Gender Inequality

Economics needs to do more than attract women to solve its gender problem

A wave of young economists are determined to change the face and culture of their field. Image: Quartz

Eshe Nelson
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Gender Inequality

At 38, less than two years after completing a PhD in economics, Carolina Alves is taking a big risk with her career.

Alves is attempting to break down the sturdy hierarchy in economics that has created a field dominated by white men from English-speaking countries. She is trying to shake the foundations of mainstream economics so that other schools of thought can gain credibility and influence through the cracks. Eventually, she hopes, a more diverse and inclusive field of study can be built. In March, alongside nine, mostly female, fellow economists in the early stages of their careers, Alves set up the initiative called Diversifying and Decolonising Economics.

The goal of D-Econ, as she calls it, is to make economics “free of discrimination, including sexism, racism, and discrimination based on approach and geography.” Wanting to rid a profession of sexism and racism is not a controversial goal. The American Economic Association (AEA), the closest institution the field has to a governing body (it was established in 1885), is making similar efforts.

But D-Econ goes further. Its mission statement argues that the “homogenous composition” of the economics profession is a result of “systemic exclusion.” It’s not just a gender and racial diversity problem: There is also a lack of diversity in ideas, methodology, and theory. D-Econ says all these issues must be dealt with simultaneously.

“This is going to have a cost to our careers,” Alves says, sitting in the common room of the University of Cambridge’s economics department, where she is a fellow and lecturer. There are usually consequences to upending the status quo. In economics, status is maintained by a hierarchy and achieved via a narrow ladder to success. Just three members of D-Econ’s 10-person executive board has a permanent academic position. “We keep thinking about the rest of us, what’s going to happen when we start applying for jobs,” Alves says. “We are very clear that we’re going to take the risk.”

The D-Econ team is not acting alone. In recent months, there has been a wave of young economists determined to change the face and culture of their field in various ways, and willing to take the risk of speaking out to do so. They have been jolted by allegations of sexual harassment, evidence of discrimination, and the slowness of established institutions to react to these injustices. Despite the challenges of being young, female, or of color in the field, they say it’s worth trying to change economics because of its potential to remedy some of society’s toughest challenges. Because economic principles are so influential in shaping public policy, mainstream economics should be as diverse as the populations it studies, they argue.

Surveying the problem

Women and minorities are woefully underrepresented in economics. In an effort to get a grasp of the extent of discrimination, bias, sexism, racism and related ills, the AEA sent out a survey to its past and present members asking about the working climate of the profession. More than 9,000 economists responded, out of around 45,000 eligible members who are in academic departments and other research institutions. The initial results were published in March.

Image: National Sciences Foundation

Half of the women who responded to the survey said they had been treated unfairly because of their gender, compared with 3% of men. Almost as many women said they hadn’t presented ideas at work or had avoided speaking at seminars to avoid possible harassment or “disrespectful treatment.” Among the black economists who responded, only 14% said they agreed with the statement that “people of my race/ethnicity are respected within the field.” Gay and lesbian economists were also more likely to report discrimination.

Carolina Alves in Cambridge’s economics department.
Image: Quartz

The survey also confirmed that sexual harassment is alarmingly widespread. Hundreds of female economists said they had been touched in ways that made them uncomfortable. Eighty-five female economists surveyed said they had been sexually assaulted by an economist or economics student. These women said they were “fondled, kissed, or rubbed up against;” had clothes removed without their consent; or penetrated or had someone try to perform oral sex on them.

The AEA survey is the first broad self-examination of the profession, but only the most recent piece of evidence in a deep stack of research attesting to the gender bias and marginalization in the field. Research has shown that women economists are penalized for co-authoring papers, women’s research is held to a higher standard and spends longer in peer review, and women receive systematically lower teaching evaluations than their male colleagues, driven by evaluations from male students. A study by economists at the University of Chile and Boston University found that “on a wide battery of measures, economics students are more biased than students in other fields.”

