Fighting for Gender Equality in Economics Is Not Nearly Enough


The field of economics is aggressively sexist and biased against new and unconventional ideas. Revelations about gender and ethnic discrimination show the need to reorient the whole system toward more freedom, respect, openness, and pluralism. But how?
This post represents the authors’ own opinions and not that of any organization with which they are affiliated.

The problem of discrimination against women and minorities concerns virtually all academic fields, but economics is considered an “outlier”—and not in good way (Bayer and Rouse 2016, Bayern and Wilcox 2017). The share of female students in the U.S., including new PhDs, as well as that of assistant professors, has failed to increase for at least a decade, falling behind the trend in STEM fields. This disappointing trend hinders the future growth of the proportion of women full professors (currently below 14%). With the exception of Eastern Europe, the situation is similarly bleak for all countries for which we have data.[2]

Studies reach various results looking at barriers faced by minorities and women as economic professionals, but what clearly emerges is a lower probability of attaining promotion, tenure, or leadership roles, and a higher probability of earning lower wages than colleagues. Interestingly, no usual quantifiable explanation for academic disadvantage (productivity issues, having to care for young children, etc.) appears to explain why economics is falling behind relative to other disciplines (see here). The problem is not limited to academic positions. Women’s presence on the web is also low: for instance, they represent only the 25.1% of all economists registered in RePEc - Research Papers in Economics (a central index of economics research) [3] .

The result, whatever it may imply, is that their voices are underrepresented.

All this is now known,[4] but current discussions often neglect one further point: discrimination by gender and ethnic background is not the only threat to careers. All scholars face the constraints of academic freedom and pluralism, along with daunting working conditions, but these problems weigh especially heavily on women and minorities.

In this article we suggest that such problems should be a top concern for a movement for diversity in economics, and we review and advance ideas for action.

A Look At What Went Wrong

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, many women went to university and a small but unprecedented number became professors. At a time of mass higher education and growing opportunities for jobs and research appointments, the economic field was no exception. The 70s and 80s showed the highest growth in the share of female students and professors (Lundberg and Stearns 2018).

But times are different now. Academia is in crisis, with universities underfunded and working conditions deteriorated in many parts of the world as the strikes in the U.K., Italy, and India[5] show. Jobs and opportunities for promotion have decreased relative to the number of candidates. If most young researchers are destined to a path of broken promises, women and minority scholars suffer this crisis most intensely. Precarity typically impacts women more than men, and discrimination by gender and ethnic background makes competition harder.

Additional institutional constraints aggravate the situation. Recent years have witnessed a spread of audits and research evaluation exercises based on what are advertised to be objective criteria, such as citation counts and a strict hierarchy of publication outlets. Investigators conceived these projects to prevent the risk of nepotism and corruption and to reinforce the concept of excellence. Instead, they have incentivized and rewarded research works that lack in depth, and produced a variety of scientific misconduct such as searching for the smallest possible publishable idea (“one idea one paper”), self-censoring criticism of established authors, and strategic citations.

In economics, these audits and evaluations have amplified discrimination. In conjunction with what has been defined as the gate-keeping role of the top five journals, they have also increased scientific conformism (see Heckman and Moktan 2018 for a discussion).

In fact, fields like the history of economic thought, heterodox approaches, and just about any work that explores new, unconventional, politically uncomfortable, or simply less fashionable research questions, are not represented in high ranking journals and typically receive a lower number of citations (D’Ippoliti 2018, Corsi et al. 2018a; Kates, 2013).

So we are left with a situation in which academic competition does not reward talent but rather compliance with established literature from dominant schools of thought and non-innovative, toothless questioning (see the INET series, The Crisis of Conformity in Economics). If the economics profession has lost authority and credibility before much of the electorate, it is these institutional constraints, which reduce the capacity of the discipline to progress, which are partly to blame.

Being part of the “mainstream” gives a scholar much better career prospects (Lee 2006; Lee et al. 2013; Chavance, B., Labrousse, A. 2018, Corsi et al. 2018b). But given the sexist and racist environment, women and minorities are especially penalized. Along with the effects of discrimination, women and minorities who embrace originality and unconventional research choices face an intersectional (more than double) penalty (Zacchia 2017). The result is a paradoxical outcome in which those who obtain promotion may in some cases be even more “conformant” than their white male colleagues.

Women and minorities live and work in this space of conflict that is a result of their own effort for self-determination and the public, social reaction to both their bodies and their work. We were born in this space but it is our choice to consciously make it our field of action rather than shy away.


