Economics Starts Reckoning With Its Gender Bias Problem

Acknowledging the issue was a first step. Changing the culture will be harder.

A woman. An economist. A Nobel winner. More needed.

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The economics profession's gender problems came to the fore last year. A number of people had been speaking up about the issue for a while, but this time the concern really boiled over. The spark was a paper by then-undergraduate Alice Wu, highlighting sexist language in an anonymous internet forum used by some economists. But the profession’s gender issues run much deeper than a fringe of online trolls, and at the American Economic Association meeting this past weekend (economists’ big annual convention), those issues took center stage.

A very well-attended session at the conference featured several papers about the problem. Wu’s was one. Another was an analysis of male-centric language in economics textbooks. A third reported on ways to get more women to major in the discipline. But the most explosive paper was by Erin Hengel of the University of Liverpool. Its title: “Publishing While Female.”

Hengel found that papers written by women take, on average, six months longer to make it through the peer-review process. This is true even after controlling for motherhood and childbirth, which could force women to take time away from writing. And it’s true even after controlling for a researcher’s number of citations in the field -- in other words, the difference isn’t due to women writing more dubious research. Hengel finds that the difference persists in spite of the fact that female economists tend to be slightly better writers than their male counterparts, as measured by some standardized measures of readability.

Hengel’s paper is eye-opening. But it’s worth noting that this isn't the first study to find professional bias against female authors in economics. In a 2015 paper, economist Heather Sarsons found that when male and female economists publish together, it raises the man’s tenure chances much more than it raises the woman’s tenure chances. In other words, men get more credit for co-authored work.

These revelations, although not news to most women in the field, are producing a response from the people in charge. Ironically, though economics often praises the virtue of decentralized markets, the profession itself is highly centralized. In response to Wu’s findings and to petitions from more than 1,000 economists, the American Economic Association has decided to create an alternative to the misogynistic anonymous forum, as well as publishing a code of conduct urging economists to avoid sexist language and behavior.

Those are two very positive steps. Another encouraging sign is that papers about gender are now fairly common in the field. More than a dozen of the sessions at the big annual convention had “gender” in their titles or keywords, and a search for the phrase “gender gap” reveals even more papers paying attention to that topic. Further research focusing on gender inequality will probably make economists more aware of the issue within their own discipline.

Another idea is to get more gender diversity by improving the pipeline that starts in the undergraduate years. Economists Tatyana Avilova and Claudia Goldin have been running a trial program called the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge that provides career counseling, mentoring, information and encouragement to undergraduate women who are considering an econ major. The study is still in progress, though initial results are encouraging. But since much of the undergraduate gender gap comes from men with low grades staying as econ majors while women with low grades drop out, it’s not clear whether this sort of intervention can significantly boost the number of highly qualified women in the professoriate.

Another idea is to focus on fields where women are particularly underrepresented. A recent report by Anusha Chari and Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham of the Federal Bank of New York looked at participation in another big annual economics convention, the National Bureau of Economics Research Summer Institute. They found that although men make up a majority in all areas, they are noticeably more dominant in finance and macroeconomics. So macro and finance departments -- including those in business schools -- should think about what measures they can take at the department level.

Much of the discussion about possible solutions has centered on academic departments and central institutions like the American Economic Association. But Hengel’s research suggests that the journal system might also play a big role in combating discrimination. Journals, especially top publications like the American Economic Review, Quarterly Journal of Economics and Journal of Political Economy, should try to hire more women as editors and seek out more female reviewers. Both of these should be drawn from the ranks of the already tenured, in order not to take younger women’s time away from their own research.

The gender problem in economics is ultimately a cultural one, and cultural problems take a very long time to fix. But the field has strong institutions like the AEA that are aware of the problem and are taking steps to address it. That’s a good thing. Ultimately, I predict, those institutions will correct the errors of the academic market.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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