The AEA responded to its survey with a slew of measures designed to quell harassment and discrimination. It hired an ombudsperson to deal with complaints, adopted a formal policy on harassment and discrimination, and instituted a vetting process ahead of elections and appointments to senior roles under the AEA’s jurisdiction to exclude anyone who had violated the code of conduct. A new committee also said it was working to introduce Callisto, a technology used to identify repeat offenders of sexual assault and harassment.

This reckoning was instigated by a research paper written by Alice Wu, published in August 2017, just two months before the New York Times published the first wave of allegations against Harvey Weinstein and kicked off the #MeToo movement. As an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Wu mined more than 1 million posts on Economics Job Market Rumors, a popular online economics forum, to show the extent of misogynistic language used by economists.

By the time the New York Times published an article in December 2018 with allegations against Roland Fryer, a star economist at Harvard, for engaging in “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” and creating a hostile working environment for women, it was impossible for economics to ignore its problems.

Digging deeper

Science, technology, engineering and other math-based fields are notorious for their gender imbalances. But economics still stands out. Progress in improving female representation lags behind these other subjects, and is getting worse. Research by Donna Ginther and Shulamit Kahn found that women in economics were less likely to get tenure and take longer to achieve it. In their research—which also looked at the fields of statistics, political science, life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering—economics had the largest gender-promotion gap by a wide margin.

The AEA’s committee on the status of women in economics has tracked representation in the field since the 1970s. After two decades of improvement, it says, the numbers have stalled. Last year, the total number of women entering PhD programs was the lowest this century, solidifying inequality in the profession for years to come. Efforts to get more women and minorities to join the field have heavily focused on mentoring initiatives; this helps build up personal alliances but doesn’t fix the structural flaws in the field.

It will take more than a stricter harassment policy to change the culture in economics. Some argue that the root of the problem goes to the very heart of what defines economics: its models.

Mainstream economics uses these fundamental tools to understand and simplify the world. They are considered to possess scientific, neutral, and objective assumptions. The models at the core of economics are unencumbered by distinctions of race, gender, and other identity-based characteristics. People are instead rational agents maximizing their utility. Many economists believe these models can be used to study the world in an objective way, but these tools were built by the mostly white men who developed the field. And so some women, particularly those who study feminist economics, believe this models provide a subjective and gendered perspective. That gender bias is written into the DNA of economics. Ignoring gender, for example, is not objective to women. This is another example of the defects of living in a world designed by men.

“Our discipline is gender biased in its definition, models, and methods.”

Addressing the dominance of white men in economics isn’t just about fairness. The imbalance has created an environment that is accused of intellectually stifling the field. In response to the AEA survey, Julie Nelson, an economics professor at University of Massachusetts Boston, wrote on EconSpark (a new online forum created by the AEA, which it hopes will replace Economics Job Market Rumors) that sexual harassment was just a small part of the field’s problems. “Women’s ideas, topics especially relevant to women, and methodologies that aren’t sufficiently ‘macho’ are also routinely disrespected within our discipline,” she wrote. “The result is that economics is far less accurate and objective than we may tend to think, and what is more, is blind to its own biases.”

Nelson was building on a point she made in an essay presented at the AEA’s annual meetings in Atlanta in January. Impersonal markets and rational choice are favored over social and family relations; autonomy and rational behavior outweigh interdependence and emotion, she wrote. “At the broadest level, our discipline is gender biased in its definition, models, and methods,” she noted. “These favor realms of life and aspects of human behavior that are culturally associated with masculinity.”

Changing the method

D-Econ’s founders say that gender bias and a narrow acceptance of methodology are related.

At Cambridge, Alves holds the five-year position of Joan Robinson research fellow in heterodox economics, named for an influential but under-recognized economist. Robinson, who was the wife of the man named on the building of Cambridge’s economics department (Austin Robinson), made wide-ranging contributions to economics, including developing the theory of imperfect competition in the 1930s and helping refine and promote John Maynard Keynes’ ideas. Robinson was overlooked for the Nobel prize in economics on several occasions, and it wasn’t until 26 years after her death that a woman first won the accolade: Elinor Ostrom in 2009. Ostrom remains the only woman to get that distinction.

