Economists Grapple With Bias and Harassment in Their Ranks


SAN DIEGO — When the nation’s economists gathered here over the weekend, the event looked different than in past years. There was a woman holding “office hours” to help victims of sexual harassment and abuse. Job interviews were no longer conducted in hotel rooms, where female candidates had long felt uncomfortable. There was a long list of panel discussions on racism and sexism in the profession.

There were even, some attendees noted with delight, long lines for the women’s restroom.

Many economists celebrated those developments as a sign of progress after a year of revelations — in front-page stories and surveys of the group’s members — about sexism, racism and harassment in the discipline.

But others stressed the need for even more aggressive action to address those issues, particularly racial discrimination. And the group’s leaders said they would need years of sustained effort to begin to erode the structural barriers that have held back women and nonwhite men in the field.

“There’s certainly a problem — we identified that problem,” said Ben S. Bernanke, the former Federal Reserve chair, whose one-year term as president of the group, the American Economic Association, ended Sunday. “Progress in terms of outcomes, it’s too soon to say, obviously. Progress in terms of process I think has been tremendous.”

In an interview, Mr. Bernanke and the new president, Janet L. Yellen, his successor as Fed chair, said the association would soon finalize procedures for investigating violations of its code of conduct and for punishing violators. One formal complaint has already been filed, they said.

Mr. Bernanke said further steps might be needed to diversify the profession’s power structures, still dominated by white men (although a majority of the association’s executive committee, with Ms. Yellen’s ascension, is female). Additional efforts could include grading university economics departments on their diversity efforts, and insuring racial and gender diversity in top positions at leading journals, which can make or break economists’ careers by choosing to publish or reject their research.

Economics is grappling with these issues as other academic disciplines are facing their own reckonings. The National Academy of Sciences in 2018 published a report finding widespread sexual harassment in science, engineering and medicine. Prominent scholars in political science, government, law and other fields have been accused of sexual harassment. But gender and racial gaps in economics are wider — and have been more stubborn — than in many other fields.

The lack of diversity in economics, particularly in the top ranks, is nothing new. But the discipline has been forced to confront its problems by a series of incidents in recent years. In 2017, an economics student, Alice Wu, published a paper documenting discrimination, harassment and bullying on a popular industry online forum. The following year, Roland G. Fryer Jr., a star economist at Harvard, was accused of harassing and bullying women at his university-affiliated research lab. (Harvard suspended Mr. Fryer last year.)

At the economics association’s meeting last year — less than a month after The New York Times published details of the claims against Mr. Fryer — some of the field’s most prominent women shared searing stories of harassment and discrimination. And in March, the association published the results of a survey finding that female and minority economists faced rampant bias, harassment and even outright sexual assault.

The association has taken a number of steps in response to those revelations. It adopted a new code of conduct, and changed its bylaws to allow sanctions against members who violate it. It hired an ombudsperson to hear complaints, and a new general counsel who is empowered to investigate charges of misconduct. It has created task forces charged with addressing the profession’s problems and with recruiting more women and people of color, and a permanent committee on issues facing gay, lesbian and transgender economists.

“What I’ve heard, over and over again, is — this is the moment, we need to take advantage of it,” said M.V. Lee Badgett, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is co-chair of the association’s new Committee on the Status of LGBTQ+ Individuals in the Economics Profession.

Some economists, particularly younger ones, are calling for a more radical rethinking of the discipline’s structure. Academic economics remains dominated by researchers who attended and work at a handful of elite institutions. Relatively few economists, particularly in top programs, come from working-class backgrounds or have parents who did not attend college.

“Diversity means not bringing people with darker skin who use exactly the same models and ask exactly the same questions and reach the same conclusions,” said Cecilia Conrad, an economist who is now an executive at the MacArthur Foundation. “Embracing diversity means opening up to the kinds of new questions and new ways of seeing the world that will eventually improve economic science.”

Ms. Conrad, who is black, spoke on a panel titled “How Can Economics Solve Its Race Problem?” Discussion of race and racism was more prominent on this year’s agenda, after organizers were criticized last year for neglecting those issues.

“Last year was the gender conference, this year is the race conference,” said Lisa D. Cook, an economist at Michigan State University who is one of the field’s most prominent black women. Gender and race, she added, go hand in hand — the association’s survey last year found that more black women report experiencing discrimination than any other group.

Ms. Cook is also one of four women newly elected to the executive committee. Economists, including many of the young activists, said the new leadership had made a difference, and credited Mr. Bernanke and Ms. Yellen with pushing the typically slow-moving association to become more aggressive.

There are also signs of a broader cultural shift. Many attendees said they had grown more comfortable raising questions about diversity in their departments, for example, and a growing list of schools have adopted rules meant to improve the tone of economics seminars, which some have described as toxic.

“The problem is not solved, absolutely not,” said Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, a Harvard research fellow who as an undergraduate was a co-founder of the Sadie Collective, a group aiming to bring more black women into economics. “But we are seeing that the field itself is at a very high level taking measures to talk about diversity and inclusion in a very broad way.”

Research presented at the conference showed that decisions on promotion, invitations to present research and other milestones on the road to success still skewed disproportionately white and male.

An exhaustive study of videos of economics seminars, presented by Alicia Sasser Modestino of Northeastern University on behalf of several co-authors, found that female economists face far more questions from men in the audience during their presentations than male economists do. “In general,” Ms. Modestino told a largely packed room for a session on gender in economics, “women are more likely to receive questions that are not fair.”

While economists have become more willing to talk about general issues of discrimination, many remain reluctant to go public with more specific allegations. Leto Copeley, a lawyer who has been made the association’s ombudsperson, said people had come to her with cases of severe abuse but were fearful of speaking out publicly.

Ms. Yellen said that “it’s not been a deluge of people coming forward” with allegations. “There is a concern,” she said. “In academia, you are really talking about power relationships, when women are being harassed by men who are important for their careers.”

At several points over the weekend, there were reminders that economists have pushed for greater diversity in the past with limited results. In the Friday session on race, panelists talked of a “golden age” in the late 1970s and early ’80s when top departments had a substantial number of black graduate students. But that moment quickly passed.

At a lunch on Saturday, members of the National Economic Association celebrated the group’s 50th anniversary. The organization was founded as the Caucus of Black Economists in December 1969 at an impromptu gathering in the midst of the profession-wide convention at a New York hotel. Several founders spoke at the lunch, praising the gains that black economists have won but lamenting that far more were needed.

One founder, Bernard E. Anderson, an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, said he was encouraged by the recent diversity focus by the American Economic Association and its leaders. He recalled that when his group first met at that New York hotel in 1969, association leaders summoned city police officers.

“They thought we were a bunch of radicals who wanted to disrupt the convention,” Mr. Anderson said, “when all we wanted to be was economists.”


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