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[Noah Smith] Economics has a sexism problem

This past weekend, the economics world was roiled by a controversy over sexism in the profession. A new paper by an undergraduate econ major revealed that an anonymous online forum called Economics Job Market Rumors is a hostile environment for women.

The paper, by Alice Wu of the University of California-Berkeley, was a clever one. First it used text mining to identify which forum posts talked about women and which talked about men. Then, using cutting-edge statistical techniques, it found which words were most uniquely associated with each — in other words, words that tended to only enter discussions about women, versus those that only tended to appear when men were being mentioned. Both groups of words included plenty of insults, but the more “female” words were mostly about sexuality and attractiveness, while many of the “male” words were more professional in nature. This shows that sexual-themed discussions on the forum are generally reserved for women — certainly something that would make many female economists uncomfortable in that environment. The paper’s findings are no surprise to anyone who has even casually perused the forum in question.

Wu’s paper doesn’t constitute proof that the economics profession is riddled with sexism. It’s far from clear how representative the forum in question actually is; although it’s billed as a sort of digital water cooler for economics graduate students to exchange rumors, some of the people who post there could be undergraduates, or not even economists at all.

But even if the forum isn’t representative of the profession, that would come as cold comfort to women who get attacked by the denizens of the forum. These episodes bear an uncomfortable resemblance to anonymous online mobs that have attacked women in other fields in recent years.

Since Wu’s paper appeared, a number of economists have been speaking out against sexism in the profession. Many of them, like Princeton’s Leah Boustan, the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Shelly Lundberg and the University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski, are women. But a large number of male economists are speaking out as well. Given the forum’s popularity and the field’s long-standing struggles with accusations of gender bias, it wouldn’t be surprising to see official action on the matter, either by the American Economic Association or by some top academic departments.

But this isn’t just inside baseball. The sexism controversy in the economics department can help shed light on similar controversies now raging in a number of fields. In recent years, accusations of sexist cultures have surfaced in technology, in chemistry, in astronomy, in banking, in venture capital and many other places.

Why is this happening now? One reason could come from economic theory. It’s notable that all of the fields now experiencing sexism controversies are technical, difficult, high-status occupations. In 2002, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin postulated that when women enter technical fields, some men in them experience status anxiety. When trying to figure out why more women are present, some men will credit technological changes, a reduction in sexism or a change in women’s interests and preferences. But other men will worry that it’s a sign the standards of their profession have been lowered, making them anxious about their own status.

Goldin suggests that the way to fight the trend is better information. Men’s fear that women are somehow polluting their high-status occupations could be reduced if they realize how productive and competent women actually are. That could probably help, but its power seems limited — old stereotypes die hard, and having to constantly prove yourself to a sexist male colleague is a burden that must surely grow tiresome very quickly. When it comes to shattering stereotypes, mass media probably plays a more important role — highlighting the contributions of highly competent women can help erode sexism over time.

But there’s a second problem that has nothing to do with women’s ability. In story after story, and once again in the case of the anonymous economics forum, the theme of sex-related discussions emerges. When men talk about sex at work, it tends to make women uncomfortable.

Why is this? There are probably two reasons. First, obviously, sex-related discussions make women worry that their male colleagues will see them as sex objects rather than as competent, productive workers. But I see another, more insidious force at work. When male colleagues bond by talking about their sex lives, it’s a form of friendship that women just can’t access. This makes women afraid that there’s a boys’ club, to which they can never gain admission, but which is crucial for getting ahead in their profession or organization.

Not being a human-resources expert, I don’t know exactly how to solve the problem of sex talk at work. But it seems clear that as a society, we’ve underestimated the costs that this sort of behavior imposes on female workers — and, therefore, on workplace productivity. Corporations, academic departments and other organizations need to find ways to encourage men to save the sex talk for outside the office. Even then, that won’t solve the problem of insults and threats coming from anonymous online forums.

So there’s no easy solution to the sexism in technical fields. It’s a deep-rooted issue with multiple causes, and it won’t vanish overnight. But at least we have a better idea of where the problems lie. The best approach is to continue to apply gentle pressure, and encourage men to find less intimidating ways of getting along in the new, more gender-equal workplace.

By Noah Smith

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.