Over the past few months, with the help of some peers and an excellent podcast (unfortunately in French only!), we had started to question whether fighting for gender equity in economics is really the best use of our time. Spoiler alert: we still think it’s important. But examining this question delivered important insights into how we can be better aware of the privileges that we hold as economists and how our actions may impact the world around us.
After the Summit for Diversity in Economics this fall (for those living in a bubble, check out our post from a few months ago), we took a step back to re-examine things: Is equity of opportunity in our "ivory tower" really the issue that we want to devote so much energy to? For the most part, economics is a profession made up of highly educated individuals who come from privileged backgrounds. [We don’t have a statistic to back this up, but it only takes looking around your department to see how many economists have parents who are highly educated and sometimes even economists themselves.] So is the effort of promoting women in economics simply an effort of moving the already well-off into a slightly more elite position?
Further, what is the cost of such action? We sometimes wonder if we should encourage women and students of color to join a field that can feel isolating, disatisfying and can be so explicitly hostile [Wu (2018)].
On a grander scale, perhaps focusing on our own small bubble obfuscates a larger issue about equity and opportunity in the world. Promoting women in economics may contribute to disparities within women but across the socioeconomic hierarchy. The entry of privileged women en masse into the labor force can be linked to disadvantage and exploitation of women of fewer means.
Women make up two-thirds of the low-wage workforce - and almost half of those workers are women of color. With wages below $10 an hour, they barely scrape by. These women end up doing the care work or nursing work carved out by upper class women as the latter enter the labor force and are competing with men to break the gender glass ceiling. Footnote: Stephanie Land’s 2019 New York Times bestseller "Maid" describes in great detail the hardships of women in low-paying jobs.
While we take these concerns seriously, our answer lies in a simple (and perhaps self-serving) observation about economics: economists have a lot of power on policy and the development of knowledge, and the composition of people who make up the field of economics will impact the content and strength of the research that is produced. [Bayer and Rouse (2016)].
Research by Anusha Chari and Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham shows that women are more likely to be in empirical fields like health, labor, and development economics. The authors write that
These statistics are suggestive of the fact that the presence of women in the field impacts the sub-fields that are emphasized.
Another paper by May, McGarvey, and Whaples (2014) finds that the normative views about the economy vary by gender. Bayer and Rouse (2016) summarize the results of May, McGarvey, and Whaples (2014) as follows:
Finally, Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion, and Yann Algan postulate that the fact that economics is dominated by primarily those who are economically privileged, those who are white, and those who are male, may reflect a social stratification that makes our field more closed off to the broader development of knowledge occurring across the social sciences. A laboratory study by Woolley et al. (2010) corroborates this notion, finding that collaborative groups working on problem solving tasks were more successful when they had greater gender diversity.
The bottom line is that the people who make up the field of economics seems to affect the quality and content of the research we produce. And since we like to believe that what we do matters for policy making, knowledge production and generally "making the world a better place," we want to make sure that we have a diverse and representative group of people producing economic research.
Authors: Emily Eisner and Nina Roussille