Sunday, 11 January 2015


A recent Quartz article by Miles Kimball and an anonymous woman economist asks how big the sexism problem is in economics. The answer the authors give is that it is pretty big indeed, yet their solutions do not include the obvious one (obvious, that is, thanks to the late Professor Gary Becker, before whom it was not obvious at all) of exposing the profession to more competition. After all, in the absence of competition, inefficient (i.e. sexist) organizations can repercussionlessly remain inefficient (sexist). Competition would not solve everything, because maybe "tastes" for sexism are strong enough, etc., but it is one "remedy" (if there is a problem) which should be immediately obvious to an economist and yet is not even discussed in this very poor article.

The authors are responsible for many additional shortcomings. An introduction is supposed to be eye-catching, but theirs mentions a recent list of influential economists made by The Economist Magazine which apparently does not include a single woman. Yawn. I would personally not want to be on a list dominated by folks active in making policy as is the case with this list. But the absence of women is pretty poor evidence that there is a sexism problem in the profession. Blacks dominate basketball, Jews dominate Nobel prizes, and shorter-than-average persons dominate Hollywood, yet to infer that these sectors suffer from discrimination would surely be a great error.

If proportionate representation is not to be expected in general, why should the Economics profession be any different? The authors say that very many little things can jointly create very important difficulties for women, which is true (of course, very many little things can jointly create big differences anywhere), but the examples of little things they cite are incredibly poor. Here's their first one:
"New female economics PhD's have to worry about what to wear during the job market: skirt too low vs. skirt too long, vs. just right"
This is apparently written in all seriousness. I guess trousers are also an option, and I guess this problem mars female careers in every profession, because every profession has job interviews, though they are probably more important than average in Economics. Still, nobody really is too incompetent to dress. If the authors differ, why do they not also mention the worry that a woman (or a man, why not?) might forget to dress at all and show up naked. This would not make their point more absurd because nothing can make their point more absurd. Can anyone really imagine that such an idiot exists who, having just obtained her PhD in Economics, somehow has not learnt what skirt length is appropriate for professional occasions and cannot wear trousers.

The authors have six more points, all better than the one above (which is not saying much), but none of which pertains to economics in particular, so why are they seemingly trying to make a point that economics in particular suffers from a sexism problem? They conclude the list with an uneconomical recommendation:
"Fostering awareness of issues like these, and a hundred others of the same ilk, is one of the biggest things that can be done to improve women’s lot in economics."
Fostering "awareness" (by mandating classes or what?) would necessarily eat away at the time economists can devote to research or teaching (because "fostering awareness" takes time and time, after all, is scarce). This tax on time is especially pernicious if the problem is not all that great to begin with, an issue on which the authors thoroughly fail to convince. Kimball and anonymous also say that sexists often do not realize that they are sexists, so my insistence that I am no part of the "problem" would hardly help me avoid the unnecessary "fostering".

They continue by demanding "equal pay for equal work". One might infer from their discussion that they are not keen on bargaining between labour-market parties:
"It is typical in academia that a tenured professor who receives a competing job offer and can credibly threaten to leave gets a big raise. By comparison, professors who seem unlikely to jump ship end up underpaid. But given gender inequality on the home front (and the male-female wage differential for spouses), it is a lot more credible that a male professor can convince his wife to move to another city than that a female professor can convince her husband to move."
(What does "underpaid" mean here? Unwillingness to offer your labour elsewhere means that you must accept lower compensation; that is appropriate market payment.) The authors stress greater gender equality across society as a "remedy", apparently taking for granted that men and women are somehow "naturally" equal (contrary to what physical inspection suggests). There are actually certain biological facts which indicate (though do not prove) that this is false. For instance, women bear children and men do not. This could potentially create significant differences between male and female attitudes to their offspring, as well as in general behaviours pertinent to successful mating.

For instance, it would be in a man's evolutionary interest to have many kids with many different women, but it would not be in his interest to take care of any of them. Women have it in their interest to (sometimes) screen out such men, but to the extent that everyone makes mistakes it would seem natural for women to have somewhat stronger bonds with their offspring (on average), since they, unlike men, cannot physically abandon their children until birth, which may well manifest itself in household production.

I do not mean to say that these forces are necessarily strong enough to create these tendencies. I only wish to highlight the possibility that men and women are not "natural equals" (which Kimball and anonymous fail to do). I also do not mean to say that there is no sexism in the Economics profession (or elsewhere). Maybe there is or maybe there isn't. But if the authors want to establish that there is a problem that is particularly pernicious in economics, they do a very bad job at it, as well as at finding good solutions, which should include exposing universities to more competition (say, by reducing government funding of them).

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