There Is Something In the Air

...And It Smells Like Teen Spirit...

No, it’s not teen spirit. It’s arrogance. What I smell is arrogance. Permeating the halls of Econ High. Infiltrating classrooms, TV news clips, newspapers, and popular magazines everywhere. It smells toxic, putrid, male. And while I have a deep fondness and appreciation for all my male colleagues, this smell coming from the dominating sharp-elbowed corners of the public society of economics is no longer ignorable. A smell so strong, we can’t outrun it.

My training in economics was in what could be considered the equivalent of the local artsy high school. The one where none of the jocks went; the one where kids went when they didn’t fit in with the popular crowd. It was also the one where everyone’s voice mattered, diversity rained, people worked damn hard, and freedom of expression dominated. This training experience is perhaps why I remain so optimistic about the field of economics.

Where I trained, my ideas were acknowledged, challenged in a caring and considerate way when appropriate, but always encouraged. I wasn’t spoken down too. I was pushed to be independent, gently redirected when necessary, and assumed to have sufficient human capital and grit to thrive. That is the culture of economics I know. It happened to be in the midwest, but I imagine that culture flourishes in many economics and applied economics departments across the country (and globe).

But, over the years, I have noticed a mannerism from some of my colleagues at highly-rated economics departments that feels, dare I say, dismissive.

I have been told in an off-the-cuff way during a passthrough conversation in a hallway at the nation’s annual economics conference that PhD economist women should be steered towards government jobs because those jobs more closely align with their desires to balance family and work. In a matter-of-fact way; it just makes sense, doesn’t it? This was the argument - from a man.

I have seen women in economics struggle with inappropriate behavior from men in higher positions and, when they try to speak out, be muzzled by lawyers and others doing the bidding of controlling or keeping the secret for the arrogant men in power lest it ruin their reputations. Dare I say that the field of economics also has its own Harveys and that this, unfortunately, is not unique to economics. When will economics finally have its She Said moment?

I have watched women struggle to thrive in a tenure process that punishes their careers by ignoring the real, consequential, and unequal cost of raising children on women in this field. It is a constant reminder that women economists live in a man’s world. A world in which we struggle in seminars, publishing, and advancing our careers because the world of economics was never originally set up to include us.

Work by Petra Moser and others give me hope. Her preliminary findings showing that academic women who have children thrive, just late in the game (if they stay in the game). Why can’t we create a system in the world of academic economics that is built for women instead of always trying to fit circle pegs into square holes or shooing women off into nonacademic employment? A system that doesn’t require women to lean out of academia to make it work. A system that doesn’t force women to have hushed conversations about when is the right time to have children. A conversation that male economists are privileged enough to (1) never have to think about in the same devastating way women do, and (2) can easily either hide (because they have a spouse who can take on the primary responsibility) or, at a minimum, not get penalized for.

More recently, I have seen women speak out publicly against powerful men in economics, only to have their reputation threatened and a full-on-press of people in power trying to silence the noise. Instead of just letting the noise be - as an alternative perspective - without all the wrath. One that equally deserves to be at the table, no matter how uncomfortable it makes those in power feel.

The desire from those in power in economics to silence these voices feels so, dare I say it, Karen-esk. It is as if the profession of economics may be filled with Karens…or should I say Kens. How many important male economists can you name that speak on the formal affairs of U.S. economic policy? Now, aside from Janet Yellen, how many women? It’s like women are overwhelmingly silenced or they distinctively choose to be silent. Are they self-censoring or just drowned out? Let’s face it, who wants a bunch of Ken’s (or Karen’s) coming after you? I sure don’t.

So, here we are, it’s 2021 and we are scratching our way out of a global pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in a century. Maybe it is time for those of us in the economics profession to start clawing ourselves out of our own pandemic - the festering mold of arrogance and insecurities that have kept dominant voices in positions of power for so long. Perhaps we can all start calling out negative behavior as and when we see it instead of being silent, turning to run lest we get caught up in any drama that might derail our own careers or reputations.

Today, I propose this. Let’s make the field of economics one where dissent in encouraged, where alternative voices are given space to be heard and not swatted away, and where we pull each other up, instead of tear each other down. Let’s all resign from the traditional school of economic jock thought and head on over to the artsy drama school of economics. Where it smells less like teen spirit and a lot more like hope, resilience, acceptance, and pride. Trust me, you’ll like it over here!