When the nation’s economists gathered earlier this month, the event looked different than in past years. There was a woman holding “office hours” to help victims of sexual harassment and abuse. Job interviews were no longer conducted in hotel rooms, where female candidates had long felt uncomfortable. There was a long list of panel discussions on racism and sexism in the profession.
There were even, some attendees noted with delight, long lines for the women’s restroom.
Many economists celebrated those developments as a sign of progress after a year of revelations — in front-page stories and surveys of the group’s members — about sexism, racism and harassment in the discipline.
But others stressed the need for even more aggressive action to address those issues, particularly racial discrimination. And the group’s leaders said they would need years of sustained effort to begin to erode the structural barriers that have held back women and nonwhite men in the field.
“There’s certainly a problem — we identified that problem,” said Ben Bernanke, a former Federal Reserve chairman, whose one-year term as president of the group, the American Economic Association, ended this month. “Progress in terms of outcomes, it’s too soon to say, obviously. Progress in terms of process I think has been tremendous.”
In an interview, Bernanke and the new president, Janet Yellen, his successor at the Fed, said the association would soon finalize procedures for investigating violations of its code of conduct and for punishing violators. One formal complaint has already been filed, they said.
The lack of diversity in economics, particularly in the top ranks, is nothing new. But the discipline has been forced to confront its problems by a series of incidents in recent years. In 2017, an economics student, Alice Wu, published a paper documenting discrimination, harassment and bullying on a popular industry online forum.
At the economics association’s meeting last year, some of the field’s most prominent women shared searing stories of harassment and discrimination. And in March, the association published the results of a survey finding that female and minority economists faced rampant bias, harassment and even outright sexual assault.
The association has taken a number of steps in response to those revelations. It adopted a new code of conduct, and changed its bylaws to allow sanctions against members who violate it. It hired an ombudsperson to hear complaints, and a new general counsel who is empowered to investigate charges of misconduct. It has created task forces charged with addressing the profession’s problems and with recruiting more women and people of color, and a permanent committee on issues facing gay, lesbian and transgender economists.
“What I’ve heard, over and over again, is — this is the moment, we need to take advantage of it,” said M.V. Lee Badgett, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who is co-chair of the association’s new Committee on the Status of LGBTQ+ Individuals in the Economics Profession.
Some economists, particularly younger ones, are calling for a more radical rethinking of the discipline’s structure. Academic economics remains dominated by researchers who attended and work at a handful of elite institutions. Relatively few economists, particularly in top programs, come from working-class backgrounds or have parents who did not attend college.
“Diversity means not bringing people with darker skin who use exactly the same models and ask exactly the same questions and reach the same conclusions,” said Cecilia Conrad, an economist who is now an executive at the MacArthur Foundation. “Embracing diversity means opening up to the kinds of new questions and new ways of seeing the world that will eventually improve economic science.”
Conrad, who is black, spoke on a panel titled “How Can Economics Solve Its Race Problem?” Discussion of race and racism was more prominent on this year’s agenda, after organizers were criticized last year for neglecting those issues.
Economists, including many of the young activists, said the new leadership had made a difference, and credited Bernanke and Yellen with pushing the typically slow-moving association to become more aggressive.
There are also signs of a broader cultural shift. Many attendees said they had grown more comfortable raising questions about diversity in their departments, for example, and a growing list of schools have adopted rules meant to improve the tone of economics seminars, which some have described as toxic.
“The problem is not solved, absolutely not,” said Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, a Harvard research fellow who as an undergraduate was a co-founder of the Sadie Collective, a group aiming to bring more black women into economics. “But we are seeing that the field itself is at a very high level taking measures to talk about diversity and inclusion in a very broad way.”