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It's time to unlock the gates of the economics profession

I received a torrent of abuse for daring to highlight white male privilege in economics. Continuing to ignore structural discrimination could prove fatal for the discipline.

Devika Dutt
23 October 2020
- The photos of Laureates of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Economics are seen on a screen during the prize announcement in Stockholm, Sweden, Oct. 12, 2020
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Wei Xuechao/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Social media has infiltrated all aspects of life, and academia is no exception. For the last decade, economists on Twitter (or ‘#EconTwitter’) has become an increasingly robust community. Many have hailed it as an overwhelmingly positive, collegial, and collaborative virtual space. And to a certain extent, it is.

I personally have connected with many amazing economists, social scientists, and journalists in ways that would not have been otherwise possible. However, the positivity, collegiality, and collaboration quickly evaporate if you dare to criticize the institutional hierarchies of the discipline, in a way that is perhaps also the case with the real network of economists.

Last week, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize for Economics Sciences in the Memory of Alfred Nobel, or the “Nobel prize” in economics, was awarded to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson of Stanford University for their contribution to developments in Auction Theory. Without casting any aspersions on the quality of the theoretical advances produced by Milgrom and Wilson, I argued that perhaps this was not the year in which we needed to celebrate once again advances in abstract microeconomic theory and the continued hyper-mathematization of economics, produced by white men educated in and working from elite universities in the United States who have been manning the discipline's gate for decades. Why?

Besides the obvious Coronavirus pandemic that has been raging through the world, and the economic depression that has resulted from the policy response to it, it has also been the year in which many other events have rocked the economics discipline. Earlier in the summer, in the light of the institutional murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans, the Black Lives Matters movement took the economics discipline by storm, prompting bold calls to action and self-reflection. Furthermore, Claudia Sahm, a prominent macroeconomist wrote on her blog about the rampant sexism, gaslighting, and discrimination she and others have faced in the economics profession.

We also learnt about the experience of Devaki Jain, who told her story of shocking sexual advances by a prominent economist and the consequent loss of employment as a result. It no longer appeared controversial to claim that structural discrimination characterizes economics.

Operating on the assumption that #EconTwitter is in fact a collegial space, where if one voices a dissenting opinion not celebrating this prestigious award, the worst that could happen is that someone vehemently disagrees, I made the argument that the most prestigious award in economics needs to reflect these recent developments. That we need to incentivize and highlight work that directly addresses any of these urgent problems and recognize scholarship produced outside the Global North.

However, all hell broke loose. I was subjected to all kinds of awful racist and sexist messages on Twitter, received hate mail, and a death threat. In addition, participants in the anonymous Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) forum took it upon themselves to try to make sure I don’t get an academic job because I dared to highlight the persistence of white male privilege in economics.

Economics is, contrary to the apparent perception of many economists, very resistant to change.

This experience has made it plain to me and many others that structural sexism and racism is alive, well, and impervious in the profession. Many of the statements made earlier this year condemning structural discrimination were in name only, with very little to no accountability or actual change. Given the discussions about racism and sexism in economics, one might be misled to believe that everyone in the discipline is now aware and agrees that we have a structural diversity problem in the discipline. But the reaction to my mild criticism makes it clear that this is not the case. Some of us have long known that the crisis of exclusion is bigger than the relatively homogeneous composition of economists, with alternative perspectives and heterodox methodologies almost completely marginalized in publications, hiring decisions, and apparently even on #EconTwitter. Economics is, contrary to the apparent perception of many economists, very resistant to change.

Despite the vile reactions my tweet has generated, I stand by my comments. It is impossible to make the argument that the awarding of this Prize to only two women and three non-white economists out of 86 recipients, with all 86 being based at either North American or Western European universities, reflects the outcome of some fair competition. Even accounting for the seniority of the winners and the composition of the population of economists, the overrepresentation of white men persists. To claim that this is the outcome of a fair competition is tantamount to saying that there are practically no women or non-white people who produce valuable economics research and that no important valuable economics research is being done outside the few countries where these economists are based. Given that we have a host of evidence to the contrary, it should not be controversial to suggest that this is not a reflection of pure merit.

