An alarmingly high number of female and minority economists say that they have faced discrimination and harassment and that they do not feel welcome in the profession, according to a survey released Monday by the American Economic Association that is prompting calls for sweeping changes.
Economics has been going through a #MeToo moment in recent months, and the survey results from more than 9,200 economists are the latest indication that the problems are deep and widespread.
“We find the results very distressing,” said Ben Bernanke, president of the AEA and former chair of the Federal Reserve and President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. He said his top priority is to restore “simple decency” to economics.
Women have far worse experiences than men in the economics profession, according to the survey. Thirty percent of female economists said they felt discriminated against, compared with 12 percent of men. Women felt they were treated especially unfairly when it came to pay, promotion decisions, course evaluations and expectations of serving on various committees.
One question asked whether the respondent had faced a situation in which another economist had attempted to fondle, kiss, remove clothing or have oral sex without their consent. Nearly 175 women said this had happened to them.
“The sheer number of people who have experienced an episode of harassment or discrimination is unacceptably high,” said Janet L. Yellen, president-elect of the AEA and a former Fed chair and head of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. “This confirms in my mind that there is a significant problem that requires being addressed forcefully.”
The AEA released a letter alongside the survey results Monday that pledged to take numerous actions, including the creation of a code of conduct, the adoption of a policy on harassment and discrimination, and the appointment of a lawyer who is an expert in sexual harassment and discrimination to serve as an ombudsman whom any economist can call.
“One thing is clear: There is systematic evidence of differences of views between men and women in terms of how valued they feel in the field of economics and whether they’re given a fair chance to demonstrate their skills and get promoted,” Bernanke said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Overall, only 20 percent of women said they were “satisfied” with the culture in the field of economics, compared with 40 percent of men — a higher percentage, but still troubling to Bernanke.
Economics has struggled for years to get more women and minorities into the field. Less than a third of undergraduate economics majors and enrollees in PhD programs are women, figures that haven’t moved since 2000 even as women have made educational gains in other technical professions, such as computer science.
The survey, which includes numerous questions about people’s experiences in their careers, was sent to everyone who has been an AEA member in the past nine years, an effort to try to include the views of people who have been so frustrated with economics that they have left the field. The vast majority of respondents teach at colleges and universities, but some work at companies or for government agencies such as the Federal Reserve.
Some might point out that the response rate was only about 20 percent, but members of the AEA board counter that the rate is better than political polls and note that their results echo numerous other studies. The data also line up with personal anecdotes from female economists, who have come forward to talk about their experiences of being ostracized in nearly all-male departments or being outright groped.
“I don’t want to see numbers this high,” said Marianne Bertrand, an economics professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and chair of AEA’s Committee on Equity, Diversity and Professional Conduct. “I’m very hopeful that economists are going to look at these numbers and reflect on what they can do.”
The AEA vows more vetting of economists who serve on the AEA board or receive prestigious awards, and there are changes in the works to the AEA bylaws to make it easier to remove someone from the board who violates the code of conduct. Harvard University economics professor Roland Fryer Jr. was elected to the AEA’s executive committee last year, and around the same time, harassment allegations about him surfaced in the New York Times. He denied the allegations but resigned before taking up the position.
The AEA also is working on expanded mentoring programs and anti-bias training for economics department chairs. Many women say problems occur at their universities, which have their own sets of rules and norms.
“One of my moves professionally was primarily motivated by a bullying culture in one department,” Susan Athey, an economics professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, said at the AEA meeting in early January.
Yellen, who is often cited as one of the most powerful women in the world, also disclosed in January how she felt discriminated against as a young female professor at Harvard in the early 1970s. None of her male peers would co-write a paper with her, she said.
Nearly 70 percent of female economists feel their work isn’t take as seriously as their colleagues’, compared with 43 percent of men who feel that way, according to the survey.
Yellen will become AEA president in 2020 and has pledged to continue her push to get gender parity in the economics profession during her lifetime by advocating for a cultural shift.
“Every individual needs to feel it’s their responsibility to try to change things. There are too many people who sit around and see things and don’t do anything,” Yellen said.
There’s widespread acknowledgment that it will take time to see major change happen, but many take comfort that there was over 90 percent support in the survey for the AEA to take action.
“There is appetite for change. It’s a society-wide push for change, but it’s also happening in economics as well,” Bernanke said.