A public plea to my male senior colleagues in economics

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.

 

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37 thoughts on “A public plea to my male senior colleagues in economics

  1. Excellent post, thank you. I would add a side point to #7. I have seen male economists hijack a discussion in a seminar given by a female economist, debating amongst themselves, never giving the presenter a chance to answer the question that prompted them to start debating, which question was addressed to her! They acted as though the presenter were either obviously unable to answer (but before she opened her mouth to answer) or she were not there at all.
    Dimitrios Diamantaras
    Economics Department, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

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    1. I’ve seen it too. I have also seen it with male presenters, but as Tom Davidoff hypothesized on Twitter, it is likely more common with female presenters. As a general rule, I would love to see seminar comments become less about proving the intelligence of the person asking the question and more about being helpful to the author. I know I could do better at this – I think most of us could. As I said in the blog, one can ask probing and difficult questions without being nasty about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This. I’m not an economist, but I used to go to an interdisciplinary seminar with many economists in attendance. The one-up-manship in their interruptions and comments — and, in particular, endless harping on issues of causal identification long after the speaker had addressed them and conceded that, no, her research was not based on a RCT — got to be so annoying and intellectually barren that I stopped going.

        At one of the last seminars I attended, one of the worst-offending economists got completely spanked by a non-economist — and a woman — on a show-off ‘metrics question. I’m not ashamed to admit that it made my day.

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      2. I can’t control who chooses to comment here vs on Twitter where I posted it. If you check out the discussion on Twitter you will find a spirited conversation by women economists. Most appreciate having a male call out the other men for unacceptable behavior. Sexism should infuriate men and well as women and we all must work to combat it.

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  2. I had missed the Davidoff tweet. Thanks. I also think this kind of behavior is much more likely when a female is presenting. You are right that your “don’t be nasty” admonition covers this case, but perhaps you could throw it in as an explicit example of nasty behavior.

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    1. Someone on twitter just pointed me to a sociology paper that documented – using videos of job market talks in engineering schools – that women are interrupted more often than men when presenting. So there *is* empirical evidence to support the hypothesis.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you so much for writing this, Jeff.

    Two comments re: seminars: from my observation, women (but not men) are punished when they make aggressive/assertive comments, so it’s not just the presenter who is treated differently by gender but also commenters. The line of what makes a standard Econ comment aggressive rather than helpful is also different for women. This is probably why so many women are silent audience members. Second, aggressive and condescending audience comments are much worse when women are presenting on gender issues, but women are often more likely than men to be presenting on topics related to gender. A more famous (male) economist than I noted once that when it comes to issues of gender research it seems like a lot of male economists put blinders on and throw out economic theory entirely.

    It isn’t that women can’t handle this style of feedback–most of us can by the time we finish a phd– but that our methods of response are more limited and we get so much more of it.

    More generally: What works for women at work by Joan Williams summarizes a lot of what we know at this point about how women are actually rational but working under different constraints. Lise Vesterlund’s button pushing paper demonstrates this as well in the context of service. But there’s a lot more work to be done in economics.

    …and now I’m debating whether to sign my name or not because I don’t want to be a target of econbros, something guys are less likely to need to fear. Econ job rumors is the worst. The first time I came across it I was so glad I wasn’t famous enough to be talked about on it given posts I’ve seen about my friends.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand completely why women and junior faculty members generally wish to stay anonymous when expressing these concerns given the environment in which they are operating. It is, in fact, the main motivation for why I addressed my plea to senior male colleagues. I think the vast majority of our colleagues are not intentionally sexist, but we have been complicit in creating an environment that allows it to persist. It is my hope that this debate makes more of our colleagues aware of the constraints of which you speak.

      I totally agree that women can handle themselves in these situations. But they should not have to. We all have a responsibility to create an environment that does not require it. I intend to be far more watchful of my own behavior, as I, like most of our colleagues, was “trained” to be aggressive in seminars. (Although as a Dean I no longer get to sit in very many seminars!). Thanks for your comments – your perspective is valuable. And I will put Joan Williams on my reading list.

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  4. Can you please clear something up for me? When you write “It took the research of an undergraduate student to wake up the economics profession to a serious issue within its ranks” do you actually mean within the economics profession or do you mean at EJMR? Since female economists have been complaining about their treatment for literally decades some of us are struggling with the idea that this is news to the profession in general.

