Barring Women From Economics

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Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen laughes during a news conference December 13, 2017 (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)


Economists extol the theoretical virtues of competition. But in the practice of their own profession, they seem to oppose it, especially in opening up professional economics to women. A recent survey of economists about the profession’s climate has documented widespread abuse, harassment and systematic exclusion of women. Almost every other social science and laboratory science has made more progress against these problems than economics.

Why does economics do so badly regarding women–are economists especially mean or sexist? I don’t think so, though there is some evidence studying economics will make you less generous. The best explanation is simple, and ironically consistent with economic theory. People will act in their own self-interest to limit competition and  if women, or any group, are excluded there is less competition for coveted tenured professorships.

About a third of first-year graduate students and new PhD.s in economics are women, a share unchanged for twenty years. The percentage of undergraduate economics degrees awarded to women peaked at 35 percent in 2003 and has since fallen to between 30 and 33 percent even though the majority of college students–57 percent– are now women, up from 39 percent in 1960.  And things are no better at the top of the food chain.  The share of women among full professors in PhD granting economics departments was 6% in 1993 and only 13.9% in 2017.  Compare this to senior women professors in science and engineering–14.2 % were women in 1993, rising to 36.9 % in 2013, over two-and-a-half times the level in economics.

Just 20 % of female economists surveyed said they were satisfied with the overall climate in economics, compared to 40% of men. And only 25% of women felt valued within economics compared to 47 % of men. That is a lot of undervaluation!  Compare these dissatisfaction scores to a broad survey of employees which found only 31% felt valued at work. Men in economics are happier than a broad national sample while women economists feel less so.

The recent attention paid by the American Economics Association dealing with abuse against women begins with a senior undergraduate economics thesis at the University of California at Berkeley. Undergraduate Alice Wu analyzed posts on the web site “Economics Job Market Rumors,” a web forum focused on the job market for economics PhDs. Wu analyzed over a million posts and found that a reliable way to predict whether a post was about a woman was whether it contained explicitly sexual references – hotter, hot, tits, lesbian, bang. In contrast, posts about male candidates were much more likely to contain academic and professional terms – slides, motivated, philosopher, keen, textbook.

Economists ought to know best that cutting out the competition is a way to maintain privilege, income, and better jobs. So it is a good that the profession may finally be learning its own lessons. The American Economics Association (AEA), led by former Fed chiefs Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke and former IMF chief economist Oliver Blanchard, is taking affirmative action steps within the profession to beef up the competition among economists, giving women a fair shake and limiting male privilege.

Here is what the AEA is doing to increase inclusion of  a group it has excluded for many reason – more on bigotry and exclusion later. The AEA Executive Committee has agreed to:

  • approve a formal policy on harassment and discrimination;
  • fund an ombudsperson, a referee to permanently record complaints and investigate harassment and discrimination in any professional context;
  • use a vetting process to ensure candidates in the profession for leadership have not violated the Code or the policy on harassment and discrimination; and,
  • work with committees with the profession aimed at promoting underrepresented groups, like the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession to develop a clearinghouse for best practices/training materials etc.

There are no quotas or dicta to hire women. The focus is on highlighting an exclusionary culture and working to change it.

These professional steps matter. When I interviewed for my first teaching job fresh out of U.C. Berkeley with my PhD at age 25, these processes could have helped me stop the practice of going to hotel rooms for job interviews. Hour after hour I was asked to sit on the bed while three or four male professors sat in chairs and interviewed me for an assistant professorship. A friend of mine told me she had it slightly worse–she was perched on an unmade bed. Questions about marriage, planning for children, and one’s commitment to the profession were common.

She is now a dean at a major university and I hold an endowed chair–we are among that 13.9 percent of full economics professors who are women. But how many of our sisters drew the line and left the profession? And how much has this hostile climate discouraged women undergraduates from even pursuing graduate economics education in the first place?

Federal Reserve Governor, Lael Brainard wrote in February that evidence makes clear the contribution of economics to society will be greater when a broader range of people are engaged and that greater diversity results in better outcomes.

Bottom line: If economists are true to our teaching, the competition might help improve the field. That is not all the field needs, but allowing half the population to compete fairly should help.