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.


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…

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:…

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

8/ The leaky educational pipelines signal more problems…… and @DianeCoyle1859’s…

9/ And when the path leads to professorship, imagine you are discouraged with comments such as ↡…

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…

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…

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.


It’s political correctness gone – profitable

The Google memo affair has sent me quickly to the proofs of a book coming out next month, Scott Page’s The Diversity Bonus. (Here is all the blurb for the book,)

Page wrote an excellent book a few years ago, The Difference, covering his early research on how and why diversity contributed to better (faster & more accurate) problem-solving.

The new book, judging from the intro, looks at how diversity contributes to profit. By ‘diversity’ he means a range of different cognitive approaches. Identity is one contributory factor to cognitive diversity, because it reflects the different experiences, networks and knowledge different types of people have; but it is not the only factor. However, it is a relatively easy one to monitor. What’s more, the more multi-dimensional and complex the business activity (eg coding, systems engineering), the more profitable it will be to have cognitively diverse teams. In other words, even if it were true that women were less likely on average to be good coders because of their biology – a doubtful proposition as today’s FT leader and many others (such as Prof Wendy Hall here ) point out – Google should still be eager to hire more of us.

If political correctness is profitable, is it still political correctness? Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading the book properly.

The business also sent me back to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

“In human society nothing is natural and a woman, like much else, is a product elborated by civilization. The intervention of others in her destiny is fundamental: if this action took a different direction, it would produce quite a different result. Woman is determined not by her hormones or mysterious instincts but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified by the action of others than herself. The abyss that separates the adolescent boy and girl has been deliverately widened between them since earliest childhood.”

‘Destiny’ is not predetermined. Biology does not mean women can’t become coders, chief executives, or economists. Even if the distributions of aptitude for certain activities differ by sex among adults  –  and it seems highly unlikely that the between-group differences are larger than the within-group variation – those distributions are the outcome of two decades of socialisation and social constraints.



Markets and humans

Brank Milanovic has an interesting post on what he decries as the commodification of life by markets, something that will surely strike a chord with the many fans of Michael Sandel’s

and others. While I absolutely agree that there ought to be limits to what resources are allocated by markets as opposed to other means, Branko lost me in this early paragraph: “The most obvious case is commodification of activities that used to be conducted within extended families and then, as we became richer and more individualistic within nuclear families. Cooking has now become out-sourced and families often do not eat meals together. Cleaning and child-rearing have become more commercialized than before or ever.”

The trend towards buying ‘domestic’ services outside the home dates back decades now, linked to urbanisation and women’s participation in the paid workforce. The switch from home cooking to ‘outsourced’ meals, and similar market activities, has saved women millions of hours of labour in the home. I’m all for it.

Indeed, one of the social advantages in general of a switch toward markets (or ‘commodification’) is precisely the anonymity of the market as compared with the personal (patriarchal) power relations involved in from home production and household/village economic activity. Robert Putnam’s classic

touches on this in its contrast of northern and southern Italy – the south being more family-centred, with ‘strong ties’, in all sense of the word family, the north more oriented toward ‘weak ties’ in the wider urban community. Partha Dasgupta’s Economics of Social Capital is very good on this tension.

Branko’s post goes on to criticize the so-called ‘gig’ economy. Again, I think this isn’t so straightforward. Some of the ‘gig’ corporations are deeply unpleasant and the conditions of work unsatisfactory. However, those conditions are determined by workers’ outside options in the job market, so corporations’ behaviour to these workers can be improved by the framework of labour law and its enforcement. There is every reason to believe – from the numbers participating if nothing else – that very many people appreciate the opportunity to make money from participating in this segment of the economy; and indeed that it offers a route into the formal job market for people who otherwise find it hard to participate (see for example this on Uber in France by Anne-Sylvaine Chassany).

Branko writes: “The problem with this kind of commodification and flexibilization is that it undermines human relations and trust that are needed for the smooth functioning of an economy. ” This seems obviously true, and indeed the tension was identified by Daniel Bell in his

, and all its forerunners.

I’d certainly agree that western economies are not in a good place in terms of this balance now. But to illustrate this, I wouldn’t pick on the exactly the examples of markets that empower women and marginalized workers.

[amazon_image id=”184614471X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0691037388″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton Paperbacks)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”B0028QL03K” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]By Daniel Bell – The Cultural Contradictions Of Capitalism (20th Anniversary Ed)[/amazon_image]


Men’s studies

I’ve zipped through Myra Strober’s

, propelled both by enjoying this memoir of a life as an academic economist and by righteous anger. (In fact, I’m posting this review 3 weeks too early on the tide of this sentiment.*)

Professor Strober embarked on her career in the late 1960s, and was therefore one of the pioneering feminists to whom my generation owes so much. The book starts with her initial experience at Berkeley, being told by the department chairman that she will never get tenure – ostensibly because she lives in Palo Alto, in reality because she has children. The shock of realising the truth on her drive home across the Bay Bridge launches her into a commitment to feminism in general and to tackling the sexism of economics and the academic world in particular.

[amazon_image id=”B01CRU4QV4″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Sharing the Work: What My Family and Career Taught Me about Breaking Through (and Holding the Door Open for Others)[/amazon_image]

This is not an angry, polemical book at all. It’s a warm and readable memoir about family and friends as well as career and the politics of gender. Professor Strober grew up in Brooklyn in a loving family, and was the first to go to college and graduate school. She tells of the tensions of moving away from that background, and also the tensions in her marriage to an ambitious medical student and researcher – a marriage which eventually ended in divorce. Athough not at all bitter in the telling, the book is a reminder of how hard it was for a woman to combine career and children. (It still is – just think about the relatively small proportion of prominent women who have children.)

Thanks in part to the battles fought by earlier cohorts of women, the sexism we face in the workplace today is as nothing compared to those early days of the struggle for recognition. But the anger reading this book kicked in when I reflected on the continuing male dominance of economics in particular – our proportion of women being closer to computer science and mathematics than to any other social or natural science. Just as I finished reading

I happened upon this reflection on getting tenure written by Ellen Meara. Nor is this a US issue – it’s as true in the UK and EU. Economics has a women problem – as Justin Wolfers and Noah Smith among others have noted – and that means economics has a problem. A subject done by men about men can’t claim to be either social or a science.

There is, I think, some recognition of the problem in the economics establishment, and some well-meaning efforts to address it. However, these efforts do not yet extend to a wide acknowledgement of some fundamental points – above all that there is something wrong with the (mainly male) insiders’ definition of what makes for ‘good’ economics.

At the end of last year I sent a survey to about 30 teachers of economics in high schools, asking what they thought were the main barriers to girls choosing to study economics at university; for although the total number of people doing economics degrees has been rising in the UK, the proportion who are female has been declining. The single most popular reply was that it was the ‘character of the subject’. I recounted this to a highly sympathetic and non-sexist male colleague. “Well,” he replied, “It’s not clear to me that there’s anything to be done about this.” That’s the problem. If the trend continues, we’re going to have to rename economics ‘men’s studies’.

I admire Professor Strober for spending her career actively doing something about it. This is a book to inspire all female economists and give all male economists pause for thought.


* It’s 22 April for the Kindle edition – the hardback will be out in mid-May.