Economics Needs to Dump the Sexism

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The economics world is abuzz after a New York Times article examined a series of sexual harassment complaints against celebrated Harvard professor Roland Fryer Jr. Fryer, who won the prestigious John Bates Clark medal -- the field’s second most-coveted prize after the Nobel -- in 2015, has been accused of a pattern of inappropriate behavior toward women working in his research group, and of professional retaliation against one woman who complained.

The allegations against Fryer may come as a shock, but the general pattern will be familiar to anyone who has studied or worked in the economics field -- we all know at least a few of these stories. The reporters who wrote the article, Jim Tankersley and Ben Casselman, have called for anyone with stories about sexual harassment or sexism in the econ profession to contact them directly. It seems likely that in the coming months and years, more of these cases will come to light.

In other words, economics is having its #MeToo moment. Such a moment is overdue; much of the profession has long had a toxic, sexist culture that makes many women feel unwelcome or persecuted. Fighting this ambient sexism often feels like punching a cloud -- sexist insults are repeated on anonymous web forums and behind closed office doors, tenure is denied and publications rejected on grounds that might be legitimate but might be motivated by prejudice.

But the overall effects can be observed pretty clearly. In a recent paper, economist Erin Hengel showed that female-authored papers tend to take about a half-year longer to get through peer review. In a field where publication can already take many years, this can be detrimental to women’s careers. In a 2015 paper, economist Heather Sarsons found that when men and women write papers together, the men tend to get most of the credit, as evidenced by the fact that their careers tend to advance more after a paper’s publication than do those of their female co-authors. And in another recent paper, economists David Card, Stefano DellaVigna, Patricia Funk and Nagore Iriberri find that referees and editors tend to set a higher bar for the quality of female-authored papers, resulting in a lower publication rate for women.

This is probably one reason why women’s progress in the field has bogged down. As economists Shelly Lundberg and Jenna Stearns have noted, the percentage of women who are assistant professors in econ fell from almost 30 percent in  2009 to less than 25 percent in 2017. That means that fewer women are getting hired these days, and the gender numbers aren’t close to parity. (The percentages for full professors and associate professors rose, but this is probably a delayed effect of the rise in the assistant professor numbers before 2009.) Meanwhile, the number of economics doctorates granted to women has stagnated at about 30 percent.

Of course, the profession’s sexism might not be the only reason for this discouraging trend. To some degree, econ might simply interest talented women less than fields like biology or business, where women have effectively achieved parity in recent years. But the evidence of widespread discrimination, as well as sexual harassment cases like Fryer’s, mean that combatting sexism needs to be a priority for the profession.

The question is how to do it. Ferreting out sexual harassers is a good start, and the net needs to be cast broadly instead of focusing on a few high-profile targets of opportunity. The creation of new online forums for economics discussion that are more receptive to women is another good step, as is the creation of a new American Economic Association code of conduct.

Meanwhile, some economists themselves are taking action to encourage diversity in the field. A group of enterprising undergraduates has formed the Sadie Tanner Collective, an organization dedicated to boosting black women in the field, which is holding it’s first conference in February. Economist Claudia Goldin and several colleagues have a program to increase the number of undergraduate women who major in economics. Efforts like these are good because they don’t just remove barriers to women in the field -- they actively promote interest and awareness in a positive manner.

Top academic departments and top journals need to follow suit. The economics profession is extraordinarily hierarchical, with five journals dominating academic publication. Those journals are in turn heavily influenced by a handful of prestigious university departments, which also tend to dominate the hugely influential and powerful American Economic Association.

All of these universities and all of these journals need to form committees dedicated to improving the status of women and minorities in the profession, as the AEA itself has done. Those committees need to have a twofold focus: first, on ways to discourage the sexist attitudes and discrimination that drive women away from the profession, and second, on ways to get more women involved at the undergraduate, graduate and assistant professor levels. Economics is finally becoming fully aware of its problems with sexism, but awareness is only the first step on the road to change.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.