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    1. Marina – point well taken. It has been an issue for a long time, and yes, people have spoken of it and even done prior research on it. I don’t mean to discount any of that. But this is one of first times I have seen the issue being widely discussed on social media. And it is my assessment as a member of the profession and as a dean that many people are still in denial that sexism is so prevalent. In any one case, it is too easy for people to write it off as anecdote or a misunderstanding or some other lame excuse. This data makes those excuses look even flimsier. Even if I am wrong people are generally aware, then it is even worse that we have made so little progress in the face of that knowledge. I’m just trying to do my small part to offer positive actionable steps that people can take *today* to make a difference.

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  5. Well said, Jeff. Even more so than EMJR–which anyone who’s ever looked at knows is full of this troll-y crap–I’ve been disappointed by economists I admire who have said we should all downplay this and ignore it and it will “go away.” This is a symptom of a major problem in the profession, and I applaud you for constructive ideas for counteracting it. I have seen all the problems mentioned in the comments and more… Don’t get me started…

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    1. Thanks Elizabethe. Yes, I think we sometimes take our models too seriously. In this case, we have all these economic models suggesting that discrimination is irrational and unprofitable and that it will be erased by markets. If only that were true, but thousands of years of human history suggest it is not.

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  6. I went to graduate school 40 years ago. The students in my program were very supportive of each other including some very talented women. That sexism exists today in my profession today sickens me. Thanks for this comment as it is spot on!

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  7. Some good ideas. The points about conference invitations, however, are not so good. Get the best people to present the best papers and comments. I think the issues for females start early – relatively few econ and math majors. In selective undergrad bschool, the best students are Fs and there’s plenty of them. Why?

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    1. For any topic at any conference, there are multiple people who are well-qualified to present and discuss. There is no universal metric that provides an unarguable ordinal metric of quality, so “best papers and comments” is partly subjective. Yes, you want very good people. There are plenty of very good female economists. So I disagree that getting women on a panel results in diminution of quality.

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    2. My PhD program was half women. We kicked the boys butts on prelims btw but the jobs we got were um different. A BIG part of this was advising–most of the profs were men and prefered the male students that their wives did not object to them hanging out after school with.

      Honestly this whole a man telling other men what to do about sexism drives me nuts. Why not ask women? What are the things WE have come across?

      I can tell you mine–1. Crappy sexist advisors that that hit on students and took the boys out to the bars
      2. Babies and work. Conferences should provide childcare. I’ve been asking every mother I know if this would have helped and they all say YES OH MY GOD.

      I am not afraid of bullies however. The idea that men should go softer on me is offensive. Nobody should be bullied during a seminar (that’s crap for everyone) but don’t stop asking me questions because a man told you something on a blog once.

      Excuses for typos bc I’m doing this on my phone.

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      1. My first piece of advice to fellow men in my blog was to educate themselves by listening to women’s experiences. I suggested starting with those who have voluntarily shared on social media so as not to create an environment where women who may not wish to share suddenly have to answer uncomfortable questions from male colleagues. I agree that women should be educating men on how to create a better environment for women.

        Nor did I suggest anyone go soft. I merely want women to be treated fairly. I have many women coauthors and colleagues who are even more accomplished in the profession than me, and I know well they can handle anything thrown at them. But they should not have to face hurdles that men do not.

        It was not my intention to speak for women or to women. I addressed this to male colleagues because we are the problem, so we need to be part of the solution.

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  8. Thanks for writing this. It’s stunning that people think this is news. I’m just sick to death of getting pictures of panels or conference attendees etc that are all male or nearly all male. It’s not always the case that there WERE not women in attendance, they just didn’t happen to make it into the picture in the newspaper, website, etc. So, how about adding a 10th? When you see such a photo.. let the organizer know you noticed and raise the issue. If people knew others were paying attention to it, they would pay more attention too.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks, Jeff. Very much appreciate the post and comments. Thoughtful stuff, especially discussion on seminars.

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  10. I came here via the EJMR discussion of this post: https://www.econjobrumors.com/topic/a-public-plea-from-jeffrey-brown-uiuc

    Much of that discussion focuses on two points:
    1. Why now? Did Wu’s paper really awaken you to things you didn’t realize were happening, or things you didn’t realize you could do something about?
    2. What are your goals in writing this post here? Are you trying to burnish your anti-sexist credentials to pursue a more prestigious administrative job, or score points with a female economist whose research has been rightfully criticized on EJMR?

