The December 1971 meeting of the American Economic Association in New Orleans was a watershed, Denison University’s Robin Bartlett remembers. The room in which Barbara Bergmann chaired a session on “What economic equality for women requires” was packed, as was the meeting of the Caucus of Women Economists who elected Wellesley’s Carolyn Bell as chair and entrusted her with the task of presenting a resolution to the business meeting. On the night of the 28th, she brought a set of resolutions to president John Kenneth Galbraith, president elect Kenneth Arrow and the executive committee. “Resolved that the American Economic Association declares that economics is not a man’s field,” the first sentence read.
After heated debates, “not exclusively” was slipped into the sentence, but most resolutions were passed unaltered. In an effort to “adopt a positive program to eliminate sex discrimination among economists,” they provided for the establishment of a “Committee on the Status of Women in the Economic Profession” (CSWEP) whose first task would be to gather data and produce a report on the status of women in the profession. It also instituted “an open listing of all employment opportunities,” the JOE. The CSWEP’s inaugural report, “Combatting Role Prejudice and Sex Discrimination,” was published in the 1973 American Economic Review. It highlighted that the top 42 PhD-granting economic departments of the country hosted a mere 11% women graduate students and 6% women faculty (including 2% professors).
45 year later, according to the 2016 CSWEP report, women now represent around 30% of PhD students and 23,5% of tenure-track faculty. It’s three time more than in 1972, but less than the proportion of female Silicon Valley managers or Oscar juries. And it is a rate much lower than in other social sciences, more akin to what is found in engineering and computer sciences. Worst, the wage gap between men and women assistant and full professor has soared in the past 20 years (a women full-professor now earn 75% of what an equivalent man earns, vs 95% in 1995). Economics is also an outlier in the kind of inequality mechanism at work. While most sciences suffer from a leaking pipeline, economics rather exhibits a “tiny” pipeline: only 35% of econ undergraduates are women, which makes economics the only discipline with a proportion of female students at the PhD level higher than at the BA level. And the former is down 6 point since the 1990s.
Several explanations have been proposed and tested. Differences in comparative advantages have been rejected by data and economists have therefore turned to productivity gaps and discrimination models, and to the analysis of biases in reviewing, interviewing, hiring and citation practices. Results were weak and contradictory. Psychologists have investigated the possible effect of biological differences (for instance in mathematical and spatial abilities) and differentiated early socialization. Researchers have also hypothesized that women hold different preferences regarding flexibility vs wage and work vs family arbitrages or people vs thing research environments. But none of these factors suffice to explain the wage gap, the difficulty in luring female undergraduates into studying economics and the full-professorship glass ceiling (this research is extensively surveyed by Ceci, Ginther, Kahn and Williams. See also Bayer and Rouse). My suggestion is that historicizing the place and status of women in economics can shed light on longer trends and generate new hypotheses to explain the current situation. Let me explain.
The uncertain place of women in economics
Existing histories of women in economics suggest that women economists have enjoyed a higher status at the turn of the XXth century than in the postwar period. Granted, female economists had to overcome all sorts of cultural and institutionally entrenched forms of discrimination and sexism. According to Kirsten Madden, this led them to develop adaptation strategies that included “superperformance,” “subordination” and “separatism.” The result, Evelyn Forget documents, was that 12% of those economics PhDs listed by the AER in 1912 were defended by women, up to 20% in 1920. Most of these doctorates were awarded by Columbia, Chicago, Vassar and Wellesley. There were privileged topics, such as consumption, development or home economics, but women’s interests spanned all fields, including theory, and were published in top journals. Women also largely contributed to economics from outside academia. The books in which Harriet Martineau popularized Pareto’s views sold much better than those written by the illustrious founding father himself. In the early XXth century, Beatrice Potter Webb, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Eleanor Rathbone fiercely debated the economics underlying “equal pay for equal work,” Cleo Chassonery-Zaigouche relates.
From the 1930s onward, however, women were increasingly marginalized. Forget offers several explanations. First, social work and home economics became separate academic fields. The establishment of dedicated department and vocational programs was supported by the development of land-grant institutions, and attracted those women who were systematically denied tenure in economics departments. Other seized the new opportunities offered by the expansion of governmental needs for statistics and empirical work in consumption, price indices, poverty, unemployment and wages. Many of the students trained by Margaret Reid at the university of Chicago, Dorothy Brady, and Rose Friedman, for instance, choose a civil servant over an academic career. By 1950, the proportion of PhDs defended by women was down to 4,5%. The recovery was slow. Women were allowed into a larger number of graduate programs – at Harvard, for instance, they would receive a doctorate from Radcliffe – but they were confined to assistant positions. It was the growing awareness to discrimination issues and the establishment of the CSWEP, Forget speculates, that eventually opened the gates.
Is the fate of women economists tied to the changing status of applied work?
