How #MeToo power dynamics affect economists

Making Sen$e

Judy Woodruff: Next, the MeToo movement hits academia, specifically the economics department.

Gender discrimination was a hot topic at the annual meeting of the American Economics Association over the weekend in Philadelphia.

And Paul Solman was there, as part of his weekly segment, Making Sense.

Seth Meyers: Good evening, ladies and remaining gentlemen.


Paul Solman: At the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday, the sexual harassment jokes flew fast and furious, befitting the industry that helped launch the MeToo movement.

Seth Meyers: For the male nominees in the room tonight, this is the first time in three months it won't be terrifying to hear your name read out loud.


Paul Solman: But sexual discrimination was also called out.

Natalie Portman: And here are the all-male nominees.

Paul Solman: As was sexual age discrimination.

Seth Meyers: The Golden Globes turned 75 this year.

Jessica Chastain: But the actress that plays its wife is still only 32.


Paul Solman: But what, you might be wondering, has the Golden Globes to do with economics? Well, sex and age discrimination has become a popular subject of research. And it just so happens that 30-something, as economist Joanna Lahey told me two years ago, is pretty much when age discrimination begins against all women, not just those in Tinseltown.

Joanna Lahey: It starts at age 35.

Paul Solman: Really?

Joanna Lahey: Yes. It's a pretty steady process.

Paul Solman: And economist Teresa Ghilarducci relayed another disturbing fact- Women's earnings peak at age 45.

Teresa Ghilarducci: From 45 to 55, wages decrease by 9 percent, from 55 to 65, another 9 percent. So that age of peaking is a lot younger than we ever thought.

Paul Solman: We caught up with Ghilarducci in Philadelphia this week at the annual convening of the world's economists, where the role of women in economics was seriously trending, a panel on the topic even making headlines.

Teresa Ghilarducci: The low status of women in the labor market after the age of 50 may be quite related to the fact that we don't have many women economists.

And, in fact, other women reinforce that by not asking the age. I'm 60. Let me just shout out to all the people who might be watching this that the only way we're going to eliminate age discrimination is if we shout out our age. I'm 60, I'm vital, and I'm so glad I have tenure, because I know the realities, Paul, that I wouldn't shout out my age if I didn't have a secure job.

Paul Solman: Really? You mean you know you wouldn't?

Teresa Ghilarducci: Because I know I wouldn't.

It would be very hard for me to get interviewed in the finance profession, for instance. And I feel it's because older women have sort of lost the other kind of attribute that women will use on the job, whether it's unconscious or conscious. And that's the attribute that we might somehow boost the sexual the egos of our male bosses.

Paul Solman: And that ego is — the male ego is becoming more fragile as men age. Right?

Teresa Ghilarducci: They have always been fragile.


Paul Solman: Well, but I'm just saying — it's not as an excuse, but it's a fact that, as a man ages, he worries more than ever, OK, about being attractive himself.

Teresa Ghilarducci: But what's happening at work isn't about sex or attractiveness. It's really about power.

So, if men are feeling more fragile in their privileged opportunity, then they are going to subordinate people who are threatening their opportunity. A lot more people are competing and a lot more people have the skills that you once as a man had hoarded.

Paul Solman: And more women are graduating from college and even from graduate school now.

Teresa Ghilarducci: Yes, so the fragility is basically in holding onto their privileged opportunity. And so sexual harassment, sexual sounds fun and harassment sounds petty.

What's happening is this kind of micro and macro aggression. And you, any human, shows aggression to someone who is threatening them.

Paul Solman: A recent paper that's gotten a lot of attention in the economics world actually highlighted the sexualization of female economists, who hold 30 percent of the Ph.D.s, but only 15 percent of the professorships.

Teresa Ghilarducci: An undergraduate at Berkeley wrote a paper where she analyzed the kinds of words and descriptions of young women on the job market compared to young men on the job market.

Paul Solman: Alice Wu, now a grad student at Harvard, mined more than a million posts from a message board where the economics community gossips anonymously about job applicants.

Teresa Ghilarducci: How did their visits on campus go, how did their interviews go, what did the senior professors say to so and so? You know, it's a gossip board for people trying to enter a profession.

Men who were looking for jobs as economists were described with words like empirical, data, monetary, fiscal, words that are associated with our profession. Women who were looking for jobs who had Ph.D.s in economics were described as hot or a bitch or somehow sexualized.

Paul Solman: Here's the list of the top 30 words that correlated most frequently with women interviewing for jobs in the economics profession: breast, kissed, whore, sexy. Down through number 30, none had anything to do with economics.

Teresa Ghilarducci: Clearly dismissive, disgusting, and meant to annihilate and weaken.

Paul Solman: When I read that list of words, I was shocked, startled. I just didn't think that, in economics, men were looking at women that way.

Teresa Ghilarducci: I mean, a lot of sexual harassment, which that is, is not about sex. Saying that a female economist who is competing for an assistant professor is hot is not flattering.

Paul Solman: Right.

Teresa Ghilarducci: It's actually aggression. It's putting her in her place as a sexual object, not as a equal competitor.

Paul Solman: I have interviewed you for a decade at least a number of times. As between us, is there an imbalance? I mean, I know that I'm in a sort of power position by being an interviewer. I have always tried to work against that and try to make the interviewee comfortable. But is there a difference in terms of me being a white male and older?

Teresa Ghilarducci: Not at all. We're not competing for the same job. And you, like 99 percent of men, treat me with respect and give me the authority I'm due because of my knowledge and my profession.

It's just that when you take the small number of men who express their threat with hostility towards women, and you multiply it over and over again, and the bystanding men get confused about what they're looking at, then you get an imbalance of power and an expression of hostility to women.

You know exactly when it's just joking and when it's not. Don't be confused. You're not confused. You're not confused about your own motivations and you're not confused about what the other men are doing. Just be brave to call it when it's aggression.

Paul Solman: This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour from Philadelphia.

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How #MeToo power dynamics affect economists first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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