Women Economists Call for Accounting on Gender Discrimination, Sexual Harassment

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Economics and finance have long been male-dominated industries. Last year a #MeToo complaint brought to light a climate of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Now women economists are speaking out, even disrupting the American Economic Association’s annual meeting, calling for an accounting of past behavior, and change for the future.

In this blog post I will discuss how women economists and finance experts are speaking out about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in their industry. I will explain how industry-wide gender bias can affect hiring decisions, and will explain what women economists can do to change the culture of their industry.

American Economics Association Turns its Attention to Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment

Every January, economists from across the country gather at the American Economics Association Annual Meeting. It’s the biggest event of the year, featuring professors, economists, and finance professionals from across the industry. This year’s topic of conversation was gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the industry. Incoming president Janet L. Yellen, the first chairwoman of the Fed and an expert within her field, called diversity “the highest priority” for the industry.

Gender Discrimination is Widespread in Economics and Finance

Gender discrimination and sexual harassment happen in every industry. But some fields have a stronger history of exclusion and misconduct than others. Economics is one of those fields. Women economists make up only about a third of all economics doctoral candidates -- a number that hasn’t changed since 2000. At senior levels within economics, the gender gap is even wider. Racial and ethnic minorities also have a hard time breaking into the field. Within the economics industry as a whole, the women in finance are particularly hard-hit. Barely 10% of tenured finance professors are women.

Economics is a unique industry to deal with these problems because women economists are specifically trained to be able to study and measure systemic, industry-wide problems. Over the years, women economists have performed studies showing that women faced misogyny, hostility, and higher standards than their male counterparts. Even those studies were held to a higher level of scrutiny than other similar reports.

Male economists have long ignored complaints about gender discrimination and sexual harassment in their industry. They claimed that predictive models indicated that gender discrimination and racial bias would disappear naturally because of competition. But that has not been the case.

Women Economists Call for Change at AEA Annual Meeting, In the Midst of Continued Underrepresentation

Conversations about gender discrimination and sexual harassment were everywhere at this year’s AEA annual meeting. This was due in part to public allegations last year that Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer had sexually harassed and bullied women in his research lab at the university. Harvard has since substantiated some of the claims, but others are still under investigation. In December, 2018, Fryer quietly resigned from the AEA, where he was slated to join executive committee.  

The allegations, and the AEA’s lackluster response, opened something of a flood gate of #MeToo stories by women economists, graduate students, and professors. In total, over 400 graduate students and research assistants signed on to an open letter calling for change in the industry. The New York Times reported:

“‘There’s just a ton of anger and resentment around how the profession has been,’ Elisabeth Perlman, 24, an economist with the Census Bureau, said at the [AEA’s formal business] meeting. She added that the profession must also address the misconduct that was allowed to go unchecked for decades.”

The students and women economists who signed the letter and spoke out at the meeting called for the AEA to create systems to report gender discrimination and sexual harassment, as well as procedures to punish or expel members who violated the AEA’s newly adopted code of conduct on the issue.

But even as they raised their voices in these meetings, women economists found themselves silenced at the presentation table. Heather Long, a reporter for the Washington Post, described the scene:

“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.”

Calling for Equality Within the Economics Industry

Gender discrimination and sexual harassment continue to be problems for women economists and other white-collar professionals in male-dominated industries. Through underrepresentation, heightened scrutiny, and overt sexual misconduct, leading economists tell their female counterparts they are not worthy of the same recognition and attention.

There are solutions to gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the economics industry. In addition to the kind of culture shifts that Yellen and others propose, individual women economists can take action at their universities and workplaces, and in court.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys know how to call universities, private employers, and government agencies to account for gender discrimination and sexual misconduct. We can help you review your case, and your legal options, to find a solution to the gender discrimination you experience. If you are a woman economist facing sexual harassment in your profession, contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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