What led me to reflect on the history of women economists is the sheer number I encountered in the archives. Most of them, however, were nothing like the model role for economics badassery, namely Joan Robinson. They were named Margaret Reid, Dorothy Brady, Anne Carter, Lucy Slater, Irma Adelman, Nancy Ruggles, Barbara Bergmann, Myra Strober, Marina Whitman or Heather Ross. At best they had an entry in the Dictionary of Women Economists or in an Eminent Economists collection, or an interview published in a field journal, but they were usually absent from economists’ and historians’ big narratives. Most of them hadn’t written the kind of “Theory of…” 20-pages article the Nobel committee is so fond of, but instead produced datasets and procedures to collect them, lines of codes, the first regression software, simulations, early randomized experiments and new ways to measure consumption, inequality, development, wealth, education or health. They were applied economists at a time many of the topics they researched and the tools they used did not enjoy the prestige it had at the beginning of the century and would regain in its last decades.
Though women’s enduring self-selection on some topics like labor, discrimination, inequalities, development, consumption or home economics have been investigated by Agnes le Tollec or Evelyn Forget, there is no systematic study of how the status of women in economics is tied to that of applied economics. My problem, to begin with, is that I entertain contradictory hypotheses of how the rising prestige of applied economics might have affected women economists. The straightforward assumption is that more applied economics being funded by the NSF and foundations, published in top journals, and used in policy discussions enabled more women to become tenure-track economists (the surge in 1970 to 1990 percentages documented by the CSWEP). But this process was also characterized by a shift in applied economists’ location, with more government and Fed micro and macro researchers publishing in academic journals. CSWEP surveys have covered academia only so far, and it is possible that the recent stagnation in women’s tenure-track is paired with a growing feminization of governmental and international agencies, Federal banks or independent research bodies.
Possible explanations for the slacking feminization of economics might also be found into the history of computer science, a discipline confronted with a similar problem. Yet, it is precisely the professionalization and scientization of this increasingly lucrative and prestigious discipline that led to the marginalization of women, historians of computer claim. Back in the 1940s, Janet Abbate outlines, computers were women, that is, women were routinely employed to compute, to inverse matrix, and when the first analog then electronic machines were put to work, to punch holes, to input punchcards and to code. They famously worked on the first ENIAC, calculated the trajectory of John Glen’s Apollo 11 moon mission and coded its onboard flight software. In the 1960s, the shortage of programmers allowed them to combine part time computer jobs and raising kids. In 1967, Grace Hopper explained in a Cosmopolitan article below that “Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming,” Nathan Ensmenger notes. They flocked the new undergraduate computer science program throughout the country, and represented up to 40% undergrads in 1985.
But another phenomenon was at work in these years. The professionalization, academicization and scientization of computer science brought a redefinition of programmers’ identity, though one not linear. Since the 1950s, a picture of the good programmer as systematic, logical, task-oriented, “detached,” chess player, solver of mathematical puzzles, and masculine was gaining traction. This gendered identity was embedded in the various aptitude tests and personality profiles used by companies to recruit their programmers. As programing rose in status and became more lucrative, this identity spread to academic program managers, then to those teams who marketed the first PCs for boys in the 1980s and eventually, to prospective college students. After 1985, the number of women computer undergrad declined constantly, down to 17% in the 2010s.
Economists applying their tools to understand their gender issue
Did the growing prestige of applied economics from the 1960s onward result in a similar gender identity shift? I don’t know, the construction of a self-image is elusive and difficult to track. But the CSWEP record, with its mix of quantitative surveys and qualitative testimonies might well be a good place to chase it. The history of the CSWEP also points to other contexts that have shaped how economists understand their own sex imbalance. The 1973 CSWEP inaugural report opened, not with survey results, but with a lengthy introduction drafted by Kenneth Boulding, then member of the committee. Its title and opening sentences epitomized the strategy Boulding had adopted to capture his audience’s attention:
In other words, discrimination within economics is an economic problem, one that begets economic analysis and cures. Boulding proposed to consider discrimination as part of a larger process of “role learning and role acceptance, and went on to rationalize the CSWEP’s proposals to solve the “betterment production function” : “what are the inputs which produce this output, and particularly, what are those inputs that can be most easily expanded and that have the highest marginal productivity? … Four broad classes of inputs may be named: information, persuasion, reward and punishments,” he wrote. The CSWEP was thus established at a moment economists of all stripes were developing theories and tools to study discrimination, some they were naturally draw to apply to themselves. Problem was, no one seemed to agree on what the relevant tools and theories were. At that time, Arrow was developing a theory of statistical discrimination at RAND, one that grew into a criticism of Becker’s taste-based model. He tried to explain wage differences by imperfect information, then recruitment costs. Other frameworks challenged the beckerian “new household economics” more radically, in particular Marxist and nascent feminist theories in which sex (a biological characteristic) was distinguished from gender (a social construct). In exchanges known as the “Domestic Labor Debate,” Marianne Ferber or Barbara Bergmann, among others, challenged Becker’s idea that household specialization reflected women’ rational choice and emphasized the limitations placed by firms on labor opportunities. They also claimed that economists should pay more attention to the historical foundation of economic institutions and endorse a more interdisciplinary approach. These debates were reflected inside the CSWEP. The 1975 symposium on the implications of Occupational Segregation presented the audience with the views of virtually all committee members. How these theoretical, empirical and methodological played out in the understanding of the status of women within the economic discipline and changing status itself is also a question a systematic history of the CSWEP could answer.