Congratulations, Esther Duflo. The world needs more female economists | Jill Priluck

The long history of bias, discrimination and underestimation of women in the field of economics is why Duflo’s prize is a such a great step forward

This week, MIT’s Esther Duflo became the second female economist to win a Nobel prize. She and her husband, Abhijit Banerjee, also of MIT, and Michael Kremer of Harvard University, shared the award “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”.

In Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, Duflo and Banerjee studied the poor not as “cartoon characters” but as human beings “in all their complexity and richness”. In 2003, they founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT to study poverty.

A coincidence, perhaps, but it’s telling that Duflo collaborates with her husband. For decades, it has been common for female economists to marry fellow economists. The profession has been notorious for its lack of gender parity. It’s the reason we need more female economists like Duflo.

A 2018 American Economic Association (AEA) survey found that nearly 100 female economists said that a peer or colleague had sexually assaulted them and nearly 200 claimed they were the victims of attempted assault. Nearly half of the women surveyed said they had avoided speaking at a conference or seminar because of possible harassment or “disrespectful treatment”. Seven in 10 women said they felt their colleagues’ work was taken more seriously than their own.

The survey was part of a reckoning in economics on the topic of women. The University of California, Berkeley, undergraduate Alice Wu’s 2017 paper on gender bias in the economics job market reported that women are held to higher standards and get less credit for co-authored work. Wu scoured more than a million anonymous posts in online message boards where economists gossiped about hiring. She found that the words most associated with discussions of women included “hotter”, “hot” and “gorgeous”. Wu’s work led the AEA to address the status of women in the profession, including through the survey and a new code of professional conduct.

Economists have long held biased views of women. In 1973, a year after Duflo was born, the US Congress Joint Economic Committee held hearings on the economic role of women following a Council of Economic Advisors report. Marina Whitman, then a CEA staff member and University of Pittsburgh economics professor – who would become a chief economist at General Motors – testified that “the economics profession has been slow in developing expertise on the special problems of women”.

The topic of discussion was a passage in the MIT professor Paul Samuelson’s textbook Economics, published in 1948, about rationing. “Of course, there are always a few women and soapbox orators, who are longer on intuition than brains and who blame their troubles on the mechanism of rationing itself rather than on the shortage,” wrote Samuelson.

The MIT economist had created a firestorm over remarks in the New York Times that female students at a Virginia women’s college wouldn’t be able to handle extra credit questions in the new edition of his textbook.

Samuelson received letters. Patricia Eames, general counsel of the Textile Workers Union, asked why he had to “go around making male chauvinist statements”. The Columbia University professor Ann Harris wrote: “Your remark implies a sexual bias and helps to perpetrate the idea that women are no good at mathematics and economics and not much interested in such things anyway. I happen to know several women at Columbia who are economists or are studying to be economists. They find a great deal of male bias and prejudice faces them.” A public apology was offered. In Newsweek, he admitted he made “some derogatory remarks” and apologized to the college and “to the feminine sex in general”.

Samuelson was part of a grand economics tradition of marginalizing women. Economics textbooks included biased representations of fictional characters and under-represented female business leaders, entrepreneurs and policymakers. That tradition is still strong, but we are making strides in seeing women represented more fairly in the field.

This long history of bias, discrimination and underestimation of women in economics is why Duflo’s prize is a such a great step forward. One can only hope that many more female economists will follow in her footsteps.

  • Jill Priluck’s reporting and analysis has appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, Reuters and elsewhere


Jill Priluck

The GuardianTramp

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