Why We Need Diversity and Pluralism in Economics, Part II

INET talks to Jayati Ghosh and Marina Della Giusta

We continue our analysis about diversity and pluralism in economics by proposing the views of two women economists coming from the Global South and North: Jayati Gosh and Marina Della Giusta.

Jayati Ghosh is Professor of Economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, India. She is one of the world’s leading economists working on development, globalization, international finance, macroeconomic policy, and feminist economics. She is co-recipient of the International Labour Organisation’s 2010 Decent Work Research prize and works as part‐time consultant for several international organizations.

Marina Della Giusta is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Reading, UK. Her areas of interest are behavioral and labor economics, with particular focus on social norms (evolution of values, conformism, and stigma), gender (economics of sex work, economics of care) and wellbeing. She is member of the Royal Economic Society CHUDE Steering Group and the Women Committee, where she is promoting initiatives surrounding both the communication and teaching of economics and the advancement of women in the profession, both within and outside academia.

They both stress that discrimination in the economics profession is an intersectional and non-binary concept. Jayati Ghosh emphasizes that not only gender, ethnic and regional identities are crucial, but also class, caste, and all other economic dimensions of inequality, which also apply to the North Atlantic regions. But the very small likelihood for an economist from the Global South to succeed intersects to some extent with the ideological hegemony of the neoclassical approach. It is worth reminding that, among those discriminated against for heterodox approaches, are those of us feminists, who believe in economics as a social science and see gender studies “a basis for analysis without which our economic understanding is inadequate,” rather than a ghetto.

Exposing the forms of external discrimination but also the personal internal challenges they faced in their life and career, Ghosh and Della Giusta draw a very relatable, honest and unapologetic picture, both healing and empowering to the reader.

Della Giusta highlights the difficulty of facing internalized social norms and sexism in terms of life choices that a career in economics entails. Ghosh also points to a difficult tension for underrepresented groups between having to be tougher, more courageous and aggressive than the rest to succeed, and the right and desire to retain “own sanity and grace.” We agree, and we would add that finding a balance is even more difficult if we want to take on the challenge of changing the stereotype of which attitude is believed to correspond to “competence” or “excellence.”

In their words, it appears that injustice and obstacles assign us a mission to fight with renewed courage. Marina Della Giusta accentuates the importance of the activities of women committees in national economic associations, in terms of mentoring, interaction with non-academic institutions, and definition of best practices. Jayati Ghosh finally reminds us of the importance of a broad feminist movement, as “this is really a time for a wide progressive front, including in academia.”

Jayati Ghosh

Orsola Costantini and Giulia Zacchia: Recently, the newly-appointed chief economist of the International Monetary Fund Gita Gopinath said she never experienced any discrimination throughout her career, implying perhaps that discrimination may be an excuse for those who do not succeed. You are an internationally renowned Indian woman economist. What is your view about the lack of diversity in economics and the possibility of discriminated people to succeed?

Jayati Ghosh: Discrimination is often invisible to those who have been fortunate enough not to have experienced it directly. Yet that very invisibility reflects privilege: it is possible for some forms of stratification (such as class) to dominate over others (such as gender) in particular cases. So, for example in India, upper class and upper caste women who are born into relatively progressive families experience gender discrimination to a much lesser extent, or possibly not at all, and are likely to be much more privileged and powerful than men from poor working class families, and particularly those from lower castes. This does not mean that gender discrimination does not exist even within upper classes and castes, but just that it may in some cases be submerged.

Having said that, the discipline of economics is actually quite marked for its lack of diversity, and it is quite rare for women or other relatively marginalized groups to become prominent. This is evident from the amount of public discussion when a woman does get some recognition, because it is still so unusual: for example, when Elinor Ostrom became the first (and thus far the only) woman winner of the Swedish Central Bank’s Prize in memory of Alfred Nobel, or when Janet Yellen became the first woman head of the US Federal Reserve, or even when Gita Gopinath was appointed the first woman Chief Economist of any multilateral organization. It may well be that none of these women individually faced much discrimination in their professional lives, but the very paucity of such women tells a tale.

Of course, gender is not the only marker of lack of pluralism in economics: white men from middle class or well-off families dominate the profession. And globally, there are strong regional and North-South divides: the important economists acknowledged across the world are still those based in the “North Atlantic” (the US most of all, then western Europe), whatever their country of origin. The likelihood of an economist from the Global South achieving international recognition is really low, regardless of the quality of his/her contribution—and those who do are inevitably resident in the North.

