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For Women in Economics, the Hostility Is Out in the Open

In response to those concerns, the American Economic Association commissioned a survey of more than 9,000 current and former members that asked about their experiences in the field. The results, released in 2019, revealed a disturbing number of cases of harassment and outright sexual assault. And it found that subtler forms of bias were rampant: Only one woman in five reported being “satisfied with the overall climate” in the field. Nearly one in three said they believed they had been discriminated against. And nearly half of women said they had avoided speaking at a conference or seminar because they feared harassment or disrespectful treatment.

“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 A&M 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.

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