Last weekend, we flew to Atlanta for the year’s biggest event in economics, the annual gathering of the American Economic Association. There were thousands of economists there. It’s a must-attend event for econ nerds, and we try to go every year. (If you haven’t heard our show about Robert Smith and Adrian Ma’s visit two years ago, it’s here.)
The AEA, Bernanke said, has begun taking steps to make the field more inclusive, such as sponsoring a moderated website for job discussions, creating a diversity committee and surveying AEA members to figure out what to fix. The sessions at the Atlanta conference, Bernanke highlighted, were selected by a committee made up mostly of women.
At 8 a.m. on Saturday (ouch), we dropped in on a session called “How Can Economics Solve Its Gender Problem?” It turned out to be well worth the sleep deprivation. The women on the panel — and they were all women — shared stories of navigating a maze of sexism. The panelists included Janet Yellen, the first and only woman to head the U.S. Federal Reserve. Yellen, who left that job in early 2018, will take over as president of the AEA in 2020.
“I entered graduate school in 1967, … the heyday of women’s lib,” said Yellen, who got her Ph.D. in economics at Yale. Yellen recalled her classmates protesting a men’s only club on campus, where a lot of business and networking was done. Women had some success, but Yellen said she feels the movement lost steam by the 1980s. “What’s hopeful is I see another wave of feminism here that’s been aroused by the #MeToo movement.”
Can economics explain the problem?
This was a group of economists at an economic conference, but their analysis of the field’s gender problem drew a lot of ideas from outside economics. The panelists kept coming back to implicit bias, which is how psychologists talk about unrecognized feelings and attitudes that affect our judgement and actions. They cited studies that suggest this bias lurks behind unequal treatment of female economists, and they described a toxic professional culture that disadvantages women. “The bullying culture of economics is one of our biggest problems,” said Stanford economist Susan Athey after the panel, adding that culture is understudied in the field.
Much of the story of modern economics has been economists moving past this cartoon model and toward models that are more reflective of the real world. Yet Athey says she’s been shocked by how many economists seem to have a blind spot when it comes to gender. “It’s like they fall back from modern economics and onto a very stylized version of economics when it comes to this particular issue,” she said.
Unlike the other sessions we attended, the audience was mostly female. Sitting in the audience, it felt like a reckoning was taking place.