At April 2021’s “Racism and the Economy: Focus on the Economics Profession” event, University of Chicago professor Sendhil Mullainathan urged young economists to be bold and write the research articles they believe should be written, even if those articles do not fit preconceived ideas about what economics research should look like. “The set of people writing [economics articles] turns over about 50 percent in about five to seven years,” Mullainathan said. “Even in short horizons, things can change.”
Yet, being bold remains a risk in a profession that tries to “throw [people] back out if they don’t swim the way we want them to,” as San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly said. Change may be on the horizon, but that might be hard to identify for a young economist who is just starting their career.
April’s event, which has been viewed more than 4,000 times, suggests that there is broad interest in having conversations and making changes that move the economics profession toward greater diversity and inclusion. Registrants for the event came from all 50 states, from private industry, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, public agencies, and the Federal Reserve System. The panelists were diverse along many dimensions—race, gender, geography, subfield.
However, one dimension of diversity that was not represented among panelists at the event was career status: All panelists were distinguished academics or Federal Reserve Bank presidents, individuals who enjoy a great deal of security in their jobs and the esteem of their peers. Their positions mean they have deep insight into the workings of the economics profession and that they could share those insights in a large public forum without the concerns for their professional development that more junior scholars might have.
What they could not fully offer, however, was the perspective of the next generation of economists. In this article, we’ll hear from four economists from underrepresented groups who are either pursuing or recently received their Ph.D. We asked them to watch the event and share their reflections. Do they feel emboldened to pursue research about the economic crises and social inequities that drew them to the study of economics? What features of the profession do they see as standing in the way? What does the profession do to encourage greater diversity among economists, and what more could be done?
The backgrounds of the respondents are diverse not only in race and ethnicity but also in the types and locations of schools they have attended and taught at—public and private, across all regions of the United States. We’ve agreed to keep their identities anonymous to facilitate their ability to be candid about these issues.*
On the need to dismantle elitism in economics
The most significant issue confronting economics, the respondents said, is the discipline’s elitism—making decisions based on where someone received their Ph.D. instead of the quality or value of their research. This makes it that much harder for economists from underrepresented groups to enter the “club” of individuals who hold enough sway to change the discipline.
“The most discouraging feature of economics is that it’s conducted under the pretense that skill dominates, and the cream will always rise to the top,” respondent A wrote. “The problem is that we don’t start at the same place, and we don’t all have access to the same resources.” As a result, students of equal ability might not have an equal chance of being accepted into a top grad program.
This has detrimental effects on diversity and inclusion when alma maters carry a great deal of weight in decision-making about what papers to accept to a conference, which candidates to interview for a job, and which articles to publish in top journals.
“The profession places too much attention on school affiliation,” respondent A continued. “At the Federal Reserve and other prominent institutions, Ivy League degrees are overrepresented relative to the overall number of economics practitioners. When these schools are used as a screening tool, great candidates are filtered out. The cycle is self-enforcing. Excluded groups miss out on opportunities to share their work and receive feedback. What chance do I have without a degree from Stanford, Harvard, or some other Ivy League school? It’s a letdown every time. Rarely do I see someone rise to the top having exclusively attended state schools. If that’s what it takes to get a foot in the door, the profession becomes unreachable.”
Elitism is particularly pernicious because of how ubiquitous it is, respondent B wrote. “We can find examples of this structure everywhere, including how the American Economic Association picks its presidents; the so-called tyranny of the ‘top five’ journals; the departments where one can expect to be hired depending on where we obtain our Ph.Ds.; and how institutional affiliation is an implicit measure of personal success and academic value. Even the data we use to discuss underrepresentation in economics usually come from highly ranked departments as if they were a representative sample of the entire profession.”
“Even the data we use to discuss underrepresentation in economics usually come from highly ranked departments, as if they were a representative sample of the entire profession.”
The discipline’s elitism was enough of a barrier to discourage respondent C from continuing to pursue economics: “The profession’s elitism made me consider leaving the field more than once. There have been many times when my attempts at networking failed because my Ph.D. did not come from a top-5 program. Such experiences can be particularly discouraging to someone just starting out in the field.”
