"Men’s voices tend to dominate economic debate, although perhaps this is shaped by how we talk about the contributions of female economists," Justin Wolfers argues in an excellent New York Times piece.
Wolfers points out several recent examples of how journalists have treated highly accomplished woman economists, and the picture isn't pretty. Women who are the lead authors on major papers get mentioned as if they were secondary authors — and being the lead author is a big deal in academia. Male co-authors tend to get mentioned first and have their credentials listed at greatest length.
The problem is especially acute for women who are part of a "power couple," like Princeton economics and public affairs professor Anne Case. Case was the lead author on a major recent study about white mortality in America. But Case's co-author and husband, Angus Deaton, tended to get mentioned more prominently, and reporters made sure to mention that Case was Deaton's wife.
Deaton is a Nobel Prize winner, Wolfers notes, so that may be more about journalism's bias toward interesting narratives than about bias against women. Still, he says, this kind of thing keeps happening, and it's only ever women who are mistakenly given short shrift. Sometimes it gets nastier than just mixing up who the lead author is; witness Ralph Nader's recent screed against Janet Yellen, the chair of the Federal Reserve, where Nader suggested Yellen should consult with her Nobel-winning husband on monetary policy.
There's a reason female economists get slighted like this
"The accumulation of these slights suggests that even the world’s best female economists are given second billing too often," Wolfers writes. "And none of this is intended to impugn the motives of any economic commentator. Rather, I suspect that there’s a simple unconscious bias at work here." Close your eyes and picture an "economist," Wolfers urges readers, and you'll probably come up with a middle-aged white guy.
Wolfers isn't kidding. Harvard has a fascinating research project that tries to measure unconscious biases. You may believe with all your heart that women and men are equally capable at science or math, Harvard's researchers say, but your automatic associations may show otherwise. This explains how even a feminist science teacher who knows she is being observed can still give a disproportionate amount of talking time to the white male students in her classroom. Or, as Wolfers wryly pointed out, how his own wife was wrongly demoted to second author when their joint research was cited in a widely read article on "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."
Take a test on women and careers, or women and science, and see how you do. You might be surprised; I didn't do as well as I would have hoped, and I write about gender for a living! About three-quarters of respondents to both of these quizzes showed at least some unconscious bias that made it a little harder for them to associate women with science or with the workplace:
There are some caveats to these results, so feel free to take them with a grain of salt, and to take the test multiple times. But variables like the order in which you answer the questions don't matter as much as you'd think, according to the researchers.
The problem is much bigger than journalists not giving women enough credit in economics
Wolfers was writing about the most successful women economists, women who are at the top of their field. If "even" these women often don't get the recognition they deserve, imagine what that must look like for women who aren't the most successful in their field — or women who could have been more successful but were held back by structural barriers.
Women in science, math, engineering, or technology (STEM) fields have a particularly hard time at just about every level of hiring for academic positions, due to the unconscious bias of those who do the hiring. There's overt sexism, like that awful peer reviewer who said women researchers should get help from men, and more subtle forms, like how male researchers tend to choose fewer female trainees to work in their labs. And the STEM bias starts as early as grade school.
Economics isn't exactly a "science"; it's actually considered one of the liberal arts. But people don't tend to think of it that way, and it uses a lot of math — which is also culturally associated with men more than women.
These problems are compounded when you add family, more highly associated with women, into the mix. If a woman can be described as a wife or mother, she usually will be, no matter whether it's relevant. That's how accomplished human rights lawyer Amal Clooney gets reduced to being "George Clooney's wife," and women who are renowned novelists or rocket scientists are remembered first for their appearance or their family life in their obituaries.
Bias can be sort of a chicken-and-egg problem. Our culture, institutions, and common practices help ingrain bias into us, but our biases also reinforce the common practices that institutionalize bias. There aren't as many women in science, math, or economics as men. Which makes us assume that women are less interested in these fields or that men are better suited to them. Which makes us subtly treat women who are interested in these fields differently at every level. Which either discourages women from pursuing those fields or keeps them from being as successful as they should be. Which leads to fewer women in science, math, or economics than men. Et cetera, ad infinitum.