We already know about the gender gap for women in tech, but new research revealed that women in economics are facing similar obstacles.
Alice Wu, a Senior at the University of California, Berkeley who will be continuing her studies at Harvard next year, analyzed an online forum to draw conclusions on the culture surrounding women in the field of Economics. The forum, Economics Job Market Rumors, began as a resource for Economists to exchange information about job openings. But as discussion topics drifted from merely talking about the job market, the website became an online archive of conversations and gossip among economists. Because people post anonymously on the site, there is no way of knowing anyone’s gender or whether they’re even economists. Still, the forum is closely followed by economists and young students pursuing the field.
There are two advantages to the way that the site functions. First, anonymity gives users a sense of security. Without fear of social backlash, people stop filtering themselves when posting their opinions. In Wu’s words, it “creates a natural setting to capture what people believe but would not openly say.”
Second, it’s far easier to quantify factors like the gender wage gap between economists or the percentage of undergraduates pursuing Economics that are women. However, conclusions about the culture within the field are nearly impossible to quantify. Most sexist comments are said in private with no way to be traced or analyzed on a larger scale. EJMR is one of the only archives containing raw conversations among economists that could be analyzed to draw conclusions on workplace culture.
For her senior thesis, Wu examined over a million posts on the website’s message board, setting up her computer to identify whether the subject of each post was a man or female through key words like he, she, himself, herself etc. The computer then isolated the terms most uniquely associated with posts about men and women, with disturbing results.
Of the 30 words most uniquely associated with women were hotter, lesbian, bb (short for “baby”), sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated and prostitute. For men, the list of words were more relevant to Economics, with terms like adviser, Austrian, mathematician, pricing, and Wharton topping the chart.
When looking beyond specific words to the broad topics around the discussions, the study found that discussions about men tended to be about economics itself or professional tips. On the other hand, discussions of women were more personal as well as more likely to mention physical attributes or gender-related terms. “If women are mentioned previously in a thread, the topic is likely to shift from academic to personal,” Wu wrote.
Beyond the numbers and statistics, it’s clear that in the culture of the economics field, women are seen less as professional and more as objects to be criticized. Unfortunately, when we remove the social pressures to be polite and progressive, people are still resistant to allowing women to get ahead. The issue is not only a matter of changing policies, but shifting the way we think about women in the professional world.
Wu received a lot of recognition for her research, which is usually not awarded to undergraduates. She also spoke to the impact she hopes her paper will have on other women, hoping that it will inspire them to break barriers and prove people wrong.