Evidence of an Insurrection Underway in Economics

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PHILADELPHIA – Encouraged by the success of four “field” journals established ten years ago, the American Economic Association  has commissioned a fifth.  American Economic Review: Insights, under editor Amy Finkelstein, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. will join the American Economic Journals of Applied Economics, Economic Policy, Macroeconomics, and Microeconomics.

The idea is to publish short papers with important insights that can be conveyed succinctly. “Sometimes the most important findings are those that require little room,” wrote Finkelstein in her report at the business meeting of the American Economic Association here Friday.

Famous examples, she wrote, include Paul Samuelson’s landmark paper on the efficient provision of public goods, which required three pages in the 1954 Review of Economics and Statistics, or, further afield James Watson and Francis Crick’s report of the double-helical structure of DNA, in two pages in Nature, in 1953.

The first issue of Insights could do worse than to include an article by Alice Wu, the University of California at Berkeley student whose senior thesis, “Gender Stereotyping in Academia: Evidence from Economics Job Market Rumors Forum,” has galvanized the economics profession to an unprecedented degree of civic action.

“Discussions about women tend to focus more on their physical appearance or family information, whereas discussions about men are more on their academic or professional aspects,” wrote Wu.

As first reported last summer by Justin Wolfers, of the University of Michigan, in a column in The New York Times, Wu’s results don’t “make pretty reading.” Supervised by Berkeley professor David Card, the undergraduate put machine-learning techniques to work sifting more than two million items of news and commentary posted over seven years on a widely used wiki, Economics Job Market Rumors, where young economists pool tidbits about opportunities, interviews, rejections, and offers.

The forum approximates a digital watercooler with two differences. For one thing, anonymity is not only tolerated, it is necessary, given the sensitive nature of much of the information that is being exchanged: who has been offered an interview, who has been rejected, for teaching positions all over the world. For another, the information threads, being digital, are preserved indefinitely.  Together they form a tapestry depicting the concerns of the young and the eager.

Wu put her computer to work initially searching for references to “she,” or “he,” “her,” “him,” then refined her search to discover the most common descriptors occurring in gendered conversations. She buttressed her findings with econometric techniques designed to estimate the probability that the author of a given post is a man or a woman. The 30 words in the enormous sample most uniquely associated with discussions of women, wrote Wolfers, occurred in this order:

hotter, lesbian, bb (internet speak for “baby”), sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy(sic), gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated and prostitute. [I found a similar, but not identical, list of strong descriptors in Table A1 in a later version of the paper.]

The parallel list of words associated with discussions about men reveals no similarly singular or hostile theme. It includes words that are relevant to economics, such as adviser, Austrian (a school of thought in economics) mathematician, pricing, textbook and Wharton (the University of Pennsylvania business school that is President Trump’s alma mater). More of the words associated with discussions about men have a positive tone, including terms like goals, greatest and Nobel. And to the extent that there is a clearly gendered theme, it is a schoolyard battle for status: The list includes words like bully, burning and fought.

True, the economists who depend on the wiki are almost all young men and women whose futures are being determined in a highly competitive market. Anonymity brings out their worst and, more often, their public-spiritedness. True, too, that it is not clear from her findings the degree to which men tend to stereotype women’s purely intellectual concerns in the discipline – their perceived tendency to prefer empirical research to theorizing, for example.

But Wu’s finding come on top of the well-established fact of disproportionately male dominance of the teaching and research profession – an estimated 15 percent of university economists are female In the US, 20 percent in Europe.  When The Economist surveyed the situation last month, the editors concluded,  “The profession’s problem with women could be a problem with economics itself.”

Evidence of the prevalence of locker-room talk was enough to spur nearly 1,100 female members to petition the AEA to confront professional misogyny head-on. The association formed a committee, chaired by John Campbell, of Harvard University; and including Marianne Bertrand, of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business; Pascaline Dupas, of Stanford University; Benjamin Edelman, of Harvard Business School; and Matthew Shapiro, of the University of Michigan.

Campbell reported Friday that a draft code of conduct has been prepared, six lengthy paragraphs, “more like the ten commandments than the Torah,” to be circulated to association members for review and comment in the next two weeks. Peter Rousseau, AEA secretary, described plans to create, in time for the next job market season, a pair of web forums to rival the EJMR — one of them a source of basic news communicated by departments, the other a home for anonymous but lightly moderated exchange.

By that time, 22-year-old Alice Wu will have commenced graduate studies in economics at Harvard University. In The Double Helix, his famous account to the race to decipher the genetic mechanism in 1952-53, Watson wrote of Rosalind Franklin, the crystallographer whose photographs proved especially valuable in their aggressive hunt, “The best place for a feminist is in another person’s lab.” Then Franklin was a singleton in a nearly completely male profession. Today, something like half of all molecular biologists are women.  These things take time.