On being a woman economist

By | February 21, 2020

I was asked recently to reflect on what being a woman in economics meant for me, specifically describing the journey from being an undergraduate to now. It is not easy to tease the woman from the economist bit, as you will see, and maybe it never will or should be.

Answering the question required me to go back to 1989, when after scrambling around for a year looking at half a dozen possible subjects (astronomy, chemistry, psychology, law and anthropology all made it to the list) I finally decided for economics.

Why? It then was a four year degree with plenty of maths and stats and exposure to all other social sciences and seemed both the closest thing to what I had been doing in high school and a way to respond to my getting political and wanting to understand the tools of “the system”.

The “system” I thought I was there to understand was consumer capitalism, and I was completely oblivious to the fact it was built on certain core assumptions about women and men and their roles in it.

Sexist jokes were really common in Italy then, and it was not unusual for professors to make them in class and for us not no find them strange or annoying. They were everywhere anyway so I never really thought about them too deeply, and never understood them as part of a broad system designed to keep women in a particular relationship of subordination. In fact did not feel subordinate at school or at home, and never joined the dots between the jokes, the fact that my mother never had a career and we were moving cities to follow my dad’s, the cat calling we girls got in the streets or the harassment on public transport, the lack of women in positions of power and their constant representation as objects of lust or providers of service to others, the boyfriends that expected always to come before me and my aspirations, or the fact that I went largely along with it unquestioningly.

As a matter of fact, I do not recall we ever talked about my aspirations even in what I still think of a supportive family where both of my parents simply expected I would do well at whatever I chose. They seemed to hold a lot of faith in meritocracy and things would work out the same for me as they had for my dad (a retired professor of mineralogy), without ever acknowledging being a man might have helped him in any way, and never discussing the “choice” of my mother, also a geology graduate, to “just” become a school teacher, do all the childcare and support his career.

So enrolled in uni expecting it was going to be like in school: you work hard, you get good marks, people notice you are good and reward it with suggestions for further work. without noticing that two thirds of the class were male, that there were no women among the teaching staff, or that all the examples ever given in any books had only men in them. In any case, if you didn’t see it it didn’t hurt so much, or at least so I thought. A lot of women I know do that every day, and I am not here to blame them.
By the final year, of my friends was in love with a Professor that was sleeping with her and another couple of students at the same time and I was just sad for her. Another Professor was notorious for making passes at students and we just knew to stay clear of his office, but it was all on us: we just had to be careful and harassment was always a victim’s problem (victim blaming is still very common in Italy, a country where the metoo movement has hardly made inroads).
The undervaluing of women was less obvious but clearly pervasive and it took very assertive ones and very supportive supervisors for them to actually continue to graduate school. I did very well at undergrad, and one of my thesis advisors suggested a masters and maybe doctorate afterwards, but I was never told to go to a top place in spite of my top marks but I took it to mean maybe I wasn’t all that good after all and didn’t question it. I ended up following my boyfriend (that was my advisors advice too) who was going to Reading to do his masters and PhD, and split up from him when he wanted to return to Italy (it was all about his career after all) to stay and to do my PhD (I was offered a scholarship) in blissful ignorance of the difference the brand of the institution and the quality of its formal graduate training could make.

There were some advantages since in the absence of dedicated training for economists I joined other social scientists and various reading groups which rather enlarged my perspectives. The disadvantages were however enormous: no training in causal inference methods in economics and being stuck with rapidly obsolete econometrics (undergrad had all been theory and small applications in time series) and programming skills (I was a fortran user!) meant I was forever full of interesting and quite innovative ideas that I could not really develop or test appropriately on my own and had no really capable and interested coauthors to help with at least to start with. I got hired even before finishing my thesis and plunged into three modules to teach straightaway so I had no time to see it would really have been better to run to a post doc somewhere else and was not advised to do so either. I scrambled to get training in micro econometrics at cemmap courses and tried to get help from a colleague with stata, but lack of mentorship really hurt.

Soon I also had another rather exploitative boyfriend (which I supported financially to boot) and became essentially grounded, busy trying to firefight at work (accepting various external consultancy projects to make ends meet and slowing my interesting but poorly executed research even further, which then landed me more teaching and admin in a perpetual downward cycle) and at home.

We got married, had a child together but he was still busy “finding himself” at my expenses, became gradually more controlling and exploitative so I finally left him to become a single mother with short and crammed working days and little sleep at night to make up for them and few anxious days per week when I could work a few more hours but knew my daughter wasn’t where she wanted to be. I was then also even less able to travel or do all the essential learning and networking that would have got my career restarted, and dependent on the invariably inexistent support and sometimes openly disparaging feedback of some of the seniors in my department who did not think much of my research in sex work and even less of my interests in psychology.

I had low confidence and low self esteem, and was always ready to accept as objective and entirely related to my personal faults anything that happened, whether unfair teaching and admin loads, delayed probations and promotions, being ditched as coauthor on projects I had initiated myself, or finding the institution always unsupportive of projects that in hindsight would have made it a lot of money.

Again that this would be one thing that also had something to do with being a woman only really dawned on me well into my mid career, and only because I progressively focused my research on gender and other bias and understood better both its many manifestations, consequences as well as the underlying psychological mechanisms.

By the time I was head of department it was all becoming rather obvious and I was fighting it where I saw it and where I could: women were leaving the institution to get promoted elsewhere, I joined the women committee of the Royal Economic Society and saw clearly that sexism in economics was a problem and it was not just coming from some men either. Economics suffers from some pretty standard misogyny (see the excellent Down Girl book by Kate Manne for a neat definition of what misogyny is and how it operates), some of which is embodied in discipline specific assumptions of human behaviour, and also has a certain naive belief that markets work and they thus would not allow biases to work for too long (this belief is especially held dear by men who do not wish to accept they might have been unfairly advantaged at any point).
My last few years of research in stereotyping and self stereotyping, conscious and unconscious bias, identity and backlash are throwing more light on both the causes and the consequences of the problem, and I do hope my coauthors and I will contribute some ways to solve it in time.

Looking back I do think in my career so far I have sometimes been made to feel uncomfortable by economists and by myself through my insecurities, but I must say I was never uncomfortable with economics itself: it remains to me an interesting and always evolving discipline. In fact both the approach and the toolkit of economics have greatly helped me understand what has been happening to me and others, and use that knowledge to better advocate for myself and others.

I studied economics because I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t really know what journey it would become to figure out what difference I could make and how deep and personal it would get. It has all been rather exhausting but also profoundly empowering. I am happy of where I am and especially of what I now believe I can do.

When I give talks in girls schools I always say that economics and a good understanding of gender are essential to a woman to learn what lies ahead, to develop self awareness and gain bargaining ability that will prepare them to face the necessary struggles and reduce personal conflicts.

I just wish someone had told me all that a little earlier, but knowledge, even when it comes late, is still power.

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