To some extent this is related to the biggest form of lack of pluralism in economics: the continuous and pervasive attempts to impose the ideological hegemony of the neoclassical approach on the discipline. This has led to a relative impoverishment of the rich field of political economy, which allowed and enabled a wide array of heterodox approaches to the subject, and its degeneration into the pseudo-science presented as mainstream economics, which is based on problematic assumptions and is now forced to rediscover many well-known insights that it chose to ignore over the past century or more.

Let us talk about your own personal experience. Were you treated unequally due to your gender and provenance or harassed 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? Mostly in India or elsewhere? Would you say you have been a “victim of discrimination?”

I was lucky (probably like Gita Gopinath) to have been born into a professional middle class family with progressive views. My class and caste situation in urban India shielded me from much of the gender discrimination that other girls and women are likely to have experienced even in the same place and at the same time. My university in India (Jawaharlal Nehru University) had some very impressive women economists including Krishna Bharadwaj, who actually founded the economics department. Subsequently, I was once again fortunate to receive a scholarship to attend an elite global institution (Cambridge University in England) when the economics faculty still contained impressive women like Joan Robinson and Suzy Paine, who were also important as intellectual role models. So as a student and a young scholar, I was never personally the victim of discrimination; on the contrary, it is possible that I received some extra encouragement because of being a woman student from a developing country. But that does not mean that I did not notice such things around me: there were cases of what we today recognise as sexual harassment, although there were really no mechanisms for dealing with this and the affected women students often had to suffer alone and in silence.

However, as a young academic I quickly realized how sexism is a widespread undercurrent in the profession. For example, when I got a teaching job in a university, some male candidates spread rumours that I must have provided sexual favours to a member of the selection committee (!) while subsequently I was informally offered a prestigious position abroad by an internationally renowned economist with exactly such an implicit transaction in mind (which obviously I did not accept). Other sexism was more subtle, but it could still feel demeaning: I have lost count of the number of times I have been the only woman on a panel (or sometimes even in an entire conference) and have been first complimented on my attire and then been treated in patronising fashion intellectually. Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit over the past four decades, but I can see that young woman economists may still have to deal with similar issues.

It is the case that women scholars in general have to be not just more serious, committed and hardworking to succeed, but also more confident, more thick-skinned and even more aggressive. There is then some inevitable tension between such success and retaining your own sanity and grace. I believe this is true not just of women but also of scholars from other marginalised categories, and I really want to emphasise that class, caste, ethnic and regional identities are very important in this.

Your work spans over many different themes from international and development economics, to economic history, to feminist economics. The common thread is probably the consideration of power and ideology as important components of any explanation of economic phenomena, which express themselves in terms of class relations but also of imperialism. Today, interdisciplinary and historical approaches are severely undermined. Alternative development theories, such a dependency theory and post-colonial studies, have become marginal. Can diversity be a vehicle to obtain more pluralism? Has being a woman affected your research choices, as distinct from the intellectual and political climate in which you have lived and studied?

There is no doubt in my mind that mainstream economics has been hugely impoverished by its lack of diversity, expressed in all the different ways that I have mentioned. Also, these have translated into much more limited analytical approaches and a false fascination with mathematical methods that somehow appear more “scientific.” Neglect of historical and comparative approaches to the study of economic phenomena and processes, disdain for the insights from other disciplines, rejection of alternative theories that are not part of the marginalist straitjacket, simply ignoring anything that cannot be easily “modelled”— all these have been responsible for a much less exciting and insightful discipline, and even one that is less connected with the actual working of economies.

Clearly, this is related to those engaged in the discipline, and those who achieve positions of prominence and academic power within it. But it is also related to power within the economy and society: too many economists have shown themselves to be willing servants of power (whether political, financial, or material) and to propagate ideas and research results that reinforce such power. So greater diversity would definitely bring more richness to economics—not only because of the differing backgrounds that would cause more and different questions to be raised, but because the search for answers would take different forms.

My own study of economics has been very heavily influenced by my identity—as a woman, as a citizen and resident of a formerly colonial country, as a person strongly influenced by socialist political thinking. So my interests are really those that relate to economic processes over longer periods, as well as policies for the short term, and how they interact with political and social changes, with different classes and groups within a society and across countries. Early in my career, well-meaning colleagues warned me that, to maintain my credibility as a woman economist, I should not fall into the “ghetto of gender studies”, as they saw it, but my desire has always been not to see it as a ghetto but as a basis for analysis without which our economic understanding is inadequate. Similarly, my analysis of development inevitably takes into account imperialism and international trends that reflect still-persisting global imbalances of power and resources.

