To deal with its gender shortfall, economics needs two tools that it often uses to analyse and solve problems elsewhere: its ability to crunch data and its capacity to experiment. Take data first. The AEA study is commendable, but only a fifth of its 45,000 present and past members replied to its poll. More work is needed to establish why women are discouraged from becoming economists, or drop out, or are denied promotion.
More benchmarking is needed against other professions where women thrive. Better data are needed to capture how work by female economists is discriminated against. There is some evidence, for example, that they are held to higher standards than men in peer reviews and that they are given less credit for their co-writing than men. And economics needs to study how a lack of women skews its scholarly priorities, creating an intellectual opportunity cost. For instance, do economists obsess more about labourmarket conditions for men than for women? The more comprehensive the picture that emerges, the sooner and more easily action can be taken to change recruitment and to reform professional life.
The other priority is for economists to experiment with new ideas, as the AEA is recommending. For a discipline that values dynamism, academic economics is often conservative, sticking with teaching methods, hiring procedures and social conventions that have been around for decades. The AEA survey reveals myriad subtle ways in which those who responded feel uncomfortable. For example 46% of women have not asked a question or presented an idea at conferences for fear of being treated unfairly, compared with 18% of men. Innovation is overdue. Seminars could be organised to ensure that all speakers get a fair chance. Job interviews need not typically happen in hotel rooms, a practice that men regard as harmless but which makes some women uncomfortable. The way that authors’ names are presented on papers could ensure that it is clear who has done the intellectual heavy lifting.
Instead of moving cautiously, the economics profession should do what it is best at: recognise there is a problem, measure it objectively and find solutions. If the result is more women in economics who are treated better, there will be more competition for ideas and a more efficient use of a scarce resource. What economist could possibly object to that?