While elitism won’t easily be dismantled, respondents did offer suggestions.
“More effort should be given to include new or lesser-known economists. There are hundreds of professors at small state schools doing interesting work. I propose that the field reserve seats for new participants at conferences,” respondent A wrote. “This alleviates capacity and security concerns while also serving as a commitment mechanism for broader inclusion. It’s a small proposal with significant impacts for the invited persons.”
"There are hundreds of professors at small state schools doing interesting work. I propose that the field reserve seats for new participants at conferences.”
More broadly, respondent B said, the profession should consider how to create opportunities outside of elite institutions for economists from minority-serving institutions and non-elite universities to conduct, discuss, and disseminate research broadly within the field. “The more competitive and generous opportunities, such as grants and post-docs, are often designed to move people away from those institutions rather than create spaces for them,” respondent B observed.
On the value of mentoring and networks, both formal and informal
Mentoring has great value in the face of economics’ rigid hierarchy, respondent B said. “Having mentors and colleagues from underrepresented groups who are willing to share their experiences, struggles, and knowledge with me has been fundamental in my ability to graduate and find a tenure-track faculty job. They have pointed me toward funding sources, academic and professional development opportunities and, in doing so, have shown me how to mentor other future economists who look like me,” respondent B wrote.
While many mentorship relationships are informal, respondents highlighted the value of structured programs aimed specifically at underrepresented groups.
“My relationship with some of [my] mentors has developed naturally from my scholarly activity and the topics I focus on, while others are the result of structured programs dedicated to improving diversity in the field; for example, writing groups and tenure-support programs for underrepresented junior faculty,” respondent B continued.
Respondent D concurred: “Programs that specifically target increasing the diversity pipeline, mentoring junior faculty members, and connecting underrepresented minorities with one another have contributed to the profession.” Expanding these programs has the potential to promote diversity in economics by helping to retain economists from underrepresented groups.
On the danger of an “arms race” in training
Not all programs designed to help young economists are necessarily positive, however. During the event, panelists raised the question of whether pre-doctoral programs serve to increase or decrease representation in economics. This point resonated with the respondents, as they worried about a potential “arms race” in training that would end up benefiting students who are already well-connected and well-informed more than qualified students from underrepresented groups who are less likely to be plugged into those networks.
“I’ve benefited considerably from well-meaning summer and pre-doctoral programs, but Trevon Logan made me question whether they contribute to the problem. There are so many obstacles for Black and Brown students to overcome. If participation in a pre-doctoral program becomes a screening mechanism for top Ph.D. programs, it adds to the arms race among applicants, making it more difficult. A pre-doctoral program layers two more years to the application process. Even afterward, post-docs are becoming increasingly common. Economics is not biology! I’ve participated in multiple pre-docs and summer programs, plus a sponsored research assistantship. I’d hate for that to become the norm,” respondent A wrote.
“Had I begun my Ph.D. any later than I did, the length of time necessary to get a Ph.D.
may have deterred me as well. Had it taken longer for me to obtain my Ph.D., the low pre-doctoral and grad school salaries would have imposed a likely insurmountable hurdle,” respondent C wrote.
“Well-meaning initiatives can backfire if additional factors such as information and outreach are not considered,” respondent B said.
On the need to improve experiences in addition to increasing numbers
Respondents agreed strongly that the economics profession needs to evolve from within. That diversity is increasing does not necessarily mean that the experiences of economists from underrepresented groups are improving, respondent B said.
“Dr. Spriggs’ discussion of changing the institution rather than focusing on the pipeline stood out to me,” respondent D wrote. “Even if we increase the pipeline, if the institution/profession is poisonous, we won’t retain these individuals and the profession will remain the same. I hope we can learn to change the profession from the inside out rather than assuming increasing numbers will be a magic wand.”
“We still have much work to do,” respondent B said. “As the profession seeks to diversify what economists look like, we also need to value and find ways to evaluate the ideas and contributions that underrepresented researchers bring to the table.”
On strategies to promote inclusion
The respondents offered several ideas that would help promote inclusion of underrepresented scholars in the field. Many have to do with economics’ approach to research—what is studied, how it’s studied, and how the research is supported.