Aside from an interest in Marxist economic theory, Robinson and Alves share an interest in highlighting the perceived failings of mainstream economics. Robinson was often critical of developments in economics, including its increasing mathematicalization. She once famously said, “I don’t know math, so I am obliged to think.”

The trend toward a heavier reliance on math didn’t stop. This is troubling some of today’s best-known economists, from the chief economist of the Bank of England to Janet Yellen, who was the first (and, thus far, only) female chair of the US Federal Reserve. Last year, Yellen said that economics puts too much value on mathematical modeling in its pursuit of becoming a harder science rather than a social science. “To my mind this is a serious methodological bias that is blinding the profession to very important phenomena,” Yellen said at a conference in November, the Wall Street Journal reported.

To be sure, many mainstream economists are aware that there are flaws in their field. In the decade since the financial crisis, there have been concerted efforts to address some of the biggest failings, particularly analysis of the financial sector. There has been a pushback against homo economicus, the rational man used in mainstream models, and a growth in behavioral economics that incorporates lessons from psychology. But there is little interconnectedness between mainstream efforts to make the field more interdisciplinary or more focused on solving societal ills such as inequality or environmentally-unsustainable growth, and the initiatives to improve gender and racial equality. Nor have many gatekeepers thought about how these two objectives would serve each other.

Overcoming methodological bias is an important part of D-Econ’s goals, as the group aims to dismantle the field’s theoretical hierarchy. Economics is split into mainstream (primarily neoclassical) economics and heterodox economics, the latter of which features economic analyses founded in everything from Marxism to feminism, and whose studies are mostly consigned to an inferior status. (Heterodox economics is a broad umbrella, and some of its ideas stand up to scrutiny better than others.) Alves, a proponent of heterodox economics, says it doesn’t conform to the idea that there is one way to do economics best. One of the ways heterodox economics is distinct from more mainstream work, she says, is that it places a higher importance on power structures.

Speaking up

D-Econ was established after the 2019 AEA meeting in Atlanta, partly in response to dissatisfaction with how the institution was dealing with the lack of diversity.

On the second morning of the meetings in Atlanta, there was a panel called “How Can Economics Solve Its Gender Problem?” featuring Janet Yellen and other female prize-winning economists. This, surely, was a mark of how seriously the AEA took this issue.

For two hours, they talked about what needed to change in economics, particularly the infamously aggressive nature of seminars. Most said they had rarely experienced issues of discrimination or harassment first-hand. They talked about how young people in economics were demanding change, but these young people were not on stage. There was no mention of the challenges people of color faced, or the intersectional difficulty of being a woman of color in economics. For two hours, the five panelists talked between themselves without engaging the audience—proof that five women on a stage doesn’t always count for diversity and inclusivity, no matter how well-intentioned.

A group of young economists did cause a stir at the AEA meetings, however. A few days before economists gathered in Atlanta, nearly 400 graduate students and research assistants published an open letter about discrimination and harassment in the field, with clear ideas on how to “address the power imbalances that drive out talented individuals.” The letter called on university departments to introduce better mechanisms for making complaints against senior staff, saying junior staff shouldn’t have to rely on “whisper networks” to protect themselves. “We are tired of leaders in the field refusing to see problems happening right under their noses,” the letter concluded.

By speaking out, they challenged the hierarchy in economics and rejected a culture of silence and quiet suffering. As Evelyn Smith, who is working towards a PhD in business and economics at the University of Michigan and one of the coordinators of the letter, says, “early in your career, your future in the field depends on the opinions of a small handful of people—the people who write your recommendation letters for grad school and your advisors, for example… Many younger people in the profession perceive, probably accurately, that speaking up about this behavior means they lose their careers.”

Even as the mood in economics is changing, the strength of the status quo is still clear. Seventy-seven of the letter’s signatories—a fifth of them—preferred to sign anonymously.

Whether young economists go on to spend their careers in academia or a different type of research institution (like a central bank), they are all confronted with the same path to success. They need to get into a PhD program and then go into the structured job market looking for research assistant and postdoctoral positions. Even after securing a job, there are conferences, seminars, and collaboration that keep the academic and institutional worlds of economics bound together. There is a sense that just one bad word can damage your career, and anyone could potentially deliver that fatal blow.

