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Women in Economics Face Hostility When Presenting Research

  • February 23, 2021

“Half of women are saying they don’t even want to present in a seminar,” Dr. Modestino said. “We’re losing a lot of ideas that way.”

The harsh reception faced by women is particularly striking because they are also less likely to be invited to present their research in the first place. Women accounted for fewer than a quarter of the economic talks given over recent years, according to another paper. Racial minorities were even more underrepresented: Barely 1 percent of the speakers were Black or Hispanic.

“It’s just embarrassingly bad,” said Jennifer Doleac, an economist at Texas AM University who is one of that study’s authors. Only about 30 talks have been delivered by Black or Latina women since the authors began tracking the data, she noted. “These scholars are just not being invited, ever.”

The lack of representation is so significant that Dr. Modestino and her colleagues could not study whether Black and Latino economists were treated differently in seminars than their white counterparts — there were too few examples in their data to analyze.

The lack of opportunities has potentially significant career consequences. Research presentations, known as seminars, are an important way that academics, particularly those early in their careers, disseminate their research, build their reputations and get feedback on their work.

Seminars play a particular role in economics. In other fields, they tend to be collegial affairs, with mostly respectful questions and few interruptions. In economics, however, they often resemble gladiatorial battles, with audience members vying to poke holes in the presenter’s argument. Seemingly every economist, regardless of gender, has at least one horror story of losing control of a presentation. Many say they have been brought to tears.

Most economists acknowledge that there are bad actors who are more interested in scoring debating points than raising legitimate questions. But many defend the field’s culture of aggressiveness, saying it is helpful to get feedback — even critical feedback — from colleagues.

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