Alice in Wonderland

One year ago today, Alice Wu’s research about sexism at an online economics forum made the news.  I was home in Indiana on vacation when I noticed my Twitter feed getting agitated. And yes, I got sucked in too. Down the rabbit hole of EJMR, yikes. Fast forward one year. It is impressive what that moment meant. The American Economics Association now has a professional code of conduct and new standing committee on Equity, Diversity, and Professional Conduct. The Committee on the Status of Women in Economics devoted an entire newsletter to sexual harassment. Prominent, welcome steps but none were easy or fully satisfying. What struck me most is how Alice Wu forced so many conversations among economists, ones that had long been avoided. Or rather had started decades ago in economics and got stuck because we did not take collective responsibility (as in, everyone, as in, YOU too).

These conversations about how we economists treat each other (and ourselves) are messy and time consuming. They make Mas Colell, Whinston, and Green’s textbook look like a breeze by comparison. (Actually, true for most of us. Selection biases aren’t just other people’s identification problems.) We are economists and Wu’s research may not feel like economics. I disagree. I restarted my macromom blog, spent time online and offline, trying to make sure we didn’t miss our moment to have a big conversation about why diversity matters for the economics. Big conversations start small and, guess what, they involve other people talking back, disagreeing, changing direction, being confused, sharing, cheering, awkward silence, etc. Not always comfortable but we all can do this, and largely with respect and curiosity. Below are some snippets said to me over the past year followed by my internal reaction:

“Why did my words disappoint?” Why are my emotions so hard to explain?

“What do you think AEA should do about job market info, exactly?” Why are you asking me? I am not in charge of anything. Yeah, you are asking someone!!

“Do you have a personal experience to add, here is mine and some others …” [sound of my heartbreaking for her and her and her … and us all.] But, wow so much bravery to call attention and push for something better.

“Women spend time on things that don’t matter for promotion.” Maybe those women are on to something? … like, what matters for the economics?

“You should not have shared your positive experience. It undermined her sharing a negative one.”My words (and actions) disappoint too. Saying sorry is a step, though avoiding the misstep is even better. Ruefully yours.

“In my view, virtually everyone has deeply hurt others, one way or another.” thanks and, yes, economists should write Hallmark cards.

And so many more. What did I learn this year? One person cannot do much, but a collection of ‘one persons’ can do a hell of a lot. I have been repeatedly inspired by the generosity, ingenuity, and unflagging energy of others in getting us organized in the past year. The next steps won’t be easy, as I said in my last post. Economics can be a more diverse, more inclusive profession, but that work can’t be outsourced to committees or a few ‘obsessed’ souls. If it matters, it must matter to all of us, and we all have to carve out time for conversations and action.

Thanks to Alice Wu for kicking us down this rabbit hole.

Author: Claudia Sahm

economist - my views here are my own

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