Why We Need Diversity and Pluralism in Economics, Part I

INET talks to Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, Claudia Goldin, and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo
In a series of interviews—part of our larger series “Diversity and Pluralism in Economics: Problems and Solutions“—we explore different opinions about diversity in economics and its interaction with pluralism.
We start with a first round of interviews with Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, Claudia Goldin, and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo.
Alicia Bárcena Ibarra is executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. She has an extensive experience in international organizations where she actively promotes the implementation of sustainable development.
Claudia Goldin is an economic historian and a labor economist. She is the Henry Lee Professor of economics at Harvard University and was the director of the NBER’s Development of the American Economy program from 1989 to 2017. Goldin was the president of the American Economic Association in 2013 where she initiated activities to better incentivize and encourage undergraduate women to major in economics.
Maria Cristina Marcuzzo is a historian of economic thought, and world expert on John Maynard Keynes and Joan Robinson. Professor of economics at Sapienza University of Rome, she is the first woman economist to enter the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the oldest scientific academy, founded in 1603.
All three respondents think that a greater presence of women and members of ethnic minorities in economics would enrich the range of research perspectives in the field. But they have different views on what pluralism is and means to economics and diversity.
Goldin points out that, in economics, women and men tend to prefer different topics and fields: a gender balance could then reflect on the balance between fields and provide visibility to a variety of currently neglected issues. Bárcena goes even further: more women engaged in economics can contribute to push the boundaries of the discipline and provide new tools to understand the complex ways in which gender power relations shape economics systems and international relations.
Goldin finds it is crucial to attract into the discipline groups of people, like women and minorities, who are currently not sufficiently incentivized to do so. Often, they do not have access to the correct information about the complexity and variety of the discipline, which prevents them from choosing it. Instead, Bárcena insists on providing safe environments and appropriate material conditions to girls and women to pursue higher education and a research career. Marcuzzo adds that discrimination can be reduced by including more women in decision-making and research evaluation agencies also through a quota system and by increasing mentoring activities.
Marcuzzo agrees that women and minorities can improve the field by bringing in new and original contributions but she also argues that in a discriminatory context such potential is reduced by incentives to homologate to dominant views and methodologies.
Furthermore, she and Alicia Bárcena insist that diversity should be accompanied by an institutional commitment to allow and promote pluralism. Bárcena specifically points out how this should be a crucial concern also for governments, because an economic monoculture damages the quality of policy advice and the capacity of research to tackle practical economic and social problems. She advocates for creating space in academia for heterodox approaches to be systematically discussed and studied and mentions INET’s Young Scholar Initiative as a positive exception to the general trend.
Cristina Marcuzzo argues in favor of a “bottom up” approach to the problem of pluralism and diversity: make history and history of thought compulsory in undergraduate curricula as “history is the best cure for any arrogance of the present.”
The full texts of the interviews are below:

Alicia Bárcena

Orsola Costantini and Giulia Zacchia: What can a feminist movement do for social justice?

Alicia Bárcena: It is important to recognize the diversity within the feminist movements in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). LAC feminist movements struggles have been part of social justice struggles. I think this is due to the fact that gender inequality is intrinsically linked with socioeconomic inequality in the region. Gender-based power relations explain how opportunities and resources are inequitably distributed between women and men in the economies of the region.

For instance, in LAC women outnumber men among those living in poor households. Half of women employed have income below country’s monthly minimum wage (48,7% in comparison with 36,7% among men) (ECLAC, 2019)[1]. Without tackling feminization of poverty, we can’t eradicate poverty by 2030. From ECLAC [the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean]’s perspective gender inequality and lack of women’s autonomy is a structural obstacle to achieve sustainable development.

Do you think that increasing the presence of women and people of color in senior positions can also bring about a change in other dimensions of inequality?

Gender inequality is not an isolated dimension of inequality, it intersects, and it is reinforced by other factors such as ethnicity, race, age, territory, among others. For instance, attendance rates in higher education are very low among young Afrodescendent women between the ages of 18 and 24 (data available for Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela). In Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama and Uruguay, Afrodescendent women are the most severely affected by unemployment (ECLAC, 2018). Reducing gender gaps also contribute to eliminate other types of discriminations.

When you approached the world of economics, did you notice a peculiar lack of diversity in the discipline?

