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How Sexism Makes Economics Worse

Betsey Stevenson, a professor at the University of Michigan and a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, told me that when she hit her mid-40s, she had an “aha moment.”

“I was thinking, It’s so great having gotten to this stage of my career where I’m a little more established. It’s very freeing,” she told me. “And I realized: Oh, I think I just aged out of sexual harassment.” The leering, the inappropriate commentary, the talking over her—much of it had stopped, perhaps because she had become so accomplished, perhaps because she had reached an age where men in her profession did not automatically treat her as a sex object. “There was nothing like having babies to change the male gaze,” she added.

Stevenson is one of many economists reflecting on the way they have been treated and the profession as a whole. Indeed, five years after econ’s first #MeToo moment, the field is in the midst of a new one. Once again, women are coming forward to out their colleagues, teachers, and co-authors as misogynists and abusers. Once again, women are noting how pervasive and persistent sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination are within the field. And once again, economists are asking how to make their subject area safer, more welcoming, and more diverse.

This is not just an internecine battle for greater equality and opportunity within an elite profession. It is a battle to improve economics itself, and thus to improve our understanding of the economy, and thus to improve public policy, and thus to improve everyone’s lives. For such researchers to understand the world, they need to confront their own biases. And the testimonies of any number of women show how far the profession has to go in doing so.

The most recent #MeToo furor began with serious accusations—of favoritism toward male students, of harassment, of groping—that spilled out from the profession’s whisper networks onto social media. Jennifer Doleac, an economics professor at Texas A&M University and an expert on criminal-justice policy, became a kind of clearing house for the controversy, receiving emails from people with stories to tell, directing them to journalists, connecting them with one another, and tweeting furiously through it all, as credible and corroborated accusations swirled about dozens of men.

Two of those women spoke with me about their experiences. Both asked for anonymity, the first to avoid putting any of her male colleagues under unwarranted scrutiny and the second to avoid giving a serial harasser any reason to contact her.

The first is an expert in global development working at a major Washington, D.C., think tank. In college two decades ago, she told me, she had aced a political-economy class taught by a public intellectual who is still prominent today. After the class ended, he emailed her to congratulate her on her final grade and offer to take her out to dinner. “I thought, I wonder if anyone else got this message,” she told me. “It seemed a little weird.” And it was. The professor made inappropriate comments throughout the meal. The next time they met, she arranged for it to be in a busy, public place. “He was disgusting. I literally cried the whole way home,” she told me. “He didn’t help me at all professionally. He very explicitly wanted me to sleep with him. And I just felt like such a fool.”

The second woman graduated from one of the top 20 economics Ph.D. programs in the country a few years ago and is now an economist at a government agency in Washington. She told me her #MeToo moment occurred before even starting graduate school—at a campus event for admitted doctoral candidates, at which a fellow economics student groped her. (She enrolled, she recounted, because she believed the man planned to enroll in a different university, only to end up in the same program as him.) Both her male classmates and male professors regularly acted boorishly, she said. “All of the men around me felt that they were one woman away from having gotten into Harvard or MIT,” she told me. “As if a woman took their spot.”

Five years ago, it became clear just how commonplace such stories are in economics. A series of investigations—some including major names in the profession—have been buttressed by a wave of new research analyzing discrimination within the profession and measuring the effect of such discrimination more broadly: In 2017, for instance, a paper by Alice Wu, then an undergraduate at the UC Berkeley, provided evidence that a popular academic economics web forum essentially had the gender politics of 4chan. Anonymous posters talked about male economists’ achievements and female economists’ bodies.

As more and more stories, and more and more papers, began to pile up, leaders in the field decided to do something about it: In late 2018, the American Economic Association created a standing committee to assess diversity and equity in the profession. It surveyed tens of thousands of economists. The results of that survey were stark, if not shocking: Women were outnumbered 2 to 1, and just one in five women described themselves as “satisfied” with the climate in the profession. Harassment was pervasive. Discrimination was pervasive. “We treat women terribly. We treat minorities terribly. We’re really a discriminatory institution,” Stevenson told me, summing up the status quo in academic economics.

