Exposing a Toxic Milieu for Women in Economics

In How We Behave, LABOR -- articles only, WOMEN'S ISSUES -- articles only On
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A pathbreaking new study of online conversations among economists describes and quantifies a workplace culture that appears to amount to outright hostility toward women in parts of the economics profession.

Alice H. Wu, who will start her doctoral studies at Harvard next year, completed the research in an award-winning senior thesis at the University of California, Berkeley. Her paper has been making the rounds among leading economists this summer, and prompting urgent conversations.

David Card, an eminent economist at Berkeley who was Ms. Wu’s thesis adviser, told me that she had produced “a very disturbing report.”

The underrepresentation of women in top university economics departments is already well documented, but it has been difficult to evaluate claims about workplace culture because objectionable conversations rarely occur in the open. Whispered asides at the water cooler are hard to observe, much less measure.

But the intersection of two technological shifts has opened up new avenues for research. First, many “water cooler” conversations have migrated online, leaving behind a computerized archive. In addition, machine-learning techniques have been adapted to explore patterns in large bodies of text, and as a result, it’s now possible to quantify the tenor of that kind of gossip.

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