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Even Without a ‘Me Too’ Moment, Economics Faces a Gradual Reckoning

  • Profession is crawling toward greater gender inclusivity
  • Spate of research shows female economists at disadvantage

University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney has a tenured position, a resume full of hot-topic published papers and a senior fellowship at the Brookings Institution. Yet not long ago she considered quitting the field.

Anonymous postings on the website Economics Job Market Rumors -- a public discussion board where female economists are often the subjects of long and vitriolic threads -- blasted her research and presentations. Combined with bullying from a man in her department, the often-objectifying comments were almost the final straw, Kearney said.

“It was just exhausting and completely demoralizing,’’ she said.

Now Kearney sees her field in the midst of a reckoning. The American Economic Association is looking to create an alternative to the online forum after a paper called attention to its sexist language and a petition condemning it garnered more than a thousand signatures. The AEA plans to adopt a formal code of conduct, fueled in part by the revelations.

The attention to online abuse is adding momentum to a broader discussion about gender in economics. At the association’s annual meeting over the weekend, a standing-room-only session focused on gender issues in the field ranging from the lack of diversity in textbooks to classrooms. The organization’s current head, Stanford University professor and Nobel Prize-winning game theorist Alvin Roth, highlighted the online stereotyping paper -- written by economics student Alice Wu -- in his address.

‘A Certain Masculinity’

While it’s not quite the “Me Too” moment that the entertainment, media and technology industries are experiencing with tell-all stories of assault and discrimination, there is a gradual recognition in economics that women contend with unique barriers, whether intentional and explicit, as in the online forum, or more subtle and perhaps even unintentional.

“There’s a certain masculinity that’s been constructed around economics,” said University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson, a member of the AEA’s executive committee and a Bloomberg View columnist. “Alice’s paper is a pivotal moment.”

Wu’s research found that website threads referring to women contained more than 50 percent fewer academic terms than those referring to men and were more likely to contain physically descriptive words like "hot" and "attractive." The words most associated with posts about women included "breast," "whore" and "kissed." Those most associated with posts about men include "macro" and "supervisor."

Wolfers Panel

Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan and New York Times columnist who wrote about Wu’s paper back in August, says he heard shocked responses to Wu’s findings from his male colleagues. That contrasted with unsurprised reactions from many women.

“The culture is a troubling culture,” said Wolfers, who chaired the gender session at the AEA meetings in Philadelphia. While Wu’s paper has generated a lot of conversation, he’s concerned that too much of it has focused on the website, rather than the environment that allows it to exist and thrive. “I fear there’s been too much talk about the wrong issue.”

Universities and central banks play host to a less-sinister but still harmful gender dynamic that’s pervasive in many professions: Women have a tougher time getting ahead in a number of measurable ways.

Papers penned by female authors are better-written based on a readability analysis, and the gap is far higher in published than draft versions -- suggesting they’re not just innately better writers. They’re editing more. That’s consistent with "tougher editorial standards," according to research by University of Liverpool economist Erin Hengel.

Publishing Barriers

That could hold back careers in an industry where writing output partially dictates success. Female-authored papers take more than half a year longer to publish in the journal Econometrica than those written by men, Hengel found in her paper, which was featured in the AEA discussion Wolfers organized.

Kearney, 43, is quick to point out that her mentors and role models have been male, and the profession has generally welcomed her. And economics -- a field in which tenured women at top schools are a rarity and three in four undergraduate majors are male -- is already in the process of working toward better gender inclusion.

The Fed is being led by a woman for the first time, though Janet Yellen will step down as chair next month after President Donald Trump picked Jerome Powell to replace her rather than nominate her for a second term.

Or take, for another example, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual Jackson Hole conference. At what is arguably the most important central bank idea-fest in the world, gender came into the spotlight in 2009. That year, the Kansas City Fed noticed that not a single woman was featured as a speaker on the agenda.

The district bank began to actively seek women to attend and speak, and now-President Esther George began to host a small networking session for women attending the event, with the first in 2011. It started at a restaurant around a single table. In 2017 it moved to an outdoor patio to accommodate the crowd of women in attendance.

“I ask the women at the table who else should be included in the discussion, who is missing at Jackson Hole, and who are the other women doing work we should know about,” said George, who is one of two women in charge of the Fed’s 12 regional banks. “It takes time, but we are seeing good results.”

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