ATLANTA — Every January, 13,000 economists gather for a weekend of networking, research sharing and fun. It’s the marquee event of the year for economists, and, at first glance, this year’s gathering could almost be mistaken for a #MeToo conference.
Economist after economist took the stage at the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta at the annual conference of the American Economics Association to say enough is enough. Participants noted the many anecdotes — and the data — that show clear discrimination against female economists and rampant harassment in parts of the field.
Superstar economists including Janet L. Yellen and Ben S. Bernanke, the incoming and current president, respectively, of the AEA, said their top priority is boosting diversity in this profession. Yellen called for a “culture change” in economics and “serious professional sanctions” for misconduct.
But even at the AEA conference, where there was so much emphasis on welcoming women and minorities into the field, I witnessed several uncomfortable incidents and heard about others.
The bulk of the conference is about two things: economists presenting their latest research and PhD students interviewing for jobs.
There are over 500 panel presentations at the conference, and I attended seven of them. Four of these had all-male panels. AEA doesn’t keep statistics on the gender breakdown of panels. But what was really striking was how women were not featured prominently even for work they had done.
In a panel on trade, I walked into the room to see all men sitting at the table at the front of the room. I was surprised, because a female economist was listed as one of the speakers. As the session started, one of the men informed the audience that there wasn’t room for her at the table. Her male co-author would present the paper, and she would field questions later. The panel ran out of time and she never spoke. She declined to comment about what happened.
In the next session I attended on globalization, I again walked into a room to see all men sitting at the table in front by the PowerPoint screen. Again, one of the female co-authors sat in the audience — keeping time for her male peers as they presented. She later told me she was presenting in other sessions and wanted a break, but she regretted that the panel had become all-male.
I’ve certainly seen worse gender dynamics at other conferences, but it was striking that in a weekend where there were numerous high-profile discussions about welcoming women into economics, female economists were relegated to seats in the audience.
Peter Rousseau, secretary treasurer of the AEA, said 11 of the 19 economists who planned this year’s conference were women and they were the “principal deciders” regarding the content of the event.
Many graduate students are at the conference to interview for jobs. These interviews take place in lots of different venues, including large meeting rooms and hotel suites. But because there’s not enough space, some interviews occur in hotel rooms with a bed. One graduate student told me she attended several such interviews in Atlanta. And other economists have told me about times in previous years when they had to actually sit on the bed during an interview. Kathryn Holston and Anna Stansbury, PhD students at Harvard, have officially called to end the bedroom interviews.
Rousseau said AEA leadership is “aware of concerns” about the interviews in hotel rooms and has a committee looking into what to do about this and other matters.
Awkwardness isn’t just in the rooms. On Saturday night, I was sitting at a restaurant bar near the conference when several senior economists and what appeared to be job candidates entered. A senior male economist immediately ordered pitchers of beer. I looked around the group of about a dozen and all were male. One woman showed up later.
My own experience as a female journalist covering the event was revealing. I told one male economist how much I was looking forward to his presentation the next day. He told me I “wouldn’t be interested” because it was “very mathy.” I laughed it off. But the next day almost exactly the same scenario occurred. I approached an economist after his presentation to ask for a copy of his paper. He told me to go to his website and look for the “less mathy” version.
As I turned to go, a male journalist asked the professor the same question I had. This time, the male economist told the male journalist that he could read the original research paper and a “version for a more general audience” on his website.
It’s a small difference, but one that stood out as I listened to Yellen give a talk on “How Can Economics Solve Its Gender Problem?” She described how often she has seen male economists interrupt a woman’s presentation on the first slide to say, “That’s outright wrong,” whereas, when a man is criticizing another man, they tend to word it more like, “That’s an interesting way of looking at things.”
There was also the older male economist who kept giving me his assessments of my face and whether I was more Scandinavian or Irish-looking until I opened my laptop and told him I had work to do. And another male economist who kept insisting I introduce him to a prominent journalist he wanted to meet. I explained I didn’t know this famous person and thus couldn’t help, but he kept hovering by me until I pulled out my phone to call my editor.
I debated whether to write this. Most of this behavior I typically brush off and forget. But I found myself taking notes in an effort to try to highlight concrete examples of the many tiny ways women are put down — or literally pushed off the head table.
Economists are overwhelmingly white and male, and that hasn’t changed in decades. About a third of first-year PhD students in economics are female, basically the same as in 2000. And barely over 10 percent of tenured economics professors are women. AEA administrators said they don’t keep track of how many women registered for this particular conference.
Many female economists have come forward to share stories of bullying and harassment, including Jennifer Bennett Shinall, who ended up in an airplane seat next to an older male economist who repeatedly tried to put his hand inside her clothes while telling her he could help her career on a flight home from the 2017 conference. Her account, published in a prominent economics newsletter, is harrowing.
What has really shaken up the economics world is data on how prevalent bias and harassment are. As an undergraduate, Alice H. Wu scanned more than a million posts on a popular website that economists use in the hiring process. Wu, now a graduate student in economics, found the comments about women were mainly about their bodies while the comments about male job candidates were about their scholarly work.
Studies show that female economists are less likely to be promoted than men (and less likely to be promoted than women in other academic disciplines). And research papers written by women go through a longer review process than papers penned by men, according to a new study by economist Erin Hengel at the University of Liverpool.
Yellen, one of the most prominent economists in the world, described at AEA this year how when she joined the Harvard economics faculty in the 1970s as a junior professor, the men basically ostracized her and didn’t collaborate with her. She called research by Wu and others “remarkably convincing” and “appalling” evidence that discrimination and belittling of women in economics still exists today.
“Economics clearly has a problem,” said Bernanke, a former chair of the Federal Reserve Board and current president of AEA.
The AEA has a new committee looking at how to improve the treatment of women and minorities, and it launched a job forum that will not allow posts about women’s appearances. At this year’s conference, AEA also conducted a huge survey to get more insight on what’s going on.
“This is a matter of culture, and culture is something that can change,” said Yellen, who will become AEA president next year. She’s already put together a committee to plan the 2020 conference that is majority female.
Younger economists are also speaking out. More than 400 recently signed a letter with detailed recommendations for change and a cry of, “Please, listen to us.”
Of course, many of these problems aren’t unique to economics. I attended an informal dinner for economic journalists at the conference. I looked around the table of about 20 and saw only three female journalists and one nonwhite journalist, a reminder that the media has a diversity problem, too.
As I’ve thought about the conference, it’s clear AEA leaders are pursuing important initiatives to address these concerns. It’s clear that important steps include banning beds in interview rooms and encouraging every panel to have at least one woman.
For male economists, it seems like continuing to ask female colleagues about their experiences would be prudent, as would being more introspective about their own record of mentoring women and minorities. No comments about women’s appearances or assumptions about their math skills at a professional conference would be a good start.
It’s also clear that female and minority economists need to keep speaking up, both to colleagues and journalists. Male economists at the conference were eager to pass me their business cards as soon as we met.
And the field of economics journalism has work to do, too. We need to do a lot more to avoid writing stories that quote only male economists. And we need to recruit and mentor more women and minorities in our own ranks.