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‘Hotter,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘feminazi’: How some economists discuss their female colleagues

Students walk in front of the chapel on Stanford University's campus in Palo Alto, Calif. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

In 1970, the economics department at the University of California, Berkeley, hired three newly-minted economics PhDs from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two — both men — were hired as assistant professors. But a woman, Myra Strober, was hired as a lecturer, a position of inferior pay and status and no possibility of tenure. When she asked the department chairman why she was denied an assistant professorship, he put her off with excuses. She kept pressing him until he gave a frank answer: She had two young children; the department couldn’t possibly put her on the tenure track.

So Strober took another offer. In 1972 she became the first woman economist at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “They didn’t know what to make of me,” she said. The faculty retreat, which had been held every year at a men’s club, had to be moved. There were jokes about putting a bag over her head so they could keep going to the club. “It was like trying to run a race with one of your legs tied behind you,” Strober said of the culture. When she came up for tenure six years later, she was denied.  “They told me I hadn’t hit a home run and that my work wasn’t seminal,” she explained. “Two male metaphors in one sentence.”

But the School of Education — “a different milieu” — was happy to have her. Years later, the business school finally extended her a professorship, too — by courtesy.

Women are still staggeringly underrepresented in economics departments: In 2016, they made up just 20 percent of tenure-track faculty, up from 13 percent in 1997, according to the American Economic Association (AEA). That puts the profession behind even the notoriously male-heavy STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in gender equity. “The pipeline into economics departments has stalled for at least a decade, probably more,” said Shelly Lundberg, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and chair of the AEA’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. Only about a third of new PhD students are women — a number that has barely budged in 20 years.

The problem isn’t limited to one set of schools either. “It’s pervasive across the profession,” said Margaret Levenstein, director of the AEA’s survey on women.

It is also widely known. But economists have not been terribly concerned about the issue. “Conventional wisdom in most disciplines is that diversity per se is good. Mainstream economics tends to reject that — a reflection of the willingness to believe that lack of diversity is an efficient market outcome,” said Lundberg. “Economists are much more likely to believe that if there aren’t many women in the field, it must be because they’re not very interested or not very productive.”

New research shows that there are other forces at play.

Measuring sexist attitudes and hostility toward women is difficult. But for her senior thesis in economics at the University of California, Berkeley (fittingly, the same university that rejected Strober), Alice Wu found a way.

Wu, who will begin doctoral studies at Harvard University next year, mined over a million posts on the anonymous online message board, Economics Job Market Rumors, to analyze how economists talk about women in the profession. The website, a popular forum for graduate students and faculty members to gossip about jobs and hiring, offers a window into conversations that are otherwise almost impossible to document. And as Wu explains in her paper, “Anonymity presumably eliminates any social pressure participants may feel to edit their speech, and thus creates a natural setting to capture what people believe but would not openly say.”

Wu set up her computer to identify the gender of the person being discussed — for instance by looking for terms like “she,” “her,” “his,” “himself,” and so forth. Using machine-learning tools, she then uncovered the terms most associated with posts about women versus posts about men.

The 30 words most uniquely associated with women are (in order): hotter, lesbian, bb (Internet terminology for “baby”), sexism, [a vulgar term for breasts], anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, [another vulgar term for breasts], pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated and prostitute.

The terms most associated with men are rather different. They include: mathematician, pricing, adviser, textbook, motivated, Wharton, goals, Nobel and philosopher. Indeed, the only derogatory term in the list is a slur used against gay men.

Wu also moved beyond individual words to analyze broader themes in the discussions. She found that discussions of men are more likely to be academic, focused on economics and professional advice. Meanwhile discussions of women are more likely to involve personal information (such as family, marriage) or physical appearance (including: beautiful, fat).

Women economists are hardly surprised. The paper reflects what they have known and experienced for years but struggled to prove in a meaningful way. Wu has now managed to quantify that misogyny using men’s own words.

What is dispiriting for many, however, is that attitudes haven’t changed even among younger generations. The website is frequented mostly by graduate students and recent PhDs who are on the job market. “I had hoped that as the profession aged and the older, more traditional men stopped practicing that the picture would change,” said Strober, “that the young men who perhaps had working wives and had been exposed to feminism would have a different perspective. It doesn’t seem like that’s happened.”

Leah Boustan, an economist at Princeton University, suggests that the problem can be understood in terms of the “pollution theory of discrimination.” The theory, articulated in 2002 by Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University, says that because women are perceived as lower-skill, their presence reduces the prestige of a previously all-male profession. Men thus intimidate female colleagues to keep them out of the profession and protect its prestige.

Women economists who study gender issues, such as occupational segregation or the economics of child care, can have a particularly tough time. After her experiences at Berkeley and Stanford, Strober switched her focus from unemployment to gender. Male colleagues tried to dissuade her: “Why would you want to do this?” they asked. “Why not focus on mainstream issues and then you can work on this stuff after you get tenure?”

The resistance to studying the economics of gender extends beyond university campuses. Janet Stotsky, who has led research at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on how fiscal policies affect women and girls, said her early work received little institutional support. “People said, why are you wasting your time? That won’t benefit your career.” Attitudes have changed with the leadership of Christine Lagarde, who has supported integrating gender into the IMF’s work. But if she left, that would probably dissipate, said Stotsky.

Some women have tried to create new spaces to pursue this work. Diana Strassmann, founder of the Journal of Feminist Economics, says she created the publication because she saw scholars who challenged the orthodox boundaries of economics losing their jobs.

The profession is searching for ways to address its gender imbalance. “This weeding out of women isn’t good for the kind of economic work that gets done or how people think about economic policy,” said Levenstein. In 2015 the AEA instituted mentoring programs aimed at helping young women in the field navigate the ropes.

“What we need is more awareness and institutional leadership,” said Lundberg. “I don’t think economics has more bad actors than any other field, but we do have a lack of pushback. There’s too much comfort with women’s underrepresentation.”