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What Recent Research on Sexism in the Economics Field Doesn’t Say

How context would shape the American Economic Association’s recent report on harassment and gender discrimination in the male-dominated field

Beth Castle
Managing Editor, InHerSight

man talking to woman at work

When Dr. Lori Leachman began studying for her Ph.D. in economics at the University of South Carolina in the 1980s, she was the only woman in her class, a story that continues to ring true for many women entering male-dominated fields.

“Men have always been my mentors,” Leachman says. “I’ve had some really good mentors, but part of that is because that’s all there were. Men.”

Yet throughout her 40-plus years in academia, Leachman says her experiences with workplace harassment or gender discrimination haven’t been as nearly as blatant as those described in a study released March 18 by the American Economic Association.

The study, which collected data from 9,000 male and female economists, looked at how gender and racial discrimination play out in the still male-dominated field. The findings were striking: 100 female economists say a peer or colleague has sexually assaulted them, nearly 200 say they were the victims of attempted assault, seven in 10 women say they felt their colleagues' work was taken more seriously than their own, half of women say they’d been treated unfairly because of their sex. It also pointed to discriminatory behavior surrounding hiring, publication, and promotions.

Read more: Sexual Harassment: Not Just a Silicon Valley Problem

“The thing that I found most shocking were the instances reported of actual physical harassment,” Leachman says. “I’ve never experienced anything of that nature.”

What she has experienced is a more subtle form of discrimination and intimidation, which was touched on in the study from a numbers perspective, but not overly contexualized.

Currently a full-time professor at Duke University, Leachman was actually one of the economists who took the survey, and she says there was very little room in the responses for women to share their own experiences, meaning the results don’t tell the full story of what gender discrimination in the economics field looks like.

“I felt like the survey was put together pretty quickly,” she says. “It was not as comprehensive or as unbiased as I would have liked it to be. There should have been a lot more places to customize your response because everybody’s experience with harassment takes a somewhat different, or sometimes widely different, form. There needed to be more room for anecdotes.”

Anecdotes like this: At another institution, while Leachman was presenting a paper, there was a faculty member at the back of the room with his Ph.D students who started to talk. At first, she tried to ignore him, but eventually, the distraction became too noticeable for her to go on. “What is it?” she said, addressing him directly. He told her it was nothing and to continue, but she pressed him to share with the group what he had been saying so she could address the issue. “It was just a bullshit little observation about degrees of freedom or something like that, and of course, I addressed it,” she says. “I came out of that afterword, and I said to a friend of mine who picked me up, ‘If I had been a man in the front of that room, that would never have happened to me.’”

This is just one example of many Leachman shared with our team at InHerSight, and although the story is hers and hers alone, it illustrates an aspect of gender dynamics numbers don’t necessarily tell: That sometimes discrimination isn’t nearly as overt as we’d expect it to be.

Organizations like Lean In have studied this form of everyday discrimination, termed microaggression, in-depth, and over a broad range of industries. In their 2018 study, 64 percent of women said they’d had experiences similar to what Leachman describes above. “Whether intentional or unintentional, microaggressions signal disrespect,” the study says. “They also reflect inequality—while anyone can be on the receiving end of disrespectful behavior, microaggressions are more often directed at those with less power, such as women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.”

And while microaggressions might seem small, they can have a big impact on company culture by lowering employee morale and creating a hostile and invalidating work climate. They’ve also been known to increase employee turnover and can even lead to harassment lawsuits.

Read more: Do the Men in Your Office Know It’s a Boy’s Club?

Given that data, it’s unsurprising that Leachman could speak so readily to harassment in her male-dominated field, but she says things are changing, and that’s because the younger generation of economists is more open-minded. “Gender is not the issue that it was in my generation,” she says.

Still, she adds that there are a lot of older white men who hold power, and that means you have to know how to hold your own. “Call people out on it,” Leachman says of discriminatory behavior. “You have to know your own worth. You have to know what you know, and you have to be assertive about it. Women need to be trained to be their own best advocate.”

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