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Chapter 6: We need to look at gender through various lenses - intersectionality in economics

For our first workshop of the fall semester we wanted to zoom into intersectional feminism. It's important to start with the disclaimer that none of the participants today was an expert on the topic, though we all have our different experiences that helped guide the discussions. We understand intersectional feminism as feminism seen through overlapping lenses of identity such as gender, race, and class, that interconnect to create various systems of discrimination and privilege. 

Being a white, cisgender woman, my own personal experience in intersectionality is also limited, even as I grew up Brazilian and lived as a migrant to the US and several European countries - so I certainly need to acknowledge this privilege and do not want to appropriate the issues of any other group. While intersectionality is something that should be the guiding thread of all discussions on gender, we wanted to take some time to explore the topic more in-depth. The purpose of this blog post is to summarize our discussion during the workshop, which delved into the latest research on multi-dimensional issues related to gender in the economics profession.

Intersectionality is not new, but research does not integrate the concept well. 

What is intersectionality? Stephanie Shields, in her overview of intersectionality in psychology research, defines it as “social identities, which serve as an organizational feature of social relations, that mutually constitute, reinforce and naturalize one another.” She goes on to explain that intersectionality started during the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s to acknowledge the various lived realities of women of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, abilities (and the list goes on). 

The challenge for research is to understand how all these dimensions change over time and across spaces. In general terms, research has responded to addressing intersectionality in methodology in three broad ways: 1) the author will not address it, saying it is outside the scope of research, 2) the author will admit that intersectionality is an issue, but will say there is not enough information to address it, or, in rare cases 3) include intersectionality as a variable of research. 

Shields states that: "Some social sciences have been more open to the transformative effects of an intersectionality perspective than others. The intersectionality perspective has had more impact in academic specializations already concerned with questions of power relations between groups. Disciplines/ specializations whose conventional methodologies embrace multidimensionality and the capacity to represent complex and dynamic relationships among variables are more open to the intersectionality perspective." 

According to the statement above, economics should easily embrace intersectionality in its methodology: it is well-equipped to analyze multiple dimensions at once. It is also interested in inequalities and power dynamics. From my experience, however, economics papers do not address intersectionality - and usually address race or gender separately. Different subfields of economics treat intersectionality differently - with gender and development economics being more open to the topic, and macroeconomics to our knowledge hardly even acknowledging it as an issue. There may also be “old” questions that can be revisited in an intersectionality perspective - such as the Gini coefficient. 

1_Shields (2008)
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Economics has a history of racism and misogyny (this is not news). 

We continued by discussing Amanda Bayer and Cecilia Elena Rouse’s paper on diversity in the economics profession. What they present is not surprising, but it is shocking: only 23.5% of tenured economics faculty in American PhD granting institutions is female, and only 6.3% of tenured faculty identifies as Black or Hispanic. The percentage of doctorate degrees awarded to women has increased much more slowly than other science fields - the same goes for Bachelor degrees awarded to women and doctorate and bachelor degrees awarded to minority students. The underrepresentation in economics is barely improving over time, and likely limits the discipline’s understanding of important economic issues.

What is even more scandalous is that this is not an unknown issue. Papers are more likely to be published if they do not find evidence of labor market discrimination in terms of gender and race, papers by Black economists are cited much less, and institutions still do not broaden their participation (Price & Vonshay Sharpe, 2020). Furthermore, there are no Black editors of the top journals in economics. This, along with the lack of faculty members identifying as underrepresented minorities, is ripe ground for racism to fester. Harald Uhlig, a University of Chicago professor and lead editor of the Journal of Public Economics - one of the top journals of economics - has been placed on leave following a series of anti-Black Lives Matter tweets and a history of mocking Martin Luther King Jr. day in his classroom. Stories of racial discrimination pile up on stories of sexual harassment in the industry. 

If you, like us, are sick of this being the norm in economics, check out some initiatives such as Rethinking Economics and Diversify and Decolonize Economics

2_Bayer and Rouse (2016)
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Your teachers matter, and so does the sector you work in. 

We finished the day with a discussion on the importance of teachers and of being in the public sector. Thomas Dee finds that students are perceived to do better in school when matched with same-race and same-sex teachers. This is important because students do better in school when their teacher sees them well - they are more likely to take Advanced Placement courses and to finish high school. Two channels could explain this: passive channels such as role model effects (“the presence of a demographically similar teacher raises a student’s academic motivation and expectations”), or stereotype threats (“in situations where students perceive stereotypes might attach (...), they experience an apprehension that retards their academic identification and subsequent achievement”); or active channels such as unintended biases towards students of different demographic backgrounds. However, the paper does not look at context - does this hold true in more or less racially segregated cities? In which neighborhoods? It is important not to look at the policy recommendation of this paper as matching students to their racial and gender equals, but to help teachers overcome these issues. 

3a_Dee (2005)
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Finally, Lucia Foster, Julia Manzella, Erika McEntarfer, and Danielle H. Sandler showcase some descriptive statistics with evidence on the earnings gap and the level of diversity in federal jobs. They find that there is more diversity in academia for men from under-represented minorities and for white women (but there were not enough observations for women from under-represented minorities), compared to academia and the private sector. The paper does not go into details for potential mechanisms but mentions that the discrimination in publications could be driving the difference in earnings and diversity gaps between the public sector and academia/the private sector: for federal jobs, publications are less important for promotions. This goes back to the discussion we had during our first workshop, where we discussed the existence and potential reasons for the publication gap between women and men. This paper provides some initial evidence that putting less emphasis on signals that are known to be discriminatory helps to mitigate wage gaps. 

4a_Foster et al
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4b_Foster et al
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The Apéro

During our Apéro, we had an amazing Q&A session with Prof. Saraly Andrade de Sá, who generously shared her experiences with us and answered our many questions. The content shared remains private.


Bayer, Amanda, and Cecilia Elena Rouse (2016). Diversity in the economics profession: A new attack on an old problem. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30 (4): 221-42.

Dee, Thomas, S. (2005).A Teacher Like Me: Does Race, Ethnicity, or Gender Matter?American Economic Review,95 (2): 158-165.

Foster, Lucia, Julia Manzella, Erika McEntarfer, and Danielle H. Sandler. (2020). Employment and Earnings for Federal Government Economists: Empirical Evidence by Gender and Race. AEA Papers and Proceedings,110: 210-14.

Shields, Stephanie A. (2008). Gender: An intersectionality perspective. Sex roles, 59.5-6: 30.

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