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, like in your home country, 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 the feminist movements, or should they focus on equality first?

Neoliberal policies have had drastic and terrible effects on academic autonomy across the world, by starving public universities of funds and undermining forms of pedagogy that emphasize critical thinking. The mechanical obsession with publication, and with journals ranked in some arbitrary way that reinforces mainstream research, has severely damaged the ability of young economists to think, question and research creatively in ways that would actually advance our knowledge. And now, in many countries, there is more overt suppression of independent thought in universities by authoritarian governments unwilling to tolerate any form of dissent or questioning. There’s no doubt that this is a tough situation, especially for young scholars, who are faced not just with difficulties of advancement, but even sheer survival. But I believe the pendulum may have swung too far in that direction already—there are already some hopeful signs of the reverse swing in some countries, and let’s hope that spreads. Feminists—and all those who believe in the possibilities of a more just and humane world—cannot focus on only one form of inequality or discrimination: this is really a time for a wide progressive front, including in academia.

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. In particular, how would you place yourself relative to the long-standing debate in feminism between institutional action (like quotas) and grassroots movements?

Over time, I have come to believe that true diversity requires sufficient numbers of previously under-represented groups. One or two women, or those from an ethnic minority, in a large department (or indeed in any organization) is usually not enough to change the culture—they end up conforming to the existing culture to survive or succeed. To change the nature of the workplace and the discipline, sufficient numbers and variety are required. This means that, while quotas are definitely a rough and often blunt instrument, they may be required at least for a while, in order to achieve that diversity. Of course, this has to be combined with mobilization at a broader level, but that must be an ongoing process.

Marina Della Giusta

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. What is your experience? Has the situation evolved since you started studying economics?

Marina Della Giusta: My experience has been of multiple barriers, resulting from a combination of factors connected with the gender norms of my country of origin (Italy) and of the discipline (which was even more male dominated when I started my career). The worst part was expecting that if I worked hard it would be automatically recognised, and complete naivety on the importance of networking and promoting myself (which was definitely frowned upon for girls where I grew up), accompanied by a chronic lack of supervision and mentorship that meant learning everything the hard way. The situation has definitely evolved in terms of awareness of the problems, but not in terms of diversity where things have been moving disappointingly slowly.

Has being a woman affected your research choices, as distinct from the intellectual and political climate in which you have lived and studied?

Yes it has: I got there late, but once I figured out that gender norms had so influenced my private and professional life I could not stop thinking about them!

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. But the situation is grimmer for women. In your work, for instance, you have emphasized the greater administrative and nurturing burden women academics end up carrying for various reasons, which takes away time from scholarly work. How do you see all those elements interact: what is the relationship between pluralism and diversity?

The pressures are absolutely enormous and the burden of the consequences, both private and professional, is definitely disproportionately on all those who do not “fit in.” Academic mobility is a little like social mobility, slowing dramatically so there is a ”‘winner take all” situation in place, with leading institutions dominating the production of scholarship, while at the same time setting its standards and determining individual scholars’ career paths the world over. There is a bit of a cascade effect in that this is not just a top-5 malaise and few junior scholars can afford the luxury of doing things differently, particularly when we consider that the average new lecturer now has a post-doc as well and might be considering having a family alongside their career.

The Women Committee of the Royal Economic Society, of which you are a member, has promoted a series on initiatives such as mentoring students and the creation of a database of women economists. Can you tell us of what activities you are particularly proud and what might still be missing?

There is a lot happening at the Women Committee at the moment: we have formalized the running of our Mentoring at the Annual Conference and had tremendous response from many departments, we have enlarged membership to include representatives from non-academic institutions employing women economists (BOE, GES, BIS etc.) and are currently forging partnerships with other committees (WINE, CSWEP, WINAU, etc.) for the sharing of best practice. We are also putting together a template to help economics departments apply for Athena Swan recognition.

Do you think more women should study economics? Why?

Many reasons, but from my latest slides on the very subject:

  • To be equipped to combat discrimination
  • To achieve higher earnings
  • To be better at negotiation in the workplace and the rest of their lives
  • To feel better!

Share your perspective

From the Collection

Featured in this article