Economics and Change

Esther Duflo has been chosen as one of the three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics. Duflo, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was recognized for her research that explores how conditions of poverty can be most effectively addressed using economic principles. For example, a research paper she co-authored looks at whether giving high school scholarships, in a developing country that charges tuition fees for high school education, can affect students’ future educational opportunities and employment income.

In the words of the Nobel award committee, Duflo’s research is exceptional because of its “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. Duflo is the youngest winner to ever received the award, and is also only the second female winner.

The gender imbalance between male and female Nobel economics laureates is not surprising, since only 14% of university economics professors are women. But, ironically, Duflo’s win occurred just a few weeks after the release of a troubling report by the American Economic Association (AEA), the largest international association of economists. The report described a problematic “professional climate” in economics.

Several recent events, including a professor being elected to the AEA executive despite being accused of harassing employees and students, caused the AEA, and the economics profession in general, to be criticized for a lack of leadership and inclusivity. In response to those criticism, the AEA commissioned a “climate study”; this report is the first, and the intention is to “repeat [the study] at regular intervals to monitor changes over time”.

This alleged lack of inclusion may seem to be important only to economists, or to people interested in becoming economists. But it’s bigger than that. The diversity within any academic discipline can affect what subjects get researched, and which research results are considered important or useful. Ultimately, this affects us all, because it affects our collective knowledge.

The AEA’s “climate study” collected data on the experiences of particular demographic groups – such as women, people of colour, and members of the LBGTQ community – within the economics profession. It also looked at how those demographic groups are perceived within the profession. Some of the more striking results of the study help to explain why a woman receiving the Nobel Prize in economics was unusual – highly deserved, but unusual.

Esther Duflo giving a speech in 2011. (credit: Center for Global Development/Flickr)

The data collection asked about two kinds of experiences with discrimination: personal experience (the individual experienced discrimination themselves) and witnessed experiences (the individual saw someone else experiencing discrimination). This is a very clever survey design, because it creates a fuller picture of where or how discrimination occurs. Even if someone has not personally experienced discrimination, they might have seen it happening to someone else – and that would not be captured in the survey data if the other person didn’t participate in the survey or didn’t feel comfortable reporting their experience.

The survey asked about blatant harassment or discrimination, such as inappropriate physical contact or verbal comments, but it also asked about more subtle actions that could make people feel unwelcome or unwanted. These actions could include, for example, not being included in social gatherings or excluded from opportunities that could build professional connections, such as reviewing other researchers’ work or participating in committees.  The survey asked about these actions at universities, in workplaces, and in other professional settings such as conferences or seminars.

The AEA survey was sent to everyone who belonged to the AEA during the past nine years. There were just over 10,000 responses to the survey, for a response rate of 22%.  The report contains very detailed descriptions of the respondents’ demographics and of the results, but here are some of the more notable outcomes:

  • Only 40% of men and 20% of women were “satisfied with the overall climate within the field of economics”
  • 44% of women and 33% of men had witnessed gender-based harassment
  • 16% of women and 51% of men felt that “women are respected in economics”
  • 47% of black economists had been discriminated against or treated unfairly because of their race
  • 27% of LGBT economists had experienced discrimination (compared to 18% of all respondents)
  • Economists who considered themselves “economically and socially conservative” were less likely to agree that economics would be a “more vibrant” field if it were more diverse

The survey also had several “open-ended” questions, where respondents could add their own answers or comments. 940 respondents provided this additional information. In addition to describing other kinds of  harassment and discrimination, two other very interesting themes emerged from these comments. These related to forces within the field of economics that allegedly act to exclude or discriminate, but which have nothing to do with gender, sexuality, religion, or ethnicity.

The first force is the narrow range of topics that are considered acceptable for economic research – described as “a small set of fields within economics that matter”. The second is a perception of “elitism” within the field. Economists from a small group of universities control a “network” of employment and research opportunities that is difficult to break into – which one respondent characterized as a “good old boys network that only lets in other boys”.

Since the survey results were released, the AEA has developed a set of draft “best practices” to encourage more diversity of representation and ideas within economics, with detailed practical suggestions for implementation. It’s now soliciting its members’ feedback to develop these draft ideas further.

So, within the context of a serious examination of how economics operates as an academic discipline and as a profession, it will be very interesting to see if Duflo’s Nobel win contributes to any changes. Her award could be an example of economics becoming more demographically diverse and its research becoming more inclusive – or it could be just window dressing: something that gives a good external image but doesn’t signify any meaningful internal adjustments. It would be wonderful if her Nobel turned out to be one of the first steps in broadening economics beyond a “good old boys network”, but it also looks like a lot of work is needed for that expansion to happen.


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