The power dynamics in economics reflect broader societal patterns. At the AEA conference, women of color were notably missing from many of the organized sessions on gender discrimination. They are one of, if not the, most underrepresented groups in economics. According to data from the AEA’s committee for minorities, of the more than 1,000 PhD degrees awarded in the 2016-17 academic year in the US, just seven went to black women and only four to Hispanic women.

“You can’t talk about diversity in one dimension.”

Anna Opoku-Agyeman, who graduated in May from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is aspiring to a PhD in economics, has worked hard to create a space for women like her. She set up the Sadie Collective, named after Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African American woman to get a PhD in economics in the US in 1921. Opoku-Agyeman, who recently turned 23, co-organized a conference in Washington, DC in February, specifically designed to highlight black women economists, and encourage more to join the field.

Since the 1960s, organizations like the AEA’s committee and the National Economic Association have tried to increase the representation of ethnic minorities in economics. Opoku-Agyeman says more needs to be done, and differently, so she’s modeled the Sadie Collective on inclusive grassroots organizations. “We just knew we had to be the ones to instigate the change,” Opoku-Agyeman says. In general, she says the profession is going through a reckoning when it comes to gender, but the same energy hasn’t been applied to race. “You can’t talk about diversity in one dimension,” she says.

A world of possibilities

Another strand of D-Econ’s mission is to decolonize economics by “tackling the historically produced Eurocentrism in our field and its claim to neutrality and universality.” Alves grew up in the 1980s in Sao Carlos, a city about three hours’ drive from Sao Paulo, at the start of a two-decade period of hyperinflation. She recalls going to the shops with her mother on payday to buy everything they needed for the month, and if possible longer, knowing that the same items would get much more expensive a short time later. She developed an interest in politics from her mother, who was very critical of the government. In Brazil, Alves completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and sociology, at the time unable to speak English.

“There was also this question about the language,” Alves said. “I felt limited because, at the time [after the master’s degree], I couldn’t read in a different language.” Before committing to a PhD program, Alves decided to move to the UK for six months to learn English. Six months has turned into 10 years. Alves has pushed to have decolonization included as a priority for D-Econ, though she knows that this could discourage people from joining the group. There needs to be more geographical diversity, she says, so that economic theory and their policy prescriptions can properly reflect the needs of different parts of the world. “Nothing’s neutral,” she stresses. “Theories are socially produced. They reflect that context.”

Have you read?

The first step D-Econ is taking is to create a database of heterodox and women economists. The group’s creators think this is the first line of defense against the exclusion of these scholars from research or conferences. The next step is to create conference guidelines to improve the inclusion of women. This includes measures such as better funding for transport, help with childcare, making timings more considerate to family life, and ensuring that chairs give equal time to panelists.

D-Econ also plans to survey economic journals to gather data on who is submitting papers, and then whether they are rejected or eventually published. Academic journals are an important target for many people reforming economics. Publishing in the top five journals, all based in the US, has been proven to increase the likelihood of getting tenure. This has created a focus on getting published in these prestigious journals, where the editors and gatekeepers rarely change. This inhibits creativity, as people specialize in the preferences of a handful of editors to get ahead, while economists whose studies don’t conform to what is published in these journals get left behind. Here, economics could use one of its own tools—the study of incentives—to fix one of its own problems.

Industry guidelines, open letters, conferences—these do not seem like revolutionary tactics. Rather, they are slow, determined efforts to produce long-lasting change. Their subtlety also reflects the risk that organizers face to their careers. Instead of a sudden rejection or high-profile ostracization, women economists, people of color, heterodox economists, and others who face marginalization can experience the equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. They can struggle to get published in top journals, gain admission to top-tier programs, and get their research interests acknowledged by superiors. Slowly but surely, they are pushed into the academic outskirts, where they meet others like them and it reinforces a fragmented, multi-tiered system.

As the economists in D-Econ carefully challenge the hierarchy in their field, they may struggle to gain prominence. But their attempts to reform economics from the inside, at considerable personal risk, are worth watching.

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