It took the research of an undergraduate student to wake up the economics profession to a serious issue within its ranks: that sexism in our profession is real. As male members of a male-dominated profession, we have for too long turned a blind eye to both the implicit and explicit sexism that exists in our ranks. Ironically, given the emphasis our discipline places on data and evidence, we have been slow to acknowledge it even when both casual and rigorous empiricism have validated this reality.
In case you are not following the discussion on Twitter and other social media sites, Alice Wu, who will be entering Harvard’s Ph.D. program in economics this fall, used machine learning techniques to dig through more than a million comments posted on the online portal that many up-and-coming PhD students and young faculty members use to learn about the economics job market. The Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) website is not an official website of the profession and, indeed, the most accurate part of the name is “Rumors.” The site is replete with negative, hurtful, and often-false rumors about economics and finance departments and, more insidiously, individual scholars in the profession. Because comments are posted anonymously, the site has turned into what Berkeley economist David Card quite accurately calls a “cesspool.” I stopped looking at the the site many years ago after concluding that the a high fraction of the comments and posts were cheap-shots by mean-spirited individuals who appeared to get a sick satisfaction out of degrading others. It is an example of anonymous social media at its worst.
What Ms. Wu found from her analysis of the comments is that this site has an especially disgusting tendency to degrade the women in our profession. On the list of the most commonly used terms to discuss female scholars there are very few terms that are relevant to economics or scholarship. Far more commonly used are words about sexuality and physical appearances. The same is not true in the discussion of male scholars.
It would be all to easy for us to dismiss this on “intellectual” grounds. I have already seen folks raise concerns that the study is non-representative of the profession as a whole. There is little doubt that there is sample selection bias in favor of trolls and malcontents. Okay, so the profession is not as bad as the EJMR site suggests, but let’s be honest: that is beside the point. This should not be happening at all, and senior, tenured, visible economists – especially we men who numerically dominate the profession – have a shared responsibility to change it.
What can we do? There is no easy solution, but here are some ideas to get the discussion started:
1. Educate yourself. Read some of the online comments by our women colleagues who have volunteered to share their experiences on social media. I think you will be shocked by what they have had to endure.
2. When you are organizing a conference, include women as presenters and discussants. It is embarrassing how common it is for an economics conference to have all male panels.
3. If you are asked to be on a conference panel, ask if there will be women on the panel. If there are none, tell the organizer you won’t participate unless the panel is diverse. Offer to give up your own invitation and recommend a female colleague to take your place. Don’t make a big deal out of it or look for any one to congratulate you for taking a stand: just do it.
4. If you hear or read a sexist remark, speak up. Our voices matter. Our PhD students and junior colleagues – male and female – look to us to see how they are “supposed” to behave in professional situations. If we don’t speak up, we are implicitly endorsing sexist views.
5. Proactively check your and your colleagues’ unconscious biases, especially when evaluating female colleagues for hiring, annual reviews, and the all important promotion and tenure decisions. It is rare that comments will be as blatantly sexist as those on the EJMR site, but if you pay attention, you will see that unconscious bias abounds. For example, when a person is a co-author and you are trying to assess their contribution to the effort, be careful not to unconsciously assume that the female co-author was a junior partner in the research enterprise. When referring to the female half of one of our many two-economist married couples in the profession, don’t refer to her as so-and-so’s wife unless that information is relevant (and only if you would also refer to the male as so-and-so’s husband).
6. Reach out to your female junior colleagues to offer mentoring and advice. We should be doing this for all our colleagues, male and female, but just be sure you are not accidentally supporting the men more than the women.
7. Work to change the culture in your departmental seminars. Relative to other academic fields, we are a fairly aggressive and combative bunch in our seminars. One can ask probing research questions and display an appropriate level of professional skepticism without resorting to bullying tactics that can easily be interpreted as hostile to women.
8. Encourage your talented female undergraduate students to pursue a Ph.D.
9. With regard to the EJMR site itself, I will continue to stay away from its poisonous rhetoric. But if you are going to frequent the site, then please speak out against bad behavior. And if you really want to make a difference, identify yourself in your comments.
I would welcome feedback and additional ideas below. And let’s demonstrate the behavior we want to see by keeping it respectful.