Berkeley economist leads petition drive to fight pervasive misogyny

A senior thesis by a UC Berkeley student raised eyebrows recently when the New York Times shared her findings that a popular website for those posting and seeking jobs in economics was rife with sexist and crude terminology.

And Alice Wu’s work continues to reverberate, following word last week that more than 1,000 economics professors, lecturers and graduate student instructors across the country who teach economics signed a petition urging the American Economic Association (AEA) to institute a fact-based and moderated wiki to provide up-to-the-minute job market information.

Such a forum would replace the anonymous, lightly moderated and recently much-maligned Economics Job Market Rumors website for economists to talk about economics, jobs, conferences, journals and more that was analyzed by Wu with the aid of machine-learning and text-analysis tools.

Signatures are still being collected on a petition calling out misogyny on a popular economics job site. (iStock photo)

Wu participated in a Q&A with the Women in Economics at Berkeley blog and recalled her introduction to the EJMR site. “I was shocked when I saw the explicit sexual content of posts and the racism and sexism on the website,” said Wu. “When I asked my friends, who were graduate students at Cal, if they knew of the website, they seemed really embarrassed.”

Looking for a solution

Michael Reich, a UC Berkeley professor of economics and co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, recalled reading about what senior economists could do about the problem raised by Wu.

“I suggested to several AEA members the idea of an AEA jobs wiki,” said Reich, an authority on labor economics.

Economist Michael Reich

The petition drive resulted from that idea. He and Heidi Hartmann, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, launched the petition, and it has been circulated by the IWPR, the Economic Policy Institute, the International Association for Feminist Economics and others.

Among original signatories were UC Berkeley’s Laura Tyson, a Haas School professor of business administration and economics and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton administration, and Christina Romer, a professor of economics and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration.

As of today, the petition contains 42 signatures of professors and others teaching economics and conducting economics research at UC Berkeley. “I am gratified that so many senior colleagues signed it,” said Reich, adding that the number from Berkeley probably exceeds that from any other institution of higher education.

Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton of Princeton University was among the first to sign.

‘Distinct blind spot’

The petition’s call to action spurred the AEA to issue a statement condemning misogyny, racism, homophobia, antisemitism “and other behaviors that harm our profession” and appointed an ad hoc committee to develop a code of professional conduct for its members.

The report will be discussed at the organization’s annual conference taking place Jan. 5-7 in Philadelphia.

The association also announced it will explore creating a website or message board to provide more information and transparency to the job market for new Ph.D.’s.

“For a field that prides itself on being able to grapple with the most complex social and economic issues, gender equality has been a distinct blind spot,” said Hartmann, a MacArthur fellow in addition to heading up the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “The AEA, representing the largest number of economists, has a duty to take on misogyny in our ranks.”

In a letter following presentation of the petition to the association, Reich and Hartmann urged it to name and/or consult women and women and men of color and other members of groups disparaged on EJMR to its code-of-conduct committee. The AEA agreed, partly.

“We’re pleased that the AEA has taken our concerns seriously and is working to address the pervasive misogyny in our discipline,” Reich said. “Much work remains to be done.”

Five committee members have been appointed by the AEA. Three are male economists, two of them from Harvard University and one from the University of Michigan. Two are women: Stanford economist Pascaline Dupas and Marianne Bertrand, an economics professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Bertrand and colleagues researched a 2003 law mandating that at least 40 percent of board members at publicly traded companies in Norway be women in order to address the corporate sector’s glass ceiling. Their conclusion?  Newly appointed female board members were observably more qualified than their female predecessors, and that the gender gap in earnings within boards fell substantially, but there was no statistically significant change in the gender wage gaps or in female representation in top positions a decade later.

Bertrand also co-authored an article in 2009 with Harvard economist Claudia Goldin that explored explanations for the gender gap for highly educated workers in the corporate and financial sectors in the United States.

The power of a few

Wu said she hopes that the people who have posted crude and objectifying comments on EJMR are not representative of the profession.

“But overall,” she cautioned, “the whole atmosphere and culture of a profession can be shaped by a select few people. When you have a few people standing out in a certain way, that has a big impact on the culture of the field. It doesn’t really matter who these people are, but just their existence and participation is disturbing.”.

While a representative of EJMR responded to Wu’s research by saying the research was old, it reflected input as recent as July 2016. Reich said that the EJMR site will remain unacceptable “as long as their posts are anonymous.”

Wu also told Women in Economics at Berkeley that she is encouraged by the overall response to her research.

“I’m really happy to see that this study has triggered an open discussion about the culture of economics and how it may impact women’s representation in the field,” she said. “People are acknowledging that there’s an issue and that’s the first step to addressing it.”

RELATED INFORMATION

Read Alice Wu’s thesis here.