Respondent C noted that some peers chose health over economics largely because of economics’ research practices. “Many of the criticisms that the panelists levied about economics being insular, having a seemingly insurmountable burden of proof to even admit there is a race problem, and moreover being unwilling to truly critically engage with scholars studying race and its effects made the field unattractive,” respondent C wrote.
Bringing topics of race, racism, and discrimination into mainstream economics research may require changing economics graduate training. “The questions I want to ask about race, how institutions have disproportionately affected people of color, and how these oppressive institutions have affected growth more generally were not major parts of my training as an economist. These topics are currently gaining more traction as issues of race become more salient. However, I think many economists do not study these topics because they have no idea such questions are ones that economists ask,” respondent C said.
Making richer contributions to research in these areas, respondent D suggested, may require dispensing with a traditional economic tenet. “I’ve definitely read work that made me do a double take,” respondent D wrote. “The idea of individuals being rational has always made me chuckle. Take driving, for instance—anyone who has driven in Boston, DC, or LA knows that individuals are very irrational. While this may seem like a minor point, when we theorize and create models related to race and racism and assume that somehow everything works out in the long run, we underscore just how powerful and irrational some things are.”
“When we theorize and create models related to race and racism and assume that somehow everything works out in the long run, we underscore just how powerful and irrational some things are.”
Another strategy to promote inclusion, respondent B wrote, “is to create and support research centers devoted to the study of less ‘mainstream’ but much-needed topics such as racial inequality, the well-being of sexual and gender minorities, and the economics of countries in the Global South.” More commitment from leaders is needed to make this happen, however, respondent B said: “Unfortunately, some of these initiatives are costly, and many institutions do not support them—even when they could collaborate to implement different versions of these programs to support diversity in any way they can.”
On the value of listening to more voices
That so many of the event’s registrants were from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors shows that interest in making economics more diverse and inclusive extends beyond academia. However, respondents would have liked to hear directly from people in those sectors.
“In the future, it may be helpful to talk to economists that are in industry as well. Hearing from diverse individuals who either left academia or never intended to go to academia could provide another perspective on how to diversify the profession,” respondent C wrote. The event’s panelists were, it could be argued, selected on the dependent variable—all successful and esteemed academic economists (and one political scientist). That probably makes their criticism of the profession more insightful and poignant, but it does omit the voices of those who chose not to enter academia.
“In the future, it may be helpful to talk to economists that are in industry as well. Hearing from diverse individuals who either left academia or never intended to go to academia could provide another perspective on how to diversify the profession.”
Respondent A pointed to another omission: Research directors from the Federal Reserve banks. While five Bank presidents participated, it is research directors who are responsible for hiring Ph.D. economists, who in turn lead the hiring of research associates/assistants/analysts as well as other department staff.
“I want to hear from [the research directors],” respondent A wrote. “Do they value diversity? What are they focused on when recruiting? Who are they inviting to conferences, brown bags, and other networking events? What oversight is in place to ensure equity when making these decisions?”
On the possibility that change is on the horizon
During April’s event, Daly asked what one change panelists would make if they had a magic wand they could wave to make it so.
“If I had a magic wand,” respondent D wrote, “I would use it to make students pursue the research agenda they care about—not the agenda that their adviser has encouraged, their peers have encouraged, or the previous literature has encouraged. That wand will allow us to change the profession and give grad students a paper that makes them say, ‘I want to write more like that.’”
There is an idea in political science that revolutions are unpredictable—they happen when a critical mass of people publicly express their preference for a new order. That becomes more likely as the costs of expressing such a preference go down or the rewards go up.
If true, then public events like April’s conference are an important signal to young economists that they will be rewarded, not penalized, for following Mullainathan’s advice to be bold and write to the future.
“It was reassuring to hear three panels of leading voices in economics highlighting the contributions of underrepresented scholars and calling for specific steps to further diversification and inclusion,” respondent B wrote. Respondent C agreed: “It was encouraging to hear individuals speak with urgency and conviction and pose potential solutions rather than just document the problems we face.”
Maybe a magic wand won’t be necessary.