Nobel problem: Economists want to see their profession diversify

Nobel problem: Economists want to see their profession diversify

United States economists Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson were awarded the Nobel prize in economic science on Monday for their work on auction theory – a body of work that influences how prices are set for things such as radio spectrum that underpins telecommunications, including your smartphone.

It is a stunning achievement that acknowledges an economic theory that touches billions of lives. But this year’s award – like most years – is also an opportunity to explore the lack of diversity within the economic profession and the profound influence that can have on policies that impact society as a whole.

Milgrom and Wilson join a league of Nobel laureates in economics that are overwhelmingly male. Since the Nobel committee began awarding an economic prize in 1969, only two women have won.

Last year, Esther Duflo became the first female economist to win the prize for her work with Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kramer on their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. Political economist Elinor Olstrom became the first woman to win the prize “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons” in 2009.

There is also a dearth of women on the prize committee itself. This year, Eva Mork was the only female economist on the six-person Economic Science Prize Committee. But many economists believe it will take a more diverse field of professionals to solve the world’s most pressing economic challenges – and that more must be done to attract and recognise women and people of colour so they are regularly represented at the highest level of the field.

The myth of meritocracy

Only 24 percent of PhD economists working with the US federal government identified as Black, Hispanic, Asian or as other minorities, a 2019 study from by the Brookings Institute found, and minorities comprised just 21 percent of economics faculty in US academia. The same study found that women made up just 30 percent of PhD economists at the federal-government level and just 23 percent of economics faculty in academia in the US.

Closing those gaps starts with addressing the biases and factors that lead women and people of colour to be excluded from the field or overlooked in the first place.

I know that my research would be different if I were not a woman, and I can think of many examples of economic insights that would never have come to light in an exclusively white, male, elite economics.

Shelly Lundberg, University of California Santa Barbara

One of them is the myth that economics is a meritocracy, said Shelly Lundberg, distinguished professor of economics at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“They claim that economics is economics, you either do it well or badly, and what we are aiming for is a meritocracy, plain and simple,” Lundberg told Al Jazeera. “I think that this view is wrong, and is itself an illustration of how narrow is the viewpoint of economics now.”

And while many economists say the work – not the economist – should be the central focus when it comes to promotions, publications, and prizes, research that shows women in the field are held to “higher standards in publication and promotion,” said Lundberg.

Lundberg added that diverse perspectives also lead to diverse policy proposals that can potentially change the world we live in.

“The questions we ask and the answers we consider are informed by our experiences,” she said. “I know that my research would be different if I were not a woman, and I can think of many examples of economic insights that would never have come to light in an exclusively white, male, elite economics.”

A narrow pipeline

But how can economists make their field less white, male and elite and more diverse and representative of the societies they study?

Research shows the work starts in education.

For example, the gender gap is already evident at the undergraduate university level: there are nearly three males for every female economics major in the US, according to a 2018 analysis co-authored by Claudia Goldin, Harvard University’s Henry Lee Professor of Economics and Tatyana Avilova, the project manager for the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge.

The numbers are similar in the United Kingdom.

“Women are under-represented in economics because of the lack of role models, that is, senior economists in important organizations are usually men,” Ana Galvao, a professor of economic modelling and forecasting at the University of Warwick, told Al Jazeera. “This leads to an unconscious bias linking being a top-quality economist with the male gender. This affects the choices of young women when deciding their career and currently, only 30 percent of UK undergraduate students in economics are female.”

Our questions and our research will be more thoughtful, more nuanced, more rigorous the more diversity we have in the profession with regards to gender, race, ability, sexuality, religion, family background and other lived experiences.

Tatyana Avilova, Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge

Avilova and Goldin decided to study why female students aren’t choosing or staying in the field, examining data about US students who majored in economics and graduated between 2011 to 2015.

They found that even though female students outnumber male students at the undergraduate level more broadly, there was a higher rate of males graduating with economics degrees.

One reason: women were more likely to leave the field depending on how they fared from the start. Using data from an anonymised institution called “Adams College,” Avilova and Goldin found that a woman who received a grade of B+ in a “principles” course (a fundamental economics course required for higher-level classes) had a 27 percent chance of going on to major in economics. Men, on the other hand, had a 41 percent chance of continuing if they received a B+.

They found that “many students do not major in economics not because of true revealed preferences, but because of lack of adequate information about what economics is, what economics studies and what skills it teaches, and what careers are available to students who major in economics,” Avilova, now a PhD candidate at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera.

Using their findings, Avilova and the other members of the Women in Economics Challenge encouraged economics departments to explore ways to keep women in the discipline, including curriculum-based interventions that help students with different learning styles stay engaged, offering counselling and tutoring sessions and bringing in more diverse faculty members and guest speakers.

Bias and scrutiny

Once women enter the field of economics, they may face more scrutiny than their white male counterparts.

Alice Wu, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, focused her 2017 study on online conversations conducted on a popular forum called Economics Job Market Rumors, a virtual water cooler where economists discuss the latest comings and goings in the field and academia.

Wu found that when women were mentioned, discussions quickly pivoted towards their personal information and physical appearances.

She also found that the words used in posts with the strongest predictive power for females included “hot,” “attractive,” “pregnant,” “gorgeous,” “beautiful” and “lesbian,” as well as other more inappropriate terms. The words that were used in posts with the strongest predictive power for males, however, included “philosopher,” “keen,” “motivated,” “textbook” and “homosexual.”

The lack of diversity in the economics profession has been the subject of increased scrutiny.

In 2018, the American Economics Association created a new standing committee on equity, diversity and professional conduct, and added new inclusion initiatives, such as grants for study and travel, the costs of which can be barriers to advancement for early-stage economists.

There has also been a groundswell of grassroots activism among female economists and economists of colour.

The Sadie Collective, named after Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African American to earn her doctoral degree in 1921, is an organization created by undergraduates to address the pipeline for Black women in economics and related fields. The group shares job opportunities, holds panel discussions, and elevates minority conversations among Black economists.

The effect of the COVID-19 crisis

While there have been small signs of progress when it comes to diversifying economics, the continuing COVID-19 crisis has exposed and exacerbated long-standing inequities, too.

Preliminary research by Olga Shurchkov, an associate professor of economics at Wellesley College, found the number of academic papers submitted by women dropped substantially in March and April of this year, coinciding with the closure of schools across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic. Shurchkov also found that male faculty were four times more likely than female faculty to say they had a stay-at-home partner.

Shurchkov and her research team are continuing to collect more data on the subject, especially as virtual schooling and hybrid schedules mean that economists who also have caregiving responsibilities may have limited capacity for research and publication this fall and into 2021.

For academics, one year of professional upheaval could impact their career for decades – offering fewer opportunities for publication and achieving tenure.

There is much work to be done when it comes to creating parity for women and people of colour in economics, as well as a variety of other academic fields. But many economists are doing all they can to improve inclusion at all levels of their profession – from students to Nobel laureates.

As the pipeline of students entering economics widens, the thinking goes, representation will improve, too, including in front of Nobel committees. And that could have a positive effect in so many ways, Avilova said.

“Our questions and our research will be more thoughtful, more nuanced, more rigorous the more diversity we have in the profession with regards to gender, race, ability, sexuality, religion, family background and other lived experiences, and the better the economics discipline will be for it,” she said.