A few years ago, economists Alicia Sasser Modestino and Justin Wolfers sat in the back of a professional conference and watched Rebecca Diamond, a rising star in their field, present her latest research on inequality. Or at least she was supposed to introduce him – moments after she started her speech, the audience started asking her questions.
“She must have been given 15 questions in the first five minutes, including, ‘Are you going to show us the data? Dr Modestino remembers. It was a strange, even humiliating question – the session was in the field of applied microeconomics, rich in data. Of course she was going to show her data.
Later that morning, Dr Modestino and Dr Wolfers watched another prominent economist, Arindrajit Dube, present an article on the minimum wage. But while it was one of the most controversial topics in the field, the public allowed Dr. Dube to expose his findings for several minutes with a few interruptions.
Later, over a drink, Dr Modestino and Dr Wolfers wondered: had the audience treated the two presenters differently because of their gender?
They couldn’t be sure. Maybe the public treated Dr Dube differently because he was older. Maybe they just found his article more convincing or less interesting. Perhaps Dr Modestino and Dr Wolfers’ observations were a result of their own prejudices – Dr Dube, in an email, recalled receiving a lot of questions, some of which were rather skeptical. (He added that he wasn’t sure how his reception compared to that of Dr Diamond, and he said he didn’t question Dr Modestino’s memory as a whole.)
So, Dr Modestino and Dr Wolfers, who wrote about economics in The New York Times, did what economists often do: they collect data. Along with two other economists, they recruited dozens of graduate students across the country to attend hundreds of economics presentations to record what happened. Their findings, according to a discussion paper expected to be released next week by the National Bureau of Economic Research: Women received 12% more questions than men, and they were more likely to receive patronizing or hostile questions.
“It measures something that we thought could not be measured,” said Dr Modestino. “This ties it to a potential reason why women are under-represented in the profession.”
The paper is the latest addition to a growing body of evidence of gender discrimination in economics. Other researchers have found in recent years that women are less likely than men to be hired and promoted and face greater barriers to getting their work published in business journals. These issues are not unique to economics, but the field is proven to have a particular problem: Gender and race gaps in economics are wider and have narrowed less over time than in many others. areas.
In response to these concerns, the American Economic Association commissioned a survey of more than 9,000 current and former members who asked about their experiences in the field. The results, released in 2019, revealed a worrying number of cases of outright harassment and sexual assault. And he found that more subtle forms of bias were endemic: only one in five women said they were “happy with the general climate” on the ground. Almost one in three people said they thought they had been discriminated against. And nearly half of the women said they avoided speaking at a conference or seminar because they feared harassment or disrespectful treatment.
“Half of the women say they don’t even want to attend a seminar,” Dr Modestino said. “We’re losing a lot of ideas this way.”
The harsh reception faced by women is particularly striking as they are also less likely to be invited to present their research in the first place. Women made up less than a quarter of economic talks in recent years, according to another document. Racial minorities were even more under-represented: barely 1% of speakers were black or Hispanic.
“It’s just embarrassing,” said Jennifer Doleac, an economist at Texas A&M University who is one of the authors of this study. Only about 30 lectures have been given by black or Latin women since the authors started tracking the data, she noted. “These researchers are just not invited, ever.”
The lack of representation is so significant that Dr Modestino and his colleagues were unable to study whether black and Latino economists were treated differently in seminars than their white counterparts – there were too few examples in their data to analyze. .
The lack of opportunities has potentially significant career consequences. Research presentations, called seminars, are an important way for academics, especially those at the start of their careers, to disseminate their research, build their reputation, and get feedback on their work.
Seminars play a special role in economics. In other areas, it is generally a collegial affair, with mostly respectful questions and few interruptions. In economics, however, they often resemble gladiatorial battles, with audience members arguing over the presenter’s argument. Apparently all economists, regardless of gender, have at least one horror story of losing control of a presentation. Many say they have been brought to tears.
Most economists recognize that there are bad actors who are more interested in scoring points of debate than raising legitimate questions. But many defend the field’s aggressive culture, saying it helps to get feedback – even critical – from colleagues.
“I expect a room full of economists to speak up and have their own opinions and ideas,” said Ioana Marinescu, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. “To me, if they don’t ask questions, they might be a bit demarcated.”
Dr. Marinescu recalled a speech she gave at a prestigious conference several years ago, where she too faced frequent interruptions. It was terrifying, she said – but also empowering.
“The questions were endless, but they were great questions from the best people in the business,” she said. “From my perspective, it was one of the best experiences I have ever had.”
Yet, said Dr Marinescu, reforms are needed. And in recent years, some economists have started to question the culture of aggressiveness on the pitch, arguing that it discourages people from entering the field. Several universities have instituted rules designed to reduce bad behavior, such as prohibiting questions during the first 10 or 15 minutes of a conference so that speakers can skip at least the beginning of their presentations without interruption.
But Judith Chevalier, a Yale economist who chairs the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics, said rules intended to improve seminars would not solve the underlying problems the research Dr. Modestino’s revealed.
“Seminars are a public place – seminars are when they’re about good behavior,” Dr. Chevalier said. “We cannot declare victory even if we schedule seminars. We have to re-examine everything. Are we biased when we hire? Are we biased when we mentor? Are we biased in seminars? Are we biased when we promote? “