/Women in economics get interrupted, study shows

Women in economics get interrupted, study shows


Female economists probably didn’t need a quantitative study to know that they get asked more questions when presenting than their male counterparts. Indeed, many female academics are familiar with manterruptions, an offshoot of the mansplaining phenomenon. Female economists probably didn’t need a formal analysis of the kinds of questions they get asked to know that they face more patronizing or hostile queries than their male peers, either.

But numbers are a good thing — especially to economists — and now there exists such a study, courtesy of a group of prominent economists. These researchers plan to publish the new working paper with the National Bureau of Economic Research and otherwise use it to promote change in a field that has historically been unwelcoming to women.

“This paper represents the first systematic analysis of the culture of economics seminars,” wrote co-authors Pascaline DuPas, Alicia Sasser Modestino, Muriel Neiderle and Justin Wolfers, in collaboration with a group of 97 other economists who call themselves the Seminar Dynamics Collective. “Our findings add to an emerging literature documenting ways in which women economists are treated differently than men, and suggest yet another potential explanation for their underrepresentation at senior levels within the economics profession.”

During 2019, researchers coded every interaction between a speaker and their audience in more than 450 seminar series and jobs market talks across 33 economics departments. They did the same for talks at the 2019 NBER Summer Institute. Researchers considered gender differences in the frequency of questions and interruptions and the gender and seniority of those asking. Then they categorized those questions by type — comment, clarification, criticism, suggestion, follow-up — as well as tone: supportive, patronizing, disruptive, demeaning, hostile.

Looking for patterns, the researchers found that women were treated significantly differently than men when presenting their work. Within seminar series at universities, for instance, women presenters were asked 3.6 additional questions than their male counterparts, on average, or 12 percent more. Women giving job talks about their research faced 6.2 more questions than men. Controlling for various factors (like gender) about the coders themselves, the composition of the audience and the presenter, these results held.

Women’s research presentations tended to attract larger and more diverse audiences, but men were still the ones asking most of the questions. Women also received a greater number of suggestions and clarifying questions, as well as questions that were patronizing or hostile, according to the study.

Female job market candidates were more likely to receive questions deemed as disruptive, as well. One coder wrote this about a female candidate’s job market talk, for instance:

Despite warning the room that she was running out of time, the questions continued. Nearing the end, one male professor insisted on an answer to a previous question with which he was unsatisfied, continued to speak over her for a time when she tried to move on, and instigated an entire corner of the room to talk over her. There was no time left at the end for Q&A, and despite cheery responses and confidence throughout interruptions, this closing "question" (disruption) seemed especially demoralizing.

The Bigger Picture

In 2018, the AEA adopted a Code of Professional Conduct requiring “civil and respectful discourse” and a “professional environment with equal opportunity and fair treatment for all.” The researchers suggest that their data can be read as a progress report of sorts to see how far the discipline has come — and how far it still needs to go. The field has indeed been called out for gender bias before, including in a 2017 study that found women economists receive less credit than their male co-authors when it comes to tenure and promotion, as economists list their author names alphabetically, not by levels of contribution. Another 2017 study found that women economists write more clearly than male economists but are subject to tougher editorial standards. And a 2020 paper documented how women face sexual harassment online.

The authors of the new study say that all of these factors contribute to the fact that women are less likely to be promoted than men in economics.

Prior studies demonstrate that women are less likely than men to ask questions in group settings, both as students and academics. But that doesn’t explain the findings here, as female economists were asked more questions than men, typically by men.

Just 8 percent of seminars in this new study had any rules in place about asking questions, such as prohibiting them during the first 15 minutes. Very few questions in the study were deferred or ignored, meaning that taking and answering questions can take up lot of the speaker’s time, the study notes. It took just about seven minutes on average for the first question to be asked, and 10 minutes for two.

On average, 30 questions total were asked during an economics seminar and 35 questions were asked during a job market talk. Men in the audience tended to outnumber women by two to one, but they asked 4.5 times as many questions during regular seminars and seven times more during job market talks. Ninety-four of these additional job market talk questions were asked by men, the study says.

Roughly 38 percent of all questions were clarifications, 16 percent were comments, and suggestions, follow-ups and criticisms made up the rest. In one out of every 10 job talks, coders thought the questions asked were unfair over all. One in five job talks had a particularly disruptive audience member, and disrupters were usually men.

Interestingly, women only spent about 2 percent more of their seminar time than men answering questions. Over all, the study says, “what seems to be going on is that audience members are less likely to consolidate their comments/questions to female presenters than they are to do so with male presenters, generating more interruptions during female presentations, for about the same total interruption time.”

A higher interruption rate still has the potential to reduce the quality of the experience for both the presenter and the audience, however, the study notes.

Results from the NBER talks differed — slightly — as these presentations tended to be shorter than the department-based series and job talks and attracted larger audiences. NBER participants were also notified via email that a group would be studying the panelist and audience. Female presenters at NBER were asked 1.3 more questions on average than male presenters, or 9 percent more questions. Macroeconomics in particular drove this difference, as women in this subfield were asked 4.4 more questions than men during an NBER talk. These questions were asked mostly by men — similar to the spring seminars in macro. At NBER, these extra questions in macro were not deemed valuable, constructive or collegial.

Interestingly, having a discussant or Q&A session planned for the end of the NBER talks did not change the way women were treated.

“Our findings suggest that the current institutional arrangements do not serve women economists particularly well,” the authors conclude. “We see some evidence of recognition of this fact, and over recent months, a number of leading economics departments have surveyed their members, discussed potential remedies, and set new ground rules for how they want their seminars to operate.” These ground rules range from having question-asking policies to having moderators and, while useful, “we would be more optimistic about making progress on this issue if they came coupled with an attempt at systematically evaluating their effects,” the study says.

Last, making “appropriate professional conduct during seminars a part of how we train the next generation of economists will likely help perpetuate a better environment going forward,” the authors say.

Economics isn’t the only challenging sphere for female presenters. Just last month, for instance, a senior male archaeologist, who has since retired from the University of Pennsylvania, repeatedly interrupted a female presenter at an online conference and gave her the Nazi salute when she steered the conversation back to her own topic. Still, economics has faced serious criticism in recent years with respect to its culture — including how female economists are treated. The AEA has pledged to do more for women, including via its code of conduct and by changing how junior economists are interviewed.

Judy Chevalier, William S. Beinecke Professor of Economics and Finance at Brown University and chair of the AEA’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, said there has been buzz about the study. Now that it's out, her committee is planning a webinar on best practices in seminar conduct.

"I know that this conversation has been ongoing in many departments," Chevalier added.

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