Once again, this is not an argument that the work of Wilson and Milgrom is not valuable, it is to argue that there is a whole universe of work in economics that is simply not valued in the profession. As a Female PhD Candidate not from the US/Western Europe, this is perhaps the most disheartening realization one can come to, and I am not alone.

Therefore, it is very important but not enough to talk about and create pipelines to include more women, Black scholars, non-white scholars, Bahujan scholars, and scholars from other underrepresented groups. If we are not going to proceed to publish their work, or hire them and present them with a feasible path to success, then why bother? We are not here to assuage the guilt of the overrepresented majority in economics. And, as I have argued elsewhere, with co-authors, diversity is a precondition for excellence. In fact, there is nothing that suggests that what we have right now is some kind of level playing field.

We are not here to assuage the guilt of the overrepresented majority in economics.

Even though women are writing better papers, they face tougher peer review than their male counterparts. We know that women are less likely to receive credit for their work when they collaborate with male co-authors. Racial bias in publishing and citation is also evident in the low-impact score of the Review of Black Political Economy, the foremost journal where you can find brilliant and critical engagement with questions of race and economics. A geographical bias is also evident in that authors based outside of Europe and North America are almost never published in top economics journals. We also know that while there is no evidence that papers published in the Top Economics journals are of better quality, yet they have a disproportionate effect on promotion and tenure decisions. Even publishing is not meritocratic in that certain methodologies are completely excluded from the mainstream economics journals, and social ties with the editor are an extremely important factor in determining success in publishing your work.

The economist Branko Milanovic also recently made the argument that a prestigious prize should acknowledge research and topics that matter to “peoples’ wellbeing in the entire world, and not just minor issues”. It is not unreasonable to assume that an award can affect the future direction of research interests of young economists. Therefore, why not award the study of the care economy (a topic that feminists economists have developed for decades) in light of the massive crisis of care we are in? Why not award the study of monopoly capitalism that has allowed billionaires to become richer while the rest of the world gets poorer? Why not award researchers that study state-led recovery and reconstructions, given the massive state intervention we are seeing in all countries of the world today?

The economics “Nobel” has a very narrow and ideological conception of what counts as progress in economics, and so it is even more unlikely that it will ever be rewarded for heterodox or alternative work. But even for people who use the dominant methods and theories, the topics awarded need to reflect the urgent needs of society, so that some significant number of young economists choose to direct their research towards them.

The economics “Nobel” has a very narrow and ideological conception of what counts as progress in economics.

Once we are confronted with this evidence on gender, racial, geographical, and ideological bias, how can we continue to believe that the Nobel is not simply perpetuating them? How insecure are we, as economists, that anyone suggesting that there are perhaps other deserving people that are systematically ignored gets ridicule and threats of being cast out of the profession? The work that economics needs to do in order to make the profession more plural, inclusive, and diverse has not even begun if we cannot even accept these biases in our profession.

On a personal note, I know that the anonymous “bros” on EJMR will prove me correct by ridiculing this article and once again calling me sexist and racist names (although your time would be better spent following the links in this article). And it is simply not helpful to think that the participants of EJMR constitute a “non-random” sample of the profession. No one can assume that this behavior is that of some tiny subset who do not represent the profession, especially since we simply do not know who posts there and how many people frequent the forum. We cannot distance ourselves from the statements made in that forum. Even if all of us do not participate, all of us need to acknowledge and tackle the ugly racism and sexism among our ranks. We cannot simply call for “civility” and look the other way when people take the alleged lack thereof as an excuse to perpetuate structural discrimination.

I love economics, I love what I do, and even knowing what I know now, would not have picked a different profession. I do want my profession to be better, which is why I, and many others, criticize the unscientific biases in our field. To continue to ignore gender, racial, geographical, or ideological bias could be fatal for the legitimacy of the discipline. As Claudia Sahm has argued, economics continues to be disgraceful and hell bent on sweeping uncomfortable realities under the rug. It keeps the gates of the profession locked, even to economists who toe the line.

In order to make sure we achieve a level playing field among a wider and more inclusive economics community, with better academic standards that conducts research on a wide variety of economic problems, it is imperative that we do everything in our power to get rid of all these biases. It starts with not being so intolerant of a different opinion.

Thanks to Carolina Alves, Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, Surbhi Kesar, and Farwa Sial for comments on an earlier draft, and to the large number of people who have expressed support and solidarity.

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