A woman economist in charge

It has been a bit of a week, trying to get my dear husband the right medical care after he fell and smashed his elbow in the rain and darkness just over a week ago. Although he’s, thankfully, patched up with mesh, sellotape etc now, my concentration hasn’t been terrific. So mainly I’ve been reading detective novels. However, I did notice that Rachel Reeves’s book, The Women Who Made Modern Economics, has been published. I read a proof copy a little while ago, and would recommend it.

There are really two books combined here. One is a straightforward account of the work of important and often overlooked women economists, such as Beatrice Webb and Mary Paley Marshall via academics like Joan Robinson and Esther Duflo, all the way through to influential policy economists Christine Lagarde and Janet Yellen. As well as being mini-histories, these sections aim to show why and how being female influenced for the better the economics, by bringing to bear a different kind of experience or understanding of the context in which policies operate. They are nicely written, and I wholeheartedly agree on the importance of diverse experience to improve economic analysis, but the biographical details are not novel.

The second element is more interesting in the present political context, namely the picture the book paints of Reeves’s own framework for thinking about economic policy, which she grounds in her own life experience and in the ideas of the economists she writes about. Given that this highly impressive politician looks increasingly likely to be the UK’s next Chancellor, this is of real interest. I think the book paints a pretty coherent picture of a strategic approach to the supply side of the economy, combined with a clear-eyed view about the importance of macroeconomic stability, and the strong sense of social justice you would hope for from a senior Labour figure. Reeves rejects simplistic ‘free marketism’ while being obviously in favour of businesses succeeding. She emphasises the importance of taking into account unpaid care, still typically women’s work. She attacks the continuing gender pay gap and Britain’s retreat from overseas aid.

Reeves is of course an economist by training and by work experience (Bank of England and the banking sector). There are specifics I might disagree with her about – but her economic philosophy as set out here is consistent and credible. Of course, all the good sense on display in her analysis will be needed, given the legacy being left by the present government for its successor.

Folks, we might be in line for a Chancellor with a sound grasp of economics beyond the textbook (or the blackboard, to use Coase’s term) and an interesting hinterland. The two strands of The Women Who Made Modern Economics don’t, in my view, sit together comfortably; the ‘lessons’ drawn from the historical figures for some aspect of modern policy, to link the strands together, are a bit strained. But the sense and coherence of Reeves’s personal manifesto for the economy makes it well worth a read.



Boys, brilliance and science

I polished off Athene Donald’s manifesto, Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science at the weekend. Athene is a friend as well as the Master of my college (Churchill) at Cambridge so I was going to be well-disposed towards the book, and indeed found it both persuasive (not that it would have taken much) and a good read. There is plenty of evidence provided, statistics are cited, but you don’t feel as if you’re being sledge-hammered as a reader. There is too much common sense for it to come across as pure polemic, including the point that extreme gender imbalances in the other direction are not healthy for society or the process of discovery either.

The main point that stands out for me is that the male skew is highest in all the disciplines where ‘brilliance’ or being ‘really, really smart’ is seen as the key attribute. So “in science” is an over-generalisation. What’s needed is more women in physics, computer science, maths, and also philosophy and of course economics. Some of the other natural and human sciences as well as many arts subjects (but not music composition, surprisingly) skew female. ‘Brilliance’ isn’t just ‘clever but more so’; it’s a type of performative intelligence demanding supreme self-confidence, and I’m a bit suspicious of it in general; or, rather, think it leads to other kinds of insight and attributes being inappropriately undervalued.

Anyway, Athene and I and the wonderful Tabitha Goldstaub will be discussing the book and the issues it raises at an in-person event in Cambridge in the autumn.



Taking people seriously (all of them)

What a month. Hybrid life seems to be more than twice as busy as either Zoomland or life in the beforetimes. Still, a highlight was the Festival of Economics in Bristol at the end of last week. I chaired a panel on the economics of household labour with Sonia Oreffice, Sarah Smith, Mary Ann Sieghart and Andy Eyles, and so before heading there I read Mary Ann’s book The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men and what we can do about it. (Festival recordings will go online shortly.)

