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Economics needs more women as field impacts public policy

Dec 8 2020

Former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen delivers remarks at SIEPR on Jan. 19, 2017.

Photo by Steve Castillo

American economist Janet Yellen is set to become the first woman U.S. treasury secretary under President-elect Joe Biden — if confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

But as far as women in economics go, Yellen is the exception, not the rule.

A report by the American Economic Association found that only 14 percent of full professors in PhD-granting departments are women. As more women climb the STEM ladder, like those pursuing computer science, the share of women studying to become economists has remained flat for two decades.

This leaves a field that impacts so much of our public policy dominated by the research and recommendations of men. So why aren’t more women pursuing careers in economics?

According to an AEA survey conducted last year, many women economists have experienced harassment, discrimination and outright abuse by their male colleagues. More than 9,000 current and past members of the association, both women and men, took part in the March 2019 survey.

Troubling survey results

One hundred of the women reported a male peer or colleague had sexually assaulted them; 200 were victims of an attempted sexual assault — and hundreds more say they were stalked. Half of the women experienced discrimination compared with 3 percent of men. Half of the women said they had avoided speaking at a conference or seminar to avoid possible harassment. Seven in 10 women said the work of their male colleagues was taken more seriously than their own.

“The numbers are very troubling,” Yellen told The New York Times for this article on the dilemma. “What you see in this survey is just an unacceptable culture.”

Maya Rossin-Slater, a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), agrees.

“I think that it can be a lonely and distressing field, especially for those who are so under-represented in this profession,” said Rossin-Slater, assistant professor of medicine and a health economist at Stanford Health Policy. “It’s particularly terrible for minority women — there are so few Black women in economics, for example.”

So Rossin-Slater decided to help aspiring women economists who are in the middle of their graduate studies feel more supported and validated. With support from her National Science Foundation CAREER grant and administrative help from the AEA’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, she held a one-day mentoring workshop for women and non-binary individuals studying to become PhD economists in academia, government, think tanks, private sector companies, and large international organizations like the World Bank.

Last year, with support from SIEPR, she held an inaugural workshop on campus for women economics PhD students in California. This year, she teamed up with Jennifer Doleac, an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University, to hold the workshop over Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual setting brought 120 women and non-binary PhD students from around the world. They also recruited 48 mentors, who are early career economists at universities, think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute and the RAND Corporation, and government organizations like the Central Bank of Columbia and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The workshop featured two panels, as well as small-group sessions in which students got individualized feedback on their research ideas from mentors and peers. One panel focused on how to do research, in which mentors shared their perspectives on a range of topics, including how to generate new research ideas, how to find and work productively with advisors, how to let go of projects that do not work, and how to support one’s mental health and well-being while navigating the many challenges of graduate school. The other panel covered topics including choosing different career paths, conferences, networking on Twitter, grants, and juggling parenthood and other responsibilities.

“There is so much ‘hidden curriculum’ out there that is typically not taught in any formal way,” Rossin-Slater said. “Students are expected to somehow figure all this out on their own, and this is particularly challenging for students who are historically under-represented in the profession and don’t have the access to networks and support that others do.”

Connecting with mentors

Students asked the mentors how mentors structured their days and made progress on research from the initial idea all the way to publication.

Sarah Cohodes, an associate professor of economics and education at Columbia University, advised them to find like-minded colleagues and force themselves to write every day.

“I have an online writing group where we get on and just write,” Cohodes said. “Anything that’s going to get you toward your goal of getting your paper out in the world. Be an experimentalist with yourself, and when you find something that works, stick with it.”

The mentors shared stories about navigating research while taking care of kids or finding an advisor who would not try to break down their self-esteem.

“I wrote my second-year paper on econometric theory and at the end of it my advisor called me into his office and said, `You failed this, and you don’t have what it takes to be an economist,” said mentor Allison Luedtke. “I just sat there in stunned silence.”

The advisor then asked her what she was going to do. “And I said, ‘I’m going to go cry in the bathroom — and then I’m going to get back to work.’”

Luedtke is now an assistant professor of economics at St. Olaf College.

Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a former staff economist with the Council of Economic Advisors under President George W. Bush, told the students to embrace social media and promote their work — something many women are hesitant to do as they’ve been taught all their lives not to brag about themselves.

“Part of our mission is to influence the way that people think about ideas, so I’m on Twitter to try and promote my way of thinking, promote my own work and the work of others,” Akers said. “I had been very siloed in graduate school and didn’t understand the general conversations people were having in the economic policy field. Twitter gives me direct access to see what people are talking about.”

An ugly underbelly

Yet what people talk about can be another reason women and minorities walk away from economics.

This has been most clearly highlighted by an anonymous website forum, called Economics Job Market Rumors, which was originally started as a job market board, but has become a place for ugly sexist and racist rants.

The website came under increased scrutiny in the profession and the broader public after an undergraduate economics major at UC Berkeley wrote her senior thesis about the site. Alice H. Wu — now a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard — used machine-learning techniques to mine more than a million posts from the site. According to this New York Times article, the 30 words most associated with women in economics include tits, anal, feminazi, slut, hot, boobs, pregnant, cute, horny, sexy, dated and beautiful.

The parallel list of words in discussions about men in economics had no sexual or hostile overtones. A few of the most common words: goals, greatest and Nobel.

“Economics is fundamentally the study of human behavior and how people make choices in the face of constraint,” Rossin-Slater said. “The questions that are posed and analyzed by economists influence so much of public policy. And we cannot make progress on some of the most important issues facing our society today without a diverse set of voices contributing to the research and discussion.”

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