Female Economists Quantify Their Chilly Experiences


Pace Audre Lord, sometimes you can dismantle the master's house with the master's tools. Not all those tools are tainted, and empirical analysis can be wielded just as effectively by a woman as by a man.

A great case in point comes from a NYT article today about female economists. The teaser sets it up nicely:

"A few years ago, the economists Alicia Sasser Modestino and Justin Wolfers sat at 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 meant to present it — moments after she began her talk, the audience began peppering her with questions.

“She must have gotten 15 questions in the first five minutes, including, ‘Are you going to show us the data?’” Dr. Modestino recalled. It was an odd, even demeaning question — the session was in the data-heavy field of applied microeconomics. Of course she was going to show her data.

"Later that morning, Dr. Modestino and Dr. Wolfers watched as another prominent economist, Arindrajit Dube, presented a paper on the minimum wage. But while that was one of the most hotly debated topics in the field, the audience allowed Dr. Dube to lay out his findings for several minutes with few interruptions.

"Over a drink later, Dr. Modestino and Dr. Wolfers wondered: Had the audiences treated the two presenters differently because of their genders?"

So what did they do? I love what they did. They recruited grad students nationwide to attend economics presentations and record them. The results of their study were that female presenters received 12% more questions than male presenters, and the tone of questioning was much more likely to be patronizing or hostile. In a survey conducted by economists' professional association, the American Economic Association, fully half of female economists surveyed expressed that they "had avoided speaking at a conference or seminar because they feared harassment or disrespectful treatment." Modestino commented, "We’re losing a lot of ideas that way.” Not surprisingly, women are far less likely to be invited to present their ideas in the first place.

Some institutions have tried to institute some nudges: "[I]n recent years, some economists have begun to question the field’s culture of aggressiveness, arguing that it discourages people from entering the field. Several universities have instituted rules meant to cut down on bad behavior, such as banning questions for the first 10 or 15 minutes of a talk so that speakers can get through at least the beginning of their presentations uninterrupted."

Boy, oh, boy, does this strike home for me! When I was a professor in Utah, my department had these weekly hazing sessions where faculty could present new ideas. But of course, that was not the entertainment--you were only allowed to give a 5 minute introduction. The main entertainment was very masculinist in nature--we had only 2 women in a department of 30 at the time, so the sex ratio deeply affected department dynamics. The main course was the men vying with each other to most effectively attack the presenter's argument in the most witty way. It was just like "counting coup" and the men walked out of each session knowing their position--for good or ill--in the male pecking order of the department. And that was the true purpose of the meeting.

Whether the ideas were any good or whether they could be made better was clearly not the point of the interaction. It was a pissing contest, pure and simple. Eventually I found it so nauseating to sit through these that I stopped going. I also refused to present unless they gave me 20 uninterrupted minutes at the beginning of the hour to do express my thoughts--so at least I could pretend that I had been heard.

Did I mention that all the members of the department were members of the Church?

Anyhow, after the experiences I had, all I can say to these female economists is, "Brava! Good for you!" I thank them for putting empirics to something that is a common experience for female academics, but which had been dismissed as misunderstanding, or anecdote. Because I am a believer, I daydream of a time in the hereafter when men can see through the eyes of women. Of a time when maybe they would have to experience what it was like to have been a woman at their faculty meetings . . .