The lack of diversity is present in economics but also in other areas critical for progressive structural change that ECLAC promotes. For instance, the persistently low participation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in Latin America and the Caribbean is an important concern. In fact, women are underrepresented in those areas, being only 34.6% of STEM graduates in the region[1]. There is an increasing importance of those areas for economic development, however, it is worrisome that far from improving, the percentage of women pursuing tertiary studies in STEM is falling in some countries of the region (ECLAC, 2018)[2].

The causes of that trend are discriminatory patterns and gender stereotypes that are part of the education system and manifest themselves in explicit and implicit gender biases towards boys and girls (ECLAC, 2018).

Have you seen any improvement in the possibility of women and people facing discrimination to succeed in economics?

While we recognize there has been progress, increased efforts should be made to ensure full participation of women in the field of economics. Women’s greater burden of unpaid domestic and care work is one of the main barriers to women’s professional development. This not only affects women’s career paths and income levels, but also results in fragmented and unequal access to social protection in old age.

Moreover, discrimination and violence against women is still a problem in education and employment. Gender-based violence surveys conducted in the region show that the majority of women have been victims of some form of violence in the educational field throughout their lives. In fact, some of the most recent results show an alarming situation. For example, in Bolivia, 6 out of 10 women aged 15 and older have reported psychological violence in learning spaces. Also, 1 in 10 have reported having experienced sexual violence in this environment (data for 2016).

INET research shows that the current system of funding, hiring and promotion in academia, based on quantitative criteria such as citation counts and a hierarchy of publication outlets, discourages students from working on less popular themes and methods. James Heckman and George Akerlof have recently argued that, in the current system, originality is not rewarded and diversity of ideas is limited. What is your view? Do you think economics has a problem with pluralism and if so should it be a concern of a movement for diversity in the discipline? What is or could be the role of international organizations?

I think that the diversity of ideas should be much more encouraged in economics. ECLAC has a long tradition in developing new ideas and in thinking out of the box. It is an important chapter in the evolution of heterodox economics. Indeed, our institution was born challenging the prevailing views on development economics in the late forties, when Raul Prebisch presented his manifesto in favor of industrialization and technical change in developing countries. Prebisch’s center-periphery theory was an effort to understand the specific problems of developing economies, why they lagged behind in terms of technological learning and structural transformation. Since then, ECLAC continued to work on economic theory, advancing new hypothesis, studying in detail the empirical evidence and the economic history of our region. We have done our best to stimulate an open debate with all schools of thought, among policy makers and in the academic world.

More recently, ECLAC has emphasized the role of equality in development, not only for ethical reasons (which we embrace), but also because inequality brings about inefficiency. The culture of privilege leads to the loss of talents and capabilities, and to a political economy that is the enemy of learning and technical change. Gender, racial, or any kind of discrimination entails a high cost in terms of capabilities and productivity.

Thinking with our own head and challenging the orthodoxy came with a price. Frequently the theoretical and empirical contributions of ECLAC are misrepresented or simply ignored. We would like to see our ideas, and heterodox ideas in general, more broadly debated. There are some encouraging signals in this direction, especially among young researchers. The Young Scholars Initiative of INET is a good example of these signals.

Research jobs are increasingly precarious, competitive, and poorly paid. The deterioration of working conditions in the research field is daunting for women, especially for those who do not conform to mainstream research methods and themes. Should this be a concern for governments?

It is important to give more space in economics departments and opportunities to publish to heterodox economists. They should be able to pursue their theoretical questions and perspectives more freely, without the fear of being marginalized form the debate. Unfortunately, the economic profession has been (and still is) particularly resistant to accept pluralism and the coexistence of different schools. We are still too far from what Doyne Farmer (from the Santa Fe Institute) asked for, namely to judge theories by their empirical relevance and empirical validation, not by their cultural lineage.

I believe that this should a matter of concern for governments because limiting the scope and the pool of ideas in research damages the quality of the advice to public policy. Resources might not be allocated in the most efficient way. Academics have incentives to choose their field of research on the basis of what topics are more likely to be published rather than on the quest for solutions to practical policy problems.

What do you think of the creation of databases of underrepresented economists and guidelines to promote diversity in the professions? Do you see any risk related to those activities? For instance, some point out that those do not address the problem of pluralism. Others say that, being non-exhaustive, they fail their purpose.

Having guidelines to promote diversity in journals and economic departments might help in the effort to encourage pluralism. Perhaps more important than a database is to find new ways to diffuse the research of heterodox economists and to have more programs in universities and research centers in which heterodox ideas are systematically discussed.