    From two minutes of google research, I see you have gotten comments from at least three tenured male economists, one of them a full professor. I guess that’s better than nothing, but given that none of your ideas are particularly novel, this doesn’t seem like much of an impact.

    Assuming your concerns are genuine, here are some suggestions and questions in return, from a very junior male colleague in the profession:

    1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. CSWEP has published hundreds of pages of reports and proposals for making economics more welcoming of women. Many individual female economists have written well on this topic, too. Find them! Link them! (In social justice parlance they call this using your privilege to amplify marginalized voices)

    2. Everybody has heard all of this before in the abstract. Have you actually taken any of these steps? Have you read women’s testimony? Recruited women to present at conferences? Called out sexism when you heard it? How did it go? What did you learn? My impression is that virtually all male economists who have come out of grad school in the past few years have heard various versions of this, that most of us would in general like to be helpful, that many of us are willing to put in effort to help, that few really know what to do, and that nobody particularly wants to talk about it. Have you ever been on an all-male panel that in retrospect was worse for its lack of women? Have you ever offered to a conference organizer to give up your seat so that a panel could include a woman? What was the result? Have you interrupted an aggressive colleague in a seminar to say, Why don’t we let her present her paper? Tell those stories. I’ll read them. Maybe I’ll learn something from your experience.

    3. Do you actually discuss these issues with your senior male colleagues? When you are having drinks at a conference with a half-dozen other economists of similar stature in your field, and they’re all men, do you ask, Hey, why do you think we’re all men here? Do you bring up sexism in other situations where it’s not obviously relevant, but you realize it may be important? Do you make actual sacrifices to engage the scarce time and attention of your senior colleagues to discuss sexism?

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    1. Why now? Because I felt compelled to respond after reading the reactions to Wu’s paper. There is an old saying “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” I wrote it when I felt inspired to write it. Nothing more than that. Because I no longer frequent the EMJR site, I had not realized what a sexist cesspool it had become, although I was not really surprised given the negativity so common there. So, yes, Wu’s paper – and even more so, the many reactions to it by female economists sharing their experiences openly – opened my eyes and inspired me to action.

      Most of the comment I have received are not on this post, but on Twitter. I would say the fact that my Tweet has been retweeted over 160 times and liked over 200 times – with many/most of those coming from women in the profession – suggests that what I wrote has struck a chord. I have also received emails from colleagues thanking me for taking a stand. Change takes time. I don’t pretend my article will change the world in a big way. But it is meant as a small, positive contribution.

      As for whether I am burnishing my credentials or genuine, I doubt there is anything I could say that would convince the so called “EMJR bros.” But, yes, it is genuine. I am not surprised that the cynical folks on EJMR would doubt it, as they seem to have a mindset that nobody could possibly have positive motives. It is one of the reasons I stopped reading the site years ago.

      As for your questions:

      1. I am happy to amplify marginalized voices. One of the reasons I wrote what I did is that many female colleagues were frustrated that few of the men in the profession were taking a stand. It takes multiple approaches to change our culture. I am not some self-professed leader of any movement, but rather just trying to do my part. I have since retweeted things I have seen from others.

      2. Yes, I have taken such steps. Consistent with my plea, however, I don’t brag about it. I don’t put on my CV or social media that I declined an invitation for this reason. In case you are wondering, the most recent time I asked the question about diversity on a conference panel to which I was invited was this past weekend. I do practice what I preach. Yes, I have had conversations with a colleague outside the seminar about their behavior during the seminar. I have also worked hard to ensure our College is hiring and promoting women. Maybe I should talk about it more – even though, back to #1, you and your “bros” would say I am being opportunistic and just brandishing my credentials for careerist reasons. Let me be clear – I am no angel. I have missed opportunities to speak up. I needed to be educated on the issues. And I understand that it is hard to do early in one’s career. I now have the luxury of being super secure in my professional role, so I can speak out without much concern of negative consequences. That is one of the reasons I directed my plea to senior male colleagues in a similar position.

      3.Yes, but probably not enough. Honest answer.

