5 years later, economics faces another #MeToo moment

5 years later, economics faces another #MeToo moment

Like many other industries, economics had a #MeToo moment five years ago. Women in the field took to Twitter to share stories that detailed how pervasive and persistent harassment and discrimination were for them.

In response, the American Economic Association put out a survey in 2018 to gauge the scope of the problem. The group found that women were outnumbered in the field 2 to 1, and just 1 in 5 women described themselves as “satisfied” with the professional climate. The results detailed exclusion and harassment, work being overlooked and worse.

While the #MeToo movement made a real difference in many industries, female economists say that not much has changed. Twitter has, once again, been flooded with women sharing stories of their continued mistreatment.

Economics is far from the only field that has had an uphill battle addressing how it treats women and minorities, but, ironically, we depend on economics to study disparities and create policy to combat them. So what do you do when a field that’s tasked with solving the problem of inequality is rife with it?

Annie Lowrey, a staff writer at The Atlantic, has been following this story. She joined “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal to talk about why these attitudes seem to be entrenched in the field of economics and the implications of bias among policy leaders.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: Let’s go straight to the headline here: “Harassment in economics doesn’t stay in economics.” Tell me what that means.

Annie Lowrey: So the field of economics, like so many professional fields over the past half-decade, has had a real reckoning with sexism and discrimination within the profession. And the AEA, which is this sort of association of economists, ran a professional survey that found just constant harassment — everything from talking over women in seminars to instances of physical assault and rape being unfortunately common. And the problem with this is, you know, it’s a tragedy for this to be happening in any profession in any circumstance, but there’s really strong evidence that this has really blinkered our understanding of economics because women don’t stay in the field. It really tilts what economists study, and that tilts how we actually understand the economy, and it perhaps even affects public policy. So I know that that’s kind of a grand statement to make, but I think it’s really important and really true. I’ve talked to a number of economists who see this happening and fear the effects of it on all of us.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I don’t think it’s all that grand. I mean, you could just look at the way we treat child care in this country. That’s an example that comes up in this piece.

Lowrey: Absolutely. So, until really recently, child care was treated as sort of a niche women’s issue. And I was talking with somebody who worked in the White House in the 1990s, and they were saying that at the Council of Economic Advisers, it kind of got brought up that maybe that was something that was hampering growth. And they got kind of laughed out of the room. But of course, that’s a profound economic issue. And I do think that there’s been some change there. But you know, Betsey Stevenson — who’s a really great labor economist who actually worked in the Obama administration — told me that you’d still get a lot of eye rolls if you describe child care as infrastructure.

Ryssdal: That seems unbelievable. I mean, I don’t even know what to say.

Lowrey: It’s really unfortunate. And when you talk to economists, they say that certain parts of the profession are friendlier to female economists and that those parts of the profession then get stereotyped as being kind of soft or less rigorous. It’s really disheartening. And you know, economics has a really privileged place in our public policy conversation.

Ryssdal: Right? I mean — no offense to all my other social scientist friends out there — but economists work on policy that actually affects everybody, as opposed to, you know, political scientists who do theory and all this jazz. Economics matters, and economic policy matters.

Lowrey: You know, yeah, there isn’t, like, a White House Council of Historians. There isn’t a White House Council of Sociologists.

Ryssdal: We’re going to be getting nasty letters from historians now. You know that, right?

Lowrey: Yeah. And it’s not because those things aren’t important. And they aren’t an absolutely critical lens to understanding life. But economics takes this very, very privileged position that is also cultural.

Ryssdal: If you spend any time on #EconTwitter, at least for as long as #EconTwitter lasts, you’ve seen in the past year a lot of this cropping up, a lot of women coming forward with their experiences, a lot of curation of those into Twitter feeds and into pieces such as yours. I do wonder, though, because econ had its #MeToo moment five years ago. I mean, we did some of that on this program. And now here we are again.

Lowrey: You did, and I think that this is a real kind of cri de coeur from people in the profession, both women and men, who are saying, like, “Hey, we went through this five years ago, and there was a lot of promise of change, and that change has not materialized.” And the AEA has created an ombuds role, and a number of universities or colleges have sort of beefed up their practices for folks who report harassment in the field. But there’s a really long way to go. And fundamentally, the culture is going to have to change. And economists themselves are going to have to recognize this as a problem and think about changing the culture in the profession to retain those brilliant female students that the profession is hounding out by, just frankly, being really unpleasant in some cases.

Ryssdal: Can we talk about the AEA for a minute? Because Janet Yellen, who’s about as distinguished an economist as you can come up with, was the head of the AEA, and — for all that she did — was not able to change the culture.

Lowrey: I think it’s important that Janet Yellen, who is the most important economist in American life, male or female full stop, as the head of the [Federal Reserve] and now the head of the Treasury Department, that she was running the AEA at the time and has always been really sensitive to these issues. But it’s just hard, right? Culture is really, really hard to change. And I think that the profession has still not quite found the practices that would help young female economists and established older female economists feel safe. And fundamentally, I think you would want to see the profession itself diversify also, both on gender terms, and, it’s something that we haven’t talked about, but this intersects with other forms of discrimination in truly horrifying ways. Black female economists, there’s very few of them and they talk about truly pervasive discrimination. And one economist who I spoke with, who is a recent graduate from a top Ph.D. program in econ, told me that she felt like her male peers who are all young, you know, in their 20s or 30s, also felt like all of the women that were there were taking their spots because they were diversity admits, basically. That’s just a really toxic way of understanding the world. And I do think that it comes from this kind of, you know, very, very argumentative, bullheaded milieu that a lot of folks describe as being prevalent, at least in some programs.

Ryssdal: I don’t want to end on a downer, but based on that, it’s going to be a generation or more, right?

Lowrey: I think that these things can change really suddenly sometimes. And there’s been just a great rash of papers from economists about the way that female economists are treated differently. And so one really hopeful trend I see is that you’re getting a lot of studying of this problem from within the profession. So much of our understanding of how bad criminal behavior and harassment and discrimination is, and why that’s bad for all of us in public policy terms, comes from economists, right? Like they’re some of the folks who are proving that, along with their peers in other fields.

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