem. That was the case with Dr. Hart Adams. ``A woman [economist] who taught at another school took an interest in me,'' she says. ``She made an effort to suggest who I should meet and get to know, recommended some things, and it made a difference.''
Rebecca Bank, an economist at Northwestern University in Chicago and chairwoman of CSWEP, sees in her teaching the importance of mentors. Many women seek her out and take her classes, she says, because ``they want to see what this creature - a woman economist -