      I have taken the time to respectfully respond to your line of questioning because you took the time to write. From your questions, however, it is difficult to tell if you have a genuine interest in a conversation or if you are just trying to be critical through finding out if I practice what I preach. If my answers just become fodder for cynical comments on EMJR, so be it. I don’t feel the need to justify myself to a bunch of anonymous men who don’t really seem to care enough to engage in constructive conversation.

      If you REALLY want to have a productive conversation – if you REALLY want to discuss this topic – then send me an email at brownjr@illinois.edu or call me. Identify yourself and I am happy to talk. But I don’t feel as if I have much social responsibility to respond to anonymous comments.

      I hope you really do wish to learn about these topics and do something about it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. PS. If you really care whether my post is having an impact, as of this morning it has been viewed by over 6400 unique visitors. My hope is that it is making people think and leading to conversations with colleagues.

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  11. Dear Professor Brown,

    thanks a lot for your insightful post, I am glad it is well-received. Having two brilliant female PhD supervisors, I am very grateful that there are strong women in the profession who have made it through this “cesspool”, to use the Card terminology.

    One aspect I would like to add regarding the discussion of the EJMR forum. I have repeatedly visited the EJMR forum and also witnessed the very bad type of discussions that are described in the Wu paper (without protesting against it, I admit). I also saw quite a few honest, vibrant and truthful discussions about research and how to make economics a better profession (ironic but still true) which actually made me come back.

    So what I disagree with in the current debate is the stereotyping behavior that puts all EJMR posts and posters in the same basket usually labelled “shameful” and “disgusting”. This goes far enough that I don’t want to write under my real name here (I guess George Borjas would understand). My experience is that EJMR is a platform where a highly diverse crowds meets. I feel that the fraction of people who goes there for the “good parts” and does not engage in misogyny is actually quite substantial. Although it is impossible to check, this seems a plausible assumption, certainly more plausible than the assumption that EJMR is representative for the population of economists or economics PhD students. The alternative view of course would be to say that this generalization/stereotyping of EJMR is just a form of “collateral damage”. This is why I would be happy to hear your thought on this.

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    1. If there is value to some of the discussions on EJMR, then those threads should be moved to a forum in which those ideas can be expressed in a respectful way. A forum where the ad hominem attacks, false rumors, and sexist and abusive behavior is not tolerated.

      I am not saying there are zero comments of value. I am saying the ratio of shameful to useful comments on EJMR is far too high. No PhD student or colleague should have to wade through a hate filled cesspool to find a few nuggets of wisdom.

      If you swim in the cesspool, and don’t make any effort to help clean it up along the way, then your hands are going to get dirty. As Edmund Burke said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

      So if you think there is value to EJMR, then help to clean it up. If you do, good for you! If you don’t, then don’t expect sympathy for being labeled along with the disgusting trolls.

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  12. Thank you for writing this post and starting a useful discussion. Cultural changes happen very slow. But if more male colleagues take pro-active steps, the easier it will become to get rid of the toxic environment.

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  13. Hmmm… you might start by rewriting your first sentence to say, “to wake up the male members of our profession….” I’m pretty sure that the female members already know it. So that sentence itself suggests that the profession is masculine, which it’s not. You then seamlessly transition from “our profession” to a “we” which is completely male. The suggestions are good, but changing your own conception of our profession as a male “we” would also be a good move.

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    1. Thanks for comments. I appreciate it. I don’t like to edit posts after they have been up this long, but I appreciate the perspective. I should note that 1) approx 80% of economists are men, and so while the profession *should* not be masculine, and while women are every bit as good as male economists, one might argue that our profession’s culture is masculine and therein lies the problem, and 2) my post was targeted to fellow men because we/they are the ones that need to hear the message. Thus I had my male colleagues in mind while writing it.

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  14. I think in some ways it’s harmful to have these interesting discussions only available if you sift through a forum full of vitriol. As a woman (and just a human being with compassion), the few times I have been on EJMR I have felt awful and disgusted, and so I never go there. EJMR effectively excludes anyone who opts out of that style of rhetoric, so to then hold important discussions there ensures that only a select subset of the population will find and benefit from the discussion.

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  15. Thank you Jeff for a thoughtful and serious response to an important discussion about why women economists often become discouraged from continuing on in the profession. Practical steps can and should be taken.

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