Economists have been trying to become less male, pale and stale


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Economists once stood accused of a “bias against bias”. Their models offered neat explanations for a lack of diversity within their own ranks. Perhaps women or ethnic minorities were so rare because those groups preferred other subjects. Or maybe they suffered from lesser skills. Regrettable, but not a problem for the profession to fix.

Over the past five years, the ground has shifted. The possibility that discrimination or a hostile environment might be putting off under-represented groups has gone mainstream. Organisations from the American Economic Association (AEA) to Europe’s Centre for Economic Policy Research have taken on more responsibility for fixing the problem. And at least in the US, five years of good intentions appear to have delivered some results — just not always as intended.

At the AEA’s annual gathering in San Antonio last weekend, I asked about improvements. In some places an aggressive seminar culture seems to have softened, helped by a rule that speakers should be able to hold forth for at least five minutes before interruptions start. Male-dominated conference programmes are rarer these days, and I also heard of a new generation of younger economists more likely to call out offensive remarks.

This being a group of economists, there was also data on the shift. Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago presented the results of a 2023 survey of AEA members, suggesting that women were still less satisfied with the climate within economics than men. (There was no difference by race.) More encouragingly, two-fifths of all respondents said that it had improved over the past five years.

Has any of this changed who stays in economics? Patchy data makes it tricky to identify trends in the representation of ethnic minorities. But it does seem that over the past five years, women have become more common in the field. It used to be that they disproportionately dropped away from academia, both after finishing their PhDs and on the path to tenure. But eyeballing the latest data, that is no longer the case.

Admittedly, it is possible that women are still struggling to progress in particular subfields (hello, macroeconomics), where anecdotes suggest that an aggressive culture has proven stickier. And there is still some leakage in the pipeline to full professor, the field’s most senior rank. The share of women among new PhD students rose dramatically from 2018, but since 2021 has stalled.

The transition has not been entirely smooth. I heard fears that stifling questions meant in some cases seminar speakers lost out on valuable feedback. I heard from another senior economist a concern that women were being added to conference programmes as “decorations”, and not for their expertise.

There is worrying evidence of a backlash, including within the AEA’s latest climate survey. About a quarter of respondents said that they felt more discriminated against than they did five years ago. That share was pretty consistent across men, women, white and non-white economists. One conference, titled “Women in Empirical Microeconomics” (which was technically open to men), is facing allegations of discrimination as part of a Title IX complaint.

A further concern is that efforts to foster an inclusive environment could inadvertently fragment the field. A working paper by Marina Gertsberg of the University of Melbourne found that after 2018, junior female academics started 0.7 fewer new research projects per year, most of which was a drop in collaborations with men. The biggest fall was in collaborations with tenured men and in fields with a lower share of women.

Gertsberg’s theory is that men retreated into increasingly male networks because they perceived a higher “cost of collaboration”. Relatedly, in San Antonio I heard the suggestion that men might avoid co-authoring with women to maximise their chances of speaking invitations.

What comes next? No one I spoke to thought that economics is now perfect. Anusha Chari, chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, says that department heads should be trained on how to create more inclusive workplaces. New challenges include a recent Supreme Court ruling limiting affirmative action, which could affect schemes for minority groups.

Further frontiers include economics’ lack of socio-economic diversity, which is higher than in other disciplines. In Europe, a climate survey is in train. (There, the profession seemed slower to act, though on average they started with more gender diversity.) And the final prize, of course, is that economics itself will be made richer.

soumaya.keynes@ft.com

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