What Can Be Done? A Critical Review and a Proposal

The self-determination of women and minorities in academia and other research-based institutions cannot happen without a change in the whole system in which research and knowledge are conceived and passed on. Even the equal treatment of women, white men, and minorities cannot provide us with academic freedom, freedom of ideas, and appropriate working conditions. In that direction go the struggles to improve salaries and reduce teaching loads and precariousness in universities and research institutions, as well as the fight for pluralism, which implies changing the rules and practices for hiring and promotion.

But we believe that discrimination can be the point of rupture that ignites the remaking of the whole system of creation and reproduction of knowledge.

The next sections focus on that necessity, from a feminist and (hence) pluralist perspective, and advance a proposal to use technology to our advantage.


Collecting information and building solidarity

The first step is to collect data and survey the extent of the problem, following the motto: what is measured becomes visible, and what is visible can be monitored and improved. Then a number of actions can be taken. Fortunately, the efforts of many pioneer researchers, often with the support of the International Association for Feminist Economics and other associations of minorities in economics[6] have provided a strong empirical and scientific foundation for today’s feminist awareness. Activities such as the AEA Climate Survey offer more comprehensive information on the extent and nature of discrimination and harassment in the economics profession, and should be welcomed and spread in different countries. A complete historiographical reconstruction of this movement in economics is still missing.

Other initiatives that rely on intergenerational support relate to mentoring young researchers. For instance, the programs organized by the American Economic Association (i.e. the CeMENT mentoring activities for junior faculty organised by the CSWEP) seem to us very important. Solidarity is critical, and depends on efforts to support women and discriminated categories in our own organizations; creating collectives; fostering debates; collecting data; promoting general awareness, and opening up processes to develop inclusive habits. A promising development is the open letter regarding harassment and discrimination in the economics profession, signed by hundreds of graduate students and research assistants and calling for reforms to counteract abuses of power, bullying, and harassment in the economics profession.

A similar effort has produced a strong collective pressure to avoid “manels,” that is all men panels, and panels without any racial/ethnic diversity—typically all white men panels. Some argue that this could tokenize women, especially because it intervenes at the end of the pipeline. We believe that, on the contrary, it contributes to open a bottleneck that is asphyxiating us from the beginning to the end of the pipeline: when we are students, the people we are encouraged to look up to are men, and when we become researchers, we have lower chances to present our work. That applies also to men from ethnic minorities, but, arguably, all-men panels should still be avoided.


What about rules, quotas and compulsory guidelines?

We believe that the cultural climate should be one in which we are all aware of the existence of biases. We need to clarify, however, that we do not approve of fixed rules, quotas, and compulsory guidelines to guarantee diversity.

The struggle must maintain an intellectual dimension and reshape a static and fragmented scientific community from within, giving it vitality through debate and open confrontation. We want to judge a panel for all its quality dimensions and ensure that the organizers take full scientific responsibility for it. Rules such as quotas, on the contrary, risk reducing confrontation because they simply create standardized procedures to comply with and may allow scholars to palm off responsibility.

Our view is that compulsion is potentially harmful and should not apply to science. It can also backfire. For instance, we have noticed that as a result of the pressure against manels, organizers tend to create conferences on specific topics with all-male speakers with the exception of one woman addressing the gender issues related to the main topic. Some have argued that inviting women to talk (only) about gender is like giving them “a cloth and telling them that the kitchen is all theirs.” We disagree, because the space and recognition to talk about ourselves on a gender/feminist perspective was never given to us: it was achieved by feminists through tremendous effort. However, the tendency to include women solely for the purpose of covering gender issues can end up excluding women who speak on a wide variety of other topics which are left to men.

An additional risk derives from the possibility of inadvertently securing more room for conventional ideas rather than promoting a vital discussion. This point enters the question of whether we can consider women and minorities, per se, as bearers of alternative approaches and attitudes.


The question of databases

Another effort developed over the last fifteen years is the creation of databases of women and minority scholars. Some national associations of economists (such as in Italy the SIE - Italian Economic Association, in UK the RES Women’s Committee[8] and in Europe the European Economic Association[9]) created lists of women economists by research area with the aim of facilitating the creation of networks among women economists, increasing mentoring relationships and disseminating role models in a male-dominated academic field. An added benefit, in conjunction with the new awareness about manels, is that the database would serve as a key resource for organizers and a counter-argument to those who claim that it is not possible to find women for panels and lectures. We find this an interesting possibility to increase awareness about the existence of a diversity of scholars and thereby promote empowerment of women and minorities. But we find problems with how exhaustive those lists are, also because some authors do not want to be included. Their function, as a result, is rather limited, or bound to remain an accessory political gesture.