Do you think more women should study economics? Why?

I think it is very important to promote that more women study economics. Women economists were at the core of the development of feminist economics which is an important part of heterodox and pluralist economic theories.

Feminist economics have challenged key notions of economic theory such as what is work, how wealth is created and distributed and how economies function based on a sexual division of labor. Feminist economics helped to make visible the interdependencies between the macro, meso, and micro levels of the economy, and to understand the interactions between monetarized economy and unpaid care and domestic work. ECLAC has incorporated and applied the analysis of feminist economics in the region and has advanced research and policy recommendations on this field. For instance, satellite account calculations of unpaid work have been a powerful tool that we have used in the region to assess the monetary value of unpaid household work.

It is crucial that more women engage in economics to continue to push the boundaries of the discipline and provide new tools to understand the complexities on how gender power relations shape economic systems and international relations.

Claudia Goldin

Orsola Costantini and Giulia Zacchia: As the President of the American Economic Association, you led initiatives to encourage young women to study economics, a commitment you maintain to this day. Why do you think more women should study economics?

Claudia Goldin: When I was president (and for several years after), I led an initiative to better incentivize and encourage undergraduate women to major in economics. The rationale was that undergraduates do not always make their major decisions using the best or the right information. Bad decisions are made using bad and incomplete information. We are providing good and more accurate information about economics as a discipline and as part of a career path.

What is your view of the lack of diversity in economics and the possibility of economists from underrepresented groups to be successful in their field?

Economists, and those in other disciplines and professional fields, need to be diverse for all the reasons that often get talked about. Particularly in economics, where men and women specialize in somewhat different fields, it is even more important to obtain balance in our research.

Has being a woman affected your research choices? More generally, do you think women’s research work tends to differ from that of men?

I know that economics fields (e.g., macro, labor, public, trade, history) differ by those gender of those who write in them. We have lots of evidence on that. In that sense, the research is different in terms of its focus and questions. Methodology may be another difference since that also differs by field.

You have worked on education policies. How would you say the current institutional policies, working conditions, and funding opportunities impact on the career of women in the field? Can things be improved?

Women are disproportionately teachers at the elementary and secondary levels in just about every country. It is a general consensus that teacher salaries in the US are somewhat too low and/or the inability of teachers to advance into higher positions reduces the incentives to invest in it.

INET research shows that the current system of hiring and promotion based on quantitative criteria such as citation counts and a hierarchy of publication outlets discourages students from working on less popular themes and methods, and induces the proliferation of short-breathed research works and misconduct such as strategic citations. James Heckman and George Akerlof have recently argued that, in the current system, originality is not rewarded and diversity of ideas is limited. What is your view? Do you think economics has a problem with pluralism and if so should it be a concern of a movement for diversity in the discipline?

I haven’t worked on this issue. I see a lot of highly creative work being done. I also see some less creative work. I don’t know what the optimal balance is and how to achieve it.

What do you think of the creation of databases of underrepresented economists and guidelines to promote diversity in the professions? Do you see any risk related to those activities?

Economists vary in so many ways that underrepresented can mean many things.

If anything, the real problem is that the usual underrepresented groups are NOT economists. I have worked to attract various groups to become economists through the Research Scholar Initiative program at Harvard. We scour undergraduate programs (and the AEA summer program) for those who would not ordinarily apply to graduate programs because their undergraduate training was weak. We bring a small group to Harvard each year and provide guidance, courses, and research experience.

Maria Cristina Marcuzzo

Orsola Costantini and Giulia Zacchia: The term “glass ceiling” is often used to describe an unseen barrier that stops women and minorities from moving up in their careers. To what extent do you feel a glass ceiling exists in your academic and professional environment? How would you describe the problem of discrimination in your field of research today? Has it evolved since you started working as a researcher?

Maria Cristina Marcuzzo: The glass ceiling indeed exists; it is endogenously generated by the structure of the professional environment, but it also reflects weakness in women’s strategies to overcome it. The professional set up gives incentives to behaviour which has been socially constructed as less favourable to women, but women have not always had at their disposal the best tools to counteract the tendency.

However, things seem to have improved a bit since my early days in the job, thanks to both cultural grassroots engagement and quota systems, when they have been enforced.

