Years ago, economists Alicia Sasser Modestino and Justin Wolfers sat at the end of a technical conference and watched as Rebecca Diamond, a rising star in her field, present her latest research on inequality. At least she was supposed to present it – moments after she started her talk, the audience began to pound her with questions.
“She must have had 15 questions in the first five minutes, including, ‘Are you going to show us the data?'” Recalled Dr. Modestino. It was a strange, even humiliating question – the session was in the data-intensive field of applied microeconomics. Of course she would show her data.
Later that morning, Dr. Modestino and Dr. Wolfers, as another prominent economist, Arindrajit Dube, presented a paper on the minimum wage. While this was one of the most hotly debated topics in the field, the audience allowed Dr. Dube to present his results for a few minutes with few interruptions.
Over a drink later, Dr. Modestino and Dr. Wolfers: Did the audience treat the two moderators differently because of their gender?
You couldn’t be sure. Maybe the audience got Dr. Dube treated differently because he was older. Maybe they just found his work more compelling or less interesting. Perhaps Dr. Modestino and Dr. Wolfers the result of their own prejudices – Dr. Dube recalled asking many questions in an email, some of which were quite skeptical. (He added that he didn’t know how his reception was compared to Dr. Diamond’s, and he said he didn’t question Dr. Modestino’s memory.)
So Dr. Modestino and Dr. Wolfers, who wrote about economics in the New York Times, did what economists often do: they collected data. Together with two other economists, they recruited dozens of PhD students across the country to take part in hundreds of business presentations and record what happened. Their findings, according to a working paper expected to be released next week by the National Bureau of Economic Research: women received 12 percent more questions than men, and were more likely to receive questions that were patronizing or hostile.
“It measures something that we thought couldn’t be measured,” said Dr. Modestino. “It links it to a possible reason women are underrepresented in the job.”
The paper is the latest addition to a growing body of evidence of gender discrimination in business. Other researchers have found in recent years that women are less likely than men to be hired and promoted and have greater barriers to getting their work published in business magazines. These problems are not unique to the economy, but there is evidence that the area has a specific problem: the gender and racial differences in the economy are greater and have decreased less over time than many other areas.
In response to these concerns, the American Economic Association commissioned a survey of more than 9,000 current and former members asking about their experiences in the field. The results, released in 2019, showed a disturbing number of cases of harassment and outright sexual assault. And it found that more subtle forms of bias were prevalent: only one in five women said they were “happy” with the overall climate in the field. Almost one in three stated that they had been discriminated against. And almost half of the women said they avoided speaking at a conference or seminar because they feared harassment or disrespect for treatment.
“Half of the women say they don’t even want to present in a seminar,” said Dr. Modestino. “That way we lose a lot of ideas.”
The harsh reception of women is particularly noticeable, as they are also invited less often to present their research results. According to another paper, women have made up less than a quarter of the economic talks in recent years. Racial minorities were even more underrepresented: just under 1 percent of the speakers were black or Hispanic.
“It’s just embarrassingly bad,” said Jennifer Doleac, an economist at Texas A&M University who is one of the authors of this study. Only about 30 lectures have been given by black or Latin American women since the authors began tracking the data, she noted. “These scholars just never get invited.”
The lack of representation is so significant that Dr. Modestino and her colleagues could not investigate whether black and Latin American economists were treated differently in seminars than their white counterparts – their data contained too few examples to analyze.
The lack of opportunity can have significant professional consequences. Research presentations, called seminars, are an important way for academics, especially early in their careers, to spread their research, build their reputation, and get feedback on their work.
Seminars play a special role in business. In other areas it is usually a matter of collegial matters with mostly respectful questions and few interruptions. In business, however, they often resemble gladiatorial fights, in which viewers try to poke holes in the moderator’s argument. Apparently every economist, regardless of gender, has at least one horror story in which they lose control of a presentation. Many say they were moved to tears.
Most economists recognize that there are bad actors out there who are more interested in making points for discussion than asking legitimate questions. However, many defend the aggressiveness culture of the field and say it is helpful to receive feedback – including critical feedback – from colleagues.
“I expect a room full of economists to speak up and have their own opinions and ideas,” said Ioana Marinescu, an economist with the University of Pennsylvania. “To me, if they don’t ask questions, they might be a bit zoned.”
Dr. Marinescu recalled a talk she had given a few years ago at a prestigious conference at which she too was frequently interrupted. It was terrifying, she said – but also stimulating.
“The questions were incessant, but they were great questions from the best people in the profession,” she said. “From my point of view, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
Still, said Dr. Marinescu, reforms are needed. And in recent years, some economists have begun to question the culture of the aggressiveness of the field, arguing that this is what keeps people from entering the field. Several universities have put in place rules to reduce bad behavior, e.g. B. the ban on questions for the first 10 or 15 minutes of a lecture so that the speakers can at least get through the beginning of their presentations without interruption.
However, Judith Chevalier, a Yale economist who chairs the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Business, said rules for improving seminars address the underlying issues that Dr.
“Seminars are a public setting – seminars are when they are well behaved,” said Dr. Chevalier. “We cannot declare victory even if we fix seminars. We have to double-check everything. Are we biased when we hire? Are We Biased When We Are Mentored? Are we biased in seminars? Are we biased in promoting? “