The AEA responded in force, or at least tried to. It adopted a code of professional conduct. It created web fora to compete with the one Wu had studied. It set up a raft of committees on diversity and equity. It created a process for removing harassers from the AEA. And it hired an ombudsperson, to “take and permanently record complaints concerning harassment or discrimination in any professional context” and to investigate them.

“The problem is that the AEA cannot protect the confidentiality of any victims or witnesses to come forward,” Doleac said. “They don’t have any sort of real investigative or subpoena power either. These investigations are really not productive in any way.” She added that the process left her feeling it did “more harm than good.” (The AEA did not respond to my request for comment.)

Although the culture of and standards within the profession might have changed for the better, nobody I interviewed thought they had changed enough. “Economists are naturally disinclined to think this is a big deal or that it is even happening,” Stevenson said. “The fear of people being falsely accused is so much bigger than the fear of not outing people.” And the culture was and remains particularly toxic at the intersection of race and gender. “The reality is that women of color—in particular, Black, Native, and Latinx women—are treated the worst,” Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, an activist who co-founded a nonprofit that promotes Black women in economics and related fields, told me. “It’s sexual harassment on top of racial harassment.”

The broader issue is that sexism, misogyny, discrimination, marginalization, and sexual violence within the profession do not just affect the profession. “This is inside economics,” Stevenson said. “But this is also why economists are doing a shittier job with the economy than they should.”

Relatively few women enter economics—and in particular very, very few Black women, according to the AEA. When female students do enter, they tend to not have their contributions acknowledged. They get talked over in the classroom. They get objectified in professional fora. They have to avoid professional events to avoid getting harassed. They are subject to high rates of abuse, in many cases from men who could make or break their careers by recommending them for jobs, refereeing their papers for journals, and helping them work on papers.

It grinds many of them down. “So many of the men in economics have a hard time seeing people as human,” Stevenson said. “They don’t really understand the cost of sexual harassment. They don’t understand the way it can sap your motivation. They don’t understand the way that can make you doubt your own abilities, question yourself. The derailment makes no sense to them. They think, Some guy put his hand up your skirt at a conference? Just get on with it. I think they really don’t understand the way that changes how women interact with lots of men in the profession after that.”

As a broader point, women tend to silo themselves in certain parts of the field—labor economics rather than financial economics, family economics rather than public finance—in part because there is “safety in numbers,” as Stevenson put it. Those parts of the profession then get stereotyped as “soft” and less intellectually rigorous.

Indeed, the two women who spoke anonymously told me that their experience of harassment had shaped their careers. “I gravitated to more nurturing environments, and thrived in them professionally,” the development expert told me. “Part of my anger is how close I came to not even being in public policy because of [my harasser]. I almost didn’t have this life I find so fulfilling. And my path could have been so much easier.” The new Ph.D. told me she had offers from both the government and academic institutions upon graduation. She took a government job. “I didn’t want to stay in academia. I think it’s a cesspool.”

Ultimately the field is tilted to the worldview of the white men who dominate it. “What we study is very much tied to our identity, tied to what informs our worldview,” Opoku-Agyeman said. “If you are discounting my worldview, and using your worldview as a standard to determine whether or not I’m a productive researcher or someone who adds value to the field, that is fundamentally unfair.”

That means our understanding of the world is warped too. Macroeconomics “absolutely would have made more progress if it had been more open to women over the last 25 years,” Stevenson said. “The profession values the study of investment in physical capital more than the investment in human capital, which seems like an awfully big blind spot.” And the policy consequences are profound. One obvious example: The United States’ labor force is hobbled by its lack of investment in child care and early-childhood education, a failure still somehow treated as a niche “women’s issue” instead of a calamitous, GDP-stifling flaw in America’s economic machinery. “If you called that an infrastructure issue, you’d get a lot of eye rolls today,” Stevenson told me. The oversights of American economic policy and the treatment of women in the economics profession are linked.

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