It’s an excellent, if enraging, read. There are jaw-dropping accounts from very senior women – presidents, CEOs – of the various put-downs and mansplaining they’ve endured (for example, from Pope John Paul II in the case of Mary McAleese, then President of Ireland. Or Roula Khalaf, now Editor of the FT, being told she was too soft spoken to get on, i.e. not a man). It’s rather depressing to read so many ever-so-familiar experiences of being patronised, ignored, insulted or belittled even by such eminent women. The book summarises a good deal of the academic literature documenting discrimination and its consequences (for pay, promotion, health, happiness), without hitting the reader with a sledgehammer.

But what to do about it, as the subtitle promises? The book argues that there is much we can do, and that if we do it will be good for men as well. And it offers 20 pages of suggestions – for us, for employers, for the media, for policymakers. Many of the lists in each category start with noticing: do we address the men first in meetings or call on them first? Do we think about the adjectives we use? Do male partners reading this take the initiative in organising household matters, rather than waiting to be asked or told (no matter how cheerfully compliant)? There are some excellent ideas here, although I did feel the book is a bit too optimistic about how much some employers/partners/media want to change. Still, there are many good ideas here, helpful to those willing to make the effort.

41jD9Gpi7-S._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Apart from this, much of November has been taken up with reading Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. I loved The Metaphysical Club so was keen to read this. I’ll give it its own post when I’ve finally finished, but will just moan here that it’s a 700 page hardback that can only be read propped up on two cushions, and can’t be popped into a bag to read on the train. The consequence is that I’ve found it hard to keep the arc of the argument in mind, reading it on just a couple of evenings a week at home. But more of that later. BTW, around page 500 out of 700, the book introduces a chapter on ‘Women’s Lib’, observing that it’s all been about men so far.

519Oe8aWOoS._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_And I read Abdulrazak’s Afterlives, which is wonderful.



No Ordinary Woman

I’ve really enjoyed reading No Ordinary Woman, a biography of Edith Penrose by her daughter-in-law Angela Penrose. It is a life story kind of biography – only one chapter (by Edith’s grandson Jago) covers her economic thinking in The Theory of the Growth of the Firm – but what a life.

There’s no question in my mind that, had she been a man, Penrose would be far more esteemed within the economics profession. I haven’t read The Theory of the Growth of the Firm (shame on me – got it out of the library now), and it seems it has been far more influential in management and business schools than in economics. It seems, from the chapter here, that it explores the firm as an institution, and the dynamics of the way firms shape the economic environment.  One can see how this is more at home in the business literature, valid (in fact, essential) as this kind investigation is.

But whatever its stature, Penrose had an extraordinary career as an empirical economist helping shape the field of study of multinational firms, an academic leader (head of the economics deparment at SOAS as it built its reputation, and later at INSEAD), and a public servant (serving on many public bodies and commissions after she and her husband settled in the UK). At the time the OPEC crisis erupted, she was just about the only academic who had studied the oil industry and the Middle East economies. She travelled widely, learnt Arabic and did some consultancy work in her spare time – and all this while bringing up her family and being a housewife to her husband, much-loved but clearly a traditional man of his era.

Anyway, from this affectionate biography, Penrose sounds like she would have been terrific fun and stimulating to know. And it is inspiring to read about a woman who accomplished so much against great odds. Next week in Manchester we’re hosting an event for 14-15 year old school girls to encourage them to do economics in the 6th form. Edith Penrose has to join the pantheon of female economists we’ve been preparing.

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Women in economics

There has been a big response to a column I wrote for the FT about the male domination of economics, following up Justin Wolfers’ recent one. My conclusion was:

The reputation of economics is already tarnished, even a decade on from the financial crisis, and this new evidence of entrenched discrimination will not improve matters. This is not a women problem, it is an economics problem. It is deeply embedded in the discipline’s culture and norms, and the profession’s senior men need to take it seriously.