An additional complication results from attempts to organize databases by various classifications of theoretical paradigms or create lists limited to a specific school of thought (as the Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ) group suggests). But labels are meaningful and a database conceived as an instrument in the fight for gender equality may end up sending an implicit epistemological message. Hence, the matter requires an explicit discussion.

We would like to advance some caution about relying on those broad classifications, especially when they may appear to imply a distinction between researchers worthy of additional exposure and others who are not, based on their approach. A choice in that direction may reinforce intellectual ghettos (Davis 1997), and creates a bias against those that do not fit into any of the established categories.

Schools of thought have been recognized as useful provisional structures that allow communication as a feature of methodological pluralism (Dow 2004). However, that can only be true if theoretical paradigms are not identified dualistically (Dow 1990) but, rather, dialectically within a living scientific debate.

The danger of ghettoization of nonmainstream approaches, in our view, is serious, given the strong tendency of the broad discipline toward specialization (Cedrini and Fontana 2018), that may reinforce tolerance of a plurality of approaches rather than methodological pluralism (Mearman 2011).

In the next section, we advance a proposal for a tweaked version of existing resources for bibliographical research and networking, as a way to improve pluralist methodology together with diversity.


Using technology to shed light on diversity in economics

The basic idea of a database could be improved by using and modifying existing online resources. The new tool could give particular exposure to new ideas and discriminated groups of scholars without putting authors into dualistic, heteroimposed boxes.

Our first consideration was that most bibliographic research these days happens online, but search engines dedicated to scholars and scientific works do not offer automatic filters and labels specifically tailored for economics (anything of the sort requires coding). Moreover, they organize results of an inquiry based on the number of citations or views of a research work. This intensifies the effects of the existing discriminatory bias.

To fix these problems and use technology to compensate instead of intensifying biases, we envision a non-proprietary platform (see for example Zenodo open source dataset, the editors of which we are now in a conversation). Along with the possibility to host scholars’ profiles, it should incorporate an existing web search engine, which has the advantage of automatically capturing all results from the web, but tweaked to include pre-coded additional filters.

In order to design the filters in a bottom-up fashion, the platform should give scholars the flexibility to add specific labels to their profiles and works, including personal information like gender, geographic collocation, and any details that may suggest but not define dualistically and statically their approach. Those could be added by third parties as well (privacy permitting), and concern journals of publication, co-authors, JEL codes, conferences attended, articles and authors cited, etc. Those labels, that convey a non-static message of who the scholar is, then can become filters that anyone can use to refine her online search.

This system would solve, at least partially, the problem of completeness, but it would also offer scholars the possibility to control their own narrative.

Ideally, authors should be able to add comments to their own uploaded or linked papers and books, in order to reconstruct the development of their work in a way that is connected to the history of their publications and makes sense of multiple versions of a paper, including changes induced by peer review.

An improvement of the sort we envision would help navigate the literature outside one scholar’s own circle and reach papers or books that are outside the limelight. In addition, it may allow researchers to collect data and develop metrics that can raise awareness about the state of our discipline.

Platforms, engines and websites that present some of the features that we describe exist, but none connects all of them with the possibility to filter web searches by advanced and flexible categories. In addition, most of them are proprietary.


Breaking Through Barriers

In economics, the scarcity of opportunities and the intellectual repression exacerbate the effects of discrimination against women and minorities in a research environment that already stands out for the gravity of its barriers to diversity.

We have a responsibility to not just fight for gender equality and equity but also to create an “inclusive diversity” to prevent conformism and to preserve a pluralistic environment for the research and teaching in the economic profession. We have all to (re)Act!

In this article, we have critically overviewed some of the possible actions. Our main cautions concern what we feel is an overreliance on the power of external rules, guidelines, and labels, while we urge taking pluralism seriously. We also tried to encourage a debate about how to exploit fully and tailor to our needs the technological resources that exist and shape the way we do research in ways that are currently out of our control.


References

Bayer, A., C. E., Rouse (2016), “Diversity in the Economics Profession: A New Attack on an Old Problem”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30 (4): 221-42.

Bayer, A., D., Wilcox (2017), “The Unequal Distribution of Economic Education: A Report on the Race, Ethnicity, and Gender of Economics Majors at US Colleges and Universities”, Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2017- 105.

