Thousands of female economists say they’ve been sexually assaulted or discriminated against by colleagues

Yellen holds a news conference in Washington

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Yellen holds a news conference in Washington
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Thomson Reuters

  • In a new survey, women working in the economics field described a workplace that is hostile and even unsafe at times.
  • More than 250 female economists said in the survey that a colleague had sexually assaulted them or attempted to do so over the past decade, while thousands reported harassment and discrimination.
  • Reports of bias against race and sexual orientation were also seen in the results.

Female economists have for years dealt with pervasive sexual misconduct and discrimination in workplaces across the US, according to a new report highlighting unequal treatment in a field dominated by white men.

In an American Economic Association survey released this week, women in the economics field described a workplace that was hostile and even unsafe at times. Widespread reports of bias against gender, race, and sexual orientation were also seen in the results, which were gathered last year from more than 9,000 economists.

“I consider the findings in the AEA survey highly disturbing,” said Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve and president-elect of the association. “They show that all too many women in the profession consider the climate unconducive to their success, and there are an unacceptably large number of reports of outright sexual harassment.”

More than 250 female economists said in the survey that a colleague had sexually assaulted them or attempted to do so throughout their careers. Nearly 2,000, meanwhile, said they had been subjected to inappropriate sexual remarks or unwanted advances in the workplace.

gender

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Yutong Yuan/Business Insider

These issues have come into focus in recent months, most recently in 2018 when a prominent Harvard economist resigned over sexual harassment allegations from staff. About a year earlier, a University of California at Berkeley study found overwhelming hostility toward female economists online.

The most recent findings only confirm what many in the field have suspected for awhile, said Jason Furman, a Harvard University professor who served as a top economic adviser to former President Barack Obama.

“It is not so much a wake up call as a continued ringing of the alarm which started going off a year or so ago,” he said.

While an increasing number of women have joined related fields in recent years, gender gaps have mostly persisted in economics. The rate of women studying to become professional economists has barely budged over the past decade and a half, according to a separate AEA report from 2017.

Economists say that has created an echo chamber of sorts, limiting voices in teaching and research. Nearly 70% of women in the survey felt their work wasn’t taken as seriously as their colleagues, compared with less than half of men. Some even passed up opportunities in the field, with nearly half declining to speak at conferences or ask questions in order to avoid possible harassment.

race

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Yutong Yuan/Business Insider

Mary Lovely, an economist at Syracuse University and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that while discrimination has become more subtle over the years, it still hangs over her day to day work.

“Many men believe they themselves are not part of the problem, yet they continue to organize sessions without any women authors or discussants,” she said. “And I still am present at meetings where women’s views are heard and then trivialized.”

The AEA announced several measures Monday designed to combat issues found in the survey, vowing to address both overt and more subtle cases of harassment and discrimination in economics. Those include an updated code of conduct and enforcement rules, as well as plans to hire an association official to deal with complaints and investigations.

“It is time for the profession to change, even if some parts of it have to be prodded into better behavior,” Lovely said.

Women aren’t the only ones dealing with a hostile environment in economics. Less than a third of minority economists said their race was respected in the field. More than 90% of those who don’t identify as straight felt that their sexual orientation was not accepted. Many of these groups recalled dodging opportunities or social events out of fear of harassment and discrimination, reports rare among white and heterosexual men in the survey.

“I was stunned,” said Austan Goolsbee, who was chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama White House. “The report is awful. The profession has to do better at protecting and supporting people. It’s inexcusable.”