How Gender and Racial Biases Are Hurting Economics

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Wharton's Olivia S. Mitchell, MSU's Lisa D. Cook and Judith Chevalier from Yale University discuss the effects of gender and racial biases in the field of economics.

A survey released this month by the American Economic Association (AEA) reveals a disturbingly high level of gender bias in the field, with nearly half of the women respondents saying they’ve experienced discrimination and more than two-thirds saying their work wasn’t taken as seriously as that of male colleagues. In addition, hundreds of women reported being sexually harassed, assaulted or inappropriately touched by male colleagues.

The voluntary survey completed by 9,000 current and past members of the association — both men and women — also shows evidence of racial bias in a discipline that has struggled to attract more minorities. Nearly a third of nonwhite respondents said they had faced racial discrimination, compared with just 4% of white respondents.

The results have prompted the association to take action to curb unacceptable behaviors and make the field more welcoming to women and people of color.

“The numbers are very troubling. What you see in this survey is just an unacceptable culture,” Janet Yellen, former chair of the Federal Reserve who will lead the association next year, told The New York Times.

“It’s bad for economics,” Ben Bernanke, former Federal Reserve chairman who now heads the association, said in the same article. “We appear to be dissuading talented people from entering the field.”

“I certainly think that things have evolved, but I think they could certainly evolve further.”  –Lisa D. Cook

“I was told at the beginning of my career to not protest too much about my ideas being rejected,” said Lisa D. Cook, economics and international relations professor at Michigan State University. “I think there was a certain sense about who has big, original ideas that might make an impact. Typically, those ideas weren’t delivered by people who look like me — a 6-foot-1.5-inch African-American woman. A young woman. I certainly think that things have evolved, but I think they could certainly evolve further.”

Cook was part of a committee that prepared the survey report for the association, and she recently spoke on the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM about its impact. Olivia S. Mitchell, Wharton professor of business economics and public policy, and Judith Chevalier, finance and economics professor at Yale University, also joined in the discussion. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Yellen herself has argued that a lack of diversity in economics helped fuel the financial crisis, Cook pointed out. “The same people were asking the same questions, and were trained by the same people from the same institutions.” Because the field lacked different ways of viewing the economy, warning signs were missed.

“It is imperative that we have diversity in order to have a safe and sound financial system,” Cook said.

Mitchell, who is also executive director of the Pension Research Council, agreed, noting that she is now paying much more attention to the presence of “manels” in academia – or panels consisting of all men. “I think you have to be sensitive to that, and raise the point that there are other perspectives that we need to bring in.”

Bias Begins in School

“It’s very depressing, actually,” Mitchell said about the survey results. “I’ve been teaching for 40 years now, and sure, 40 years ago, there were very few women in the profession. You stood out. You were sometimes made to feel uncomfortable or awkward. But I had hoped that today things would be much better.”

Bias begins in school, where female and minority students often report sexual harassment or discrimination, the professors pointed out. Female and minority professors also face an uphill battle for promotion, tenure, compensation, teaching assignments and even access to graduate student researchers.

“If you think about it, all of this [impacts] productivity,” Cook said. “A lot of the focus has been on having small children as being a defining feature of a woman’s productivity. But we’re seeing how much richer the story actually is.”

At universities, “the lack of formal hierarchies in the day-to-day job and the lack of objective evaluation criteria create an environment where unequal treatment can flourish,” noted Chevalier, who suggested that academia would do well to borrow some of the more formal structures that exist in corporate America.

“It’s very depressing, actually…. I had hoped that today things would be much better.” –Olivia S. Mitchell

According to Mitchell, one of the main reasons she sought a position at the University of Pennsylvania some 25 years ago was because the school had a female president, plenty of female faculty and a supportive environment for women.

At a previous job, she was told by a department chairman that she would never be any good as an economist because she wasn’t white, male and Jewish. “I said, ‘Well, I am white and I could convert’… but I thought maybe I’d just have to let that go,” Mitchell recalled.

Chevalier is chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economic Professions, an AEA group that is focused on the underrepresentation of women and minorities in field. She believes part of the problem lies in recruitment and how economics is introduced to young people. The average high school student or college undergrad thinks the only thing an economics degree leads to is a job at a bank. They don’t know about the meaningful work economists take on in areas of inequality, development, access to education and social justice, she noted.

“We’ve done a terrible job of advertising to undergraduates [that] this is what our field is and this is what we do,” Chevalier said, noting that other science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines have improved their numbers of female and minority recruits, but economics still lags behind.

Doing Better

Although a full analysis of the survey has not yet been completed, the association is already moving forward with changes. They include:

  • An official code of conduct and formal policy on harassment and discrimination
  • A new ombudsman to record complaints of discrimination and harassment, advise individuals seeking relief and help the association further develop anti-discrimination policy
  • Revocation of membership and other sanctions for members who violate policy
  • A new committee charged with finding ways to improve the professional climate
  • A “safe space” website dedicated to the discussion of job market issues

The professors said they are encouraged by the measures and hope to see real, lasting change. The profession can do better and will do better, they said.

“This is just the beginning,” Cook said. “This policy is being refined, and I understand that there are many suggestions that could be entertained.”

“This is a moment where economics is energized to make changes.” –Judith Chevalier

Mitchell pointed out that the measures still lack teeth. Companies and universities have procedures through their human resources departments to address harassment, assault and discrimination. But it’s more difficult when the environment is less structured, such as a conference or a meeting.

“If someone from a different organization assaults you or misbehaves or says, ‘Oh, I’m currently refereeing your paper for a top journal. Won’t you come to my hotel room?’ — which is something that I’ve heard about from some of my colleagues — there are very few ways to [address that] without the AEA playing an umbrella role. So, I think we need to push for that much harder,” said Mitchell.

Chevalier wants to see the association take a larger role that crosses the boundaries of business, academia, government and nonprofits, because economists work across all those fields. She’s also inspired by younger people who are entering the profession and demanding change.

“This is a moment where economics is energized to make changes,” she said. “And a lot of people are energized to make changes.”

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