Boring, A., S., Zignago (2017), “Economics: where are the women?”, available at: https://blocnotesdeleco.banque…

Cedrini,M., Fontana, M. (2018), “Just another niche in the wall? How specialization is changing the face of mainstream economics”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 42 (2): 427–451, https://doi.org/10.1093/cje/be…

Chavance, B., A. Labrousse, (2018), “Institutions and Science: The Contest about Pluralism in Economics in France.”, Review of Political Economy, 30 (2): 190-209.

Corsi, M., Roncaglia, A., G., Zacchia (2018a), “History of economic thought and mainstream economics: a long-term analysis”, In Rosselli A., Naldi N., Sanfilippo E. (eds.), Money, Finance and Crises in Economic History: The Long-Term Impact of Economic Ideas, Routledge, ISBN:9781138089815

Corsi, M., D’Ippoliti, C., G., Zacchia (2018b), “Pluralism and the Future of Economics: the Heterodox Glass Ceiling”, Review of Political Economy, Taylor & Francis, DOI: 10.1080/09538259.2018.1423974

Davis, J.B. (1997) “Comment” in A. Salanti and E. Screpanti (eds) Pluralism in Economics, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 207–11.

D’Ippoliti, C. (2018), “‘Many-Citedness’: Citations Measure More Than Just Scientific Impact”, INET Working Paper Series, Working Paper No. 57

Dow, S.C. (2004), “Structured pluralism”, Journal of Economic Methodology, 11(3): 275-290, DOI: 10.1080/1350178042000252965

Dow, S.C. (1990), “Beyond dualism”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 14(2): 143-157

Heckman, J., Moktan, S. (2018) The Tyranny of the Top Five Journals, INET Working Paper Series, Working Paper No. 82

Kates, S. (2013), Defending the history of economic thought, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Lee, F.S. (2006) ‘The Research Assessment Exercise, the state and the dominance of mainstream economics in British universities.’ Cambridge Journal of Economics 31 (2): 309–325.

Lee, F.S., Pham, X., Gu, G. (2013), “The UK Research Assessment Exercise and the narrowing of UK economics”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 37 (4): 693–717.

Lundberg, S., Stearns, J. (2018), “Women in Economics: Stalled Progress”, HCEO Working Paper no. 12.

Mearman, A. (2011), “Pluralism, Heterodoxy, and the Rhetoric of Distinction”, Review of Radical Political Economics, 43(4), 552–561.

Zacchia, G. (2017), “Diversity in Economics: A Gender Analysis of Italian Academic Production”, Inet WP no. 61 https://www.ineteconomics.org/…

We would like to thank Marcella Corsi, Carlo D’Ippoliti, Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, Cristina Marcuzzo and Lynn Parramore for comments and the Diversifying and Decolonizing Economics (DEcon) for stimulating us to contribute to this important debate.

[1] See the last Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession – CSWEP Annual Reports available at: https://www.aeaweb.org/content/file?id=6388

[2] The majority of studies on the (under-)representation of women among academic economists are mainly based on U.S. data, thanks to the pioneering work of the CSWEP. In the rest of the world, the picture varies across countries and macro areas: women’s visibility in European countries exceeds the world average in particular in Eastern Europe (i.e. Romania and Bulgaria where, respectively, 57.8% and 47.2% of economists are women) while the proportion of women economists in Asia is lower (in particular in Bangladesh 4.8% and Iran 8.4%). Looking at the gender differences in career paths, according to the European data (She Figures, 2015), in the broader area of social sciences, women are relatively more present at the lower levels of the academic career, while the proportion of women among grade A academics (full professors) it is consistently remains lowest in all EU Member States (19.4% average EU-27). With reference to economics, for France Boring and Zignago (2018) report that women account for 43% of assistant professors and 24% of full professors. Similar are the shares recorded in Italy where women represent the 49.66% of assistant professors and only the 23.6% of full professors in economics (Cineca Miur data, January 2019).

[3] According to the last data provided by RePEc, women are 13786 of 54912 economists updated to December 2018.

[4] Also the last American Economic Association’s annual meeting, in Atlanta, dedicated a panel on the issue (“How Can Economics Solve Its Gender Problem?”, stream of the panel available at https://events7.mediasite.com/… )

[5] We refer to mobilizations in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi for academic freedom and freedom of expression.

[6] Such as in U.S. the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession – CSWEP and the Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession – CSMGEP ; in UK the Women Committee of the Royal Economic Society and in Europe the Committee on Women in Economics – WinE - by the European Economic Association

[7] https://www.siecon.org/sites/s…

[8] http://www.res.org.uk/Springbo…

[9] https://www.eeassoc.org/doc/up…

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