Let us talk about your own personal experience. Have you ever felt you were treated unequally due to your gender in your academic career? If so, did it happen when you were student, at the beginning of your career path, or along all the steps of your academic career? Would you say you have been a “victim of discrimination?”

Personally, I am l lucky enough to have not felt discriminated against on gender basis in my academic career. I felt much more discriminated for my heterodox orientation and my choices of topics to work on. I remember having papers rejected because they did not have a “model” or an econometric exercise in it. Even recently, I experienced that painstaking data collection in archives is not valued as much as some routine manipulation of an existing database. It is very difficult to break the “glass ceiling” of conformism in economics.

In a recent blog post, Heidi Hartmann and Mieke Meurs claim that “diversifying the field of economics is critical to achieving gender equality”. What is your view about the lack of diversity in economics and the possibility of discriminated people to succeed in their field(s)? Can diversity be a vehicle to obtain more pluralism? What is in your view the relation between pluralism, ideology and diversity?

I think this is the crux of the matter. If there is little room for diversity and mainstream economics dominates, then women face only two paths: to be forced to join the ruling (male) game or to be discriminated against. Diversity and pluralism is a very dangerous game to play, especially at the beginning of any academic career. Unfortunately, we are increasingly led to discourage young scholars from embarking on heterodox thinking or embracing a history of economic thought approach, fearing that they may not be rewarded in the job market.

The life of young researchers is difficult today due to precarious working conditions, the reduction of public funding to universities, and the pressures to publish a lot, and quickly. Originality is not rewarded and sometimes academic freedom is limited. In this context, equal treatment might not be sufficient to eliminate discrimination and barriers to self-determination. Should this be an immediate concern of a movement for diversity in the field, or should it focus on equality first?

I personally believe that concern for diversity should be given priority, because without diversity homologation becomes the only strategy perceived as winning. We should have a bottom up strategy: make economic history and history of economic thought mandatory in the undergraduate curricula. We should give more room to historical investigation in research, trying to be innovative in the way these subjects are thought and researched. We should avoid interpreting economic history as econometrics applied to old data, and history of thought as a boring set of summaries of ideas from out-of-fashion books. We should teach them as lively, research-oriented topics, engaging students and young researchers to enjoy genuine historical work. History is the best cure for any arrogance of the present.

In order to promote the work and expertise of women scholars, some associations, such as Women Also Know Stuff, created databases of women academic experts. Do you find those initiatives useful? Do you see any risk related to a database of women and minorities in economics? For instance, some point out that those do not address the problem of pluralism. Others say that, being non-exhaustive, they fail their purpose. How do you think institutional action (like quotas) and cultural grassroots engagement should interact?

A database of women academic experts is certainly useful and I would go for it. As for quotas, I believe that no selection committee (for promotion, for grants, or institutional appointments) should be allowed to stand without a woman in it. So I am in favour of quotas in decision-making agencies. I am also in favour of a better scheme of incentives to reward excellency, especially designed for women at the early stage of their career. I think that mentoring has also an important part to play. How many women in economics PhD programs are supervised by women? Perhaps at some stage, some interaction with open-minded women economists could also be encouraged.

Other initiatives try to encourage young women to study economics. Do you think more women should study economics? Why?

If economics continues to be as it is now, I would not be happy to see many women to pursue it as an academic career; on the other hand women may be a resource for change, but this can happen only if incentives are such as to promote, not to discourage, diversity in the field. Economics can benefit from a gender re-balancing, but only if woman bring to the table innovation and pluralism.

[1] ECLAC (2019) Social Panorama 2018, page 28: http://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/44396/1/ S1801083_en.pdf.

ECLAC (2018), “Mujeres afrodescendientes en América Latina y el Caribe: deudas de igualdad”, Project Documents (LC/TS.2018/33), Santiago, July.

[3] Annotated Index of the Position Document of the Fourteenth Session of the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. Fifty-eighth meeting of the Presiding Officers of the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. Santiago, 22 and 23 January 2019. Available in: https://www.cepal.org/sites/default/files/events/files/mdm.58_annotated_index.pdf.

[4] ECLAC (2019) Social Panorama 2018, page 200.

ECLAC (2016), «Equality and women’s autonomy in the sustainable development agenda» (LC/G.2686/Rev.1), Santiago, December.

[6] Ministerio de Justicia y Transparencia Institucional del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, “Encuesta de prevalencia y características de la Violencia contra las mujeres 2016”, La Paz, 201.

Share your perspective