Cornell students and faculty reflect on their experiences being a woman in economics. (Michael Li/Sun File Photo)

March 2, 2021

Cornell Economists Reflect on Their Experiences as Study Highlights Glass Ceilings

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Many female economists are used to walking into a room and feeling overwhelmingly outnumbered by their male colleagues. As terms like “mansplain” become part of common vernacular, women in economics are becoming more and more conscious of gender disparities in their field. 

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that women receive 12 percent more questioning on their work at seminars and they were more often met with hostile attitudes when compared to their male counterparts. 

Anne Burton, a sixth-year graduate student studying economics at Cornell University, played a vital role in collecting the data. She was recruited by a panel of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who were looking for graduate students to record and analyze interactions between men and women at academic seminars. 

While Burton said most of the seminars she attended at Cornell were cordial and respectful, she recalled one instance where a male professor was particularly disruptive toward a female presenter. 

“It just wasn’t helping the audience understand the paper better, and it wasn’t helping the presenter get her point across,” Burton said. 

At Cornell, of the 46 faculty members listed on the economics department’s website, a mere nine are women. Economics major Alexis Ren ’21 said the only female economics instructor she had was for “Statistics and Probability,” a requirement for the economics major; the instructor was a postgraduate student.

Prof. Michèle Belot, economics, said she was treated well in the one seminar she gave at Cornell. However, she said she still notices differential treatment toward women who are giving presentations due to the fact that women tend to be less aggressive. 

“My take is that I think men are too confident. I think women are more true to the state of research and more willing to admit the caveats,” Belot said. “But that means it may seem that there is more to pick on, or that it is inviting more criticism because of that.” 

When asking questions at seminars, Belot said women are less assertive and often have their questions dismissed.

“I have had many experiences where I ask a question and the person presenting sort of answers but not really, and then one of my male colleagues takes over the question and the question gets the attention that it maybe deserved,” Belot said.

The problem worsens when the intersectionality between gender and race comes into play. The New York Times article explained that the study on seminars could not even be extended to Black and Hispanic individuals — as there are not enough of them in the field of economics. 

Burton also said that there is a lack of racial diversity within Cornell’s economics department. 

“We do have quite a lot of international students which is great and they definitely add some much needed diversity to our program, but when you’re talking about people who have historically been discriminated against in the U.S. and face additional barriers to higher education, those groups are not really represented at Cornell,” Burton said.

Reflecting on her professional recruitment past, Ren also recalls themes of racial and gender disparities. 

“I’ve definitely been in banking interviews where I’m the only female or even the only person of color,” Ren said. “I would go to a Superday, which is a final round interview for banking, and I would be the only non-white male there.” 

To address these intersectional issues, Burton and a group of graduate students founded Diversity in Cornell Economics in 2019. The group’s mission is to expose more undergraduate students to the type of work that economists do to encourage a diverse set of candidates to pursue the field. 

“A lot of freshmen in particular may not realize what economists do, they may think it’s just about the stock market and interest rates,” Burton said.

While women may be dissuaded from an economics degree because of the realities of discrimination and unequal treatment in the field, Belot advised against focusing on what she saw as a minority of bad instances.

“I am concerned, to be honest, of the type of media coverage that these studies are getting because while it’s important to spread these issues, it is showing the dark side of the profession,” Belot said. “I would like to remind people that it’s not all bad. Ninety percent of the people are nice and you get to do interesting work and for me it’s been wonderful to be in this profession.” 

Despite hurdles for women in the field, Burton still encourages them to pursue economics. 

“We’re not going to fix the underrepresentation of women without getting more women interested in economics,” Burton said.