A climate of discrimination in economics
An American Economic Association survey, which drew 9,000 responses from current and former members, indicates there is widespread discrimination in the profession. Read more
A lot of junior colleagues have raised the issue of lack of mentorship or role models in macroeconomics, so we decided—Alessandra Fogli, who is at the Minneapolis Fed; Marina Azzimonti, who is at Stony Brook; and myself—to organize a conference last year for women in macro. This year, we are going to replicate that here in Chicago. At the beginning, I was a little suspicious because you don’t want to seclude or segregate women even more. But it was a great opportunity for generations of women to interact and network, and for younger women to ask advice about how to succeed in the field and to feel less alone in the profession.
The culture in the seminar was pretty different from a typical macro seminar. It wasn’t less aggressive in content, because people were criticizing the work and there were discussions, but the style was different. I believe the profession would benefit from having a larger share of women and a change in the culture overall.
Goldin: When I first began, there weren’t many women in the field, even fewer in my own field of economic history, which lagged tremendously in attracting women, for reasons that I don’t know.
Also, for the longest time, economist women didn’t have a lot of kids. You would never see a pregnant assistant professor. Now there are babies all over the place, and it’s a wonderful thing.
Voena: Many features of modern academia were shaped during times in which women were unlikely to work. Do you think that this historical heritage has created structural features in academia that might affect female representation and equal treatment? And might this affect economics in some practical way as opposed to other disciplines?
Goldin: Almost all professions are up-or-out. If you don’t go up, you sort of know you’re out. But we then get these competing clocks, which are even worse in academia now, particularly in economics. When I was a graduate student, you went to graduate school straight out of being an undergraduate. Now people get their bachelor’s degree somewhat later. They take a couple of years out to be a research assistant for someone. They then go and get their PhD, which no longer takes four years. So these tenure and biological clocks are competing even more now than ever.
And we inherit the social norms of our society. Many women who are on the same track as the person they love and who want to have a family will often step back. And when they step back in academia, they become adjuncts.
Guerrieri: Clearly, the dual clock is one of the main issues for women. Not the only one, but definitely one. Ideally, our objective is to arrive at a situation where, in all professions, there is total equality between men and women, and everybody takes some of the burden of family work. I don’t think we are there yet.
This raises an issue about how we treat paternity and maternity leave. In order to aim to arrive at this ideal where everybody does the same amount, in both the family and the work, there needs to be equality in the treatment of paternity and maternity leave. But this often, unfortunately, means that colleagues who have their wives at home with the kids are disproportionately advantaged relative to the female colleagues who need to care for their babies as well as write papers. You don’t want to give the wrong incentive to men, not to take care of the kids. But there is a tension there, and it’s not easy to resolve.
These issues may also be a little worse in economics. In many disciplines, all the more so in the sciences, people have one or two postdocs, maybe even three. By the time they become an assistant professor, they will probably have kids. The tenure comes much later. Whereas in economics, there are postdocs, but they’re typically just one year.
Voena: What type of research might be needed? What are the natural, safe sources of funding for this type of research?
Guerrieri: I have seen a proliferation of research on the issue. I see some advantage to more work being put into policy proposals that try to improve the situation. All university departments are much more sensitive to the topic. I think that funding should not be a problem, and there should be a lot of attention to this type of research.
Goldin: I’ve been running a randomized controlled trial concerning how to get more women to major in economics as undergraduates. How can we convey what economics is? There is some problem in how what we do is being conveyed to the populace.
What we’ve discovered is that women as undergraduates observe the grade that they get in their principles [of economics] course. If they get below an A-, women are less likely to pursue economics, and the fraction who eventually major in economics drops. The guys, you could hit them over the head with a baseball bat, and they would still stay in economics. So a treatment that we’ve tried in our trial is when undergraduate women get below an A- in economics and they’re really interested in it, you support them and tell them that they will do better and that we will help them. This is working at various institutions.
Claudia Goldin is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard. Veronica Guerrieri is the Ronald E. Tarrson Professor of Economics at Chicago Booth. Alessandra Voena is associate professor in economics and the College at the University of Chicago.