Some senior men emailed to ask for suggestions. Here are some.

These come from a Twitter thread compiled by Jan Zilinsky (@janzilinsky):

1/ Some thoughts on gender biases in academia, following up on @JustinWolfers’ article / Alice Wu’s findings on sexist expressions on EJMR

2/ Causal evidence shows that even when full info about candidates’ past performance is provided bias against female candidates persists

3/ The experiment (How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science) is by @ErnestoReuben Paolo Sapienza @zingales pnas.org/content/111/12…

4/ Plenty of issues to dissect (low representation, disrespect online & offline…)

For the thread I want to focus on *unequal treatment*

5/ One thing that bothers me a lot is the co-authorship penalty. Heather Sarsons @saskatchewin shows men who coauthor more are not penalized

6/ but women are less likely to receive tenure if they coauthor more papers: scholar.harvard.edu/files/sarsons/…

7/ That paper is about outcomes in economics. On evidence that women benefit less from co-authorship in polisci see cambridge.org/core/journals/…

8/ The leaky educational pipelines signal more problems… brookings.edu/blog/brown-cen… and @DianeCoyle1859’s ft.com/content/6b3cc8…

9/ And when the path leads to professorship, imagine you are discouraged with comments such as ↡ washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/w…

10/ Want to end the thread w/ some “what can be done” links. But many steps are tiny, as @cheng_christine said…:

11/ Let me try anyway. First, we can learn pay attention to other disciplines; see this @BetseyStevenson talk youtube.com/watch?v=vsvPg_…

12/ Second, at a minimum, as @Noahpinion wrote workplaces must be professional (why does it need to be said?!)

13/ Third, evaluation nudges could help. Not anonymizing papers/CVs, but moving toward more joint rather than separate assessments…

14/ Promising research shows people rely less on group stereotypes when making joint (not case-by-case) evaluations decisionlab.harvard.edu/_content/resea…

15/ Tools like the gender bias calculator seem fine, as long as there are users motivated to write fair letters…

16/ And it’d be great to eliminate some behaviors that range from baffling to outrageous. Copious examples were shared in the last 1.5 weeks

17/ Things like first-naming female faculty members; title-forgetting; off-color remarks about parenthood; etc…

18/ We could try valuing things other than prestige, as @cjwich pointed out: “As a field, we fetishize hierarchy. ‘Top 5 journals,’ ‘top 10 programs,’ who is/isn’t in the “club” 19/”

19/ Sometimes I lash out at the fashion police b/c the (gendered) focus on some economists’ wardrobe is ridiculous.

A number of people have suggested ending the anonymity of referees’ reports as this conceals biases – there is deep scepticism about the fairness of the process, which is seen as perpetuating privileged networks, mainly male.

Along with many of the female economists who have emailed me, I have observed a range of patronising behaviours – calling women by their first name, men not, is a common one as Jan notes. Offering ‘advice’ to lower one’s ambitions, in research, or submissions and so on. Asking women dispropotionately to do admin tasks, meetings, ‘service’ in the department.

I’d add:

  • senior men are the only people who can address the aggressive culture of economics seminars, which is unique as far as I know. Stop male colleagues from interrupting presenters frequently, rather than giving them space to present. Call people out on hostile, disparaging comments.
  • the ‘publish or perish’ culture for young academics makes it impossible for the primary carer of young children to achieve the expected publication targets; this is usually the woman even in apparently egalitarian couples. As Justin Wolfers has noted, the way policies operate may help men even more. The extension periods for new mothers are laughable, as everyone who has had children really ought to know.
  • I hope male economists would reflect on the recent discussion, acknowledge that the discipline has a problem, and think really carefully about their judgements about people. When you say ‘X is not very good’ and X is female, are you holding her to a different standard than you would a male colleague? The answer is almost certainly yes.
  • I agree about the comment in Jan’s thread about the hierarchy obsession. It is bananas to have only a Top 5 matter….

I hope these provide food for thought. I’ll be happy to update this post with other suggestions.