Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Diversifying the Workforce, Then and Now

Do you remember what you were doing ten years ago today? Larry Summers was at the NBER, making some remarks as president of Harvard University at a conference on "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce." Those remarks, widely misunderstood in real time and even today, are posted here. Larry lays out his thesis in the second paragraph:

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

It was the second hypothesis that got Larry into so much trouble. Later in his remarks, he was making a point that is illustrated by the following picture:

The point he made was that if you have two distributions of ability with the same mean but with different variances, then if you look at the extreme tails of the distribution -- here, the ability required to compete for a position in the most selective academic departments -- even a slight decrease in variance will result in a vast under representation of the less variable group. (In the picture above, imagine drawing a vertical line right where the arrow from s2 is placed -- no members from the first group are above that ability level.) Larry's second hypothesis was that the variance of the distribution of female ability was less than that of males. Suggesting in the paragraph quoted above that this had more to do with observed under representation of women in academia than his third hypothesis -- more conventional discriminatory behavior within the professions -- is likely what started the trouble stemming from the remarks. (I blogged about them ten years ago here.)

The broader issues to which Larry was speaking have not gone away.  Ignoring the statistical point in Larry's second hypothesis, his first hypothesis focused on factors that don't favor women that exist across society -- that within households, given current laws and regulations, women tend not to get the same support as men to pursue high-powered careers. The third hypothesis focused on factors that don't favor women that exist within a given profession. On this third hypothesis, my own field of economics is in the midst of some constructive reflection. Some good examples are pieces by Noah Smith in Bloomberg View in November, "Economics Is a Dismal Science for Women," and by Miles Kimball and an anonymous female co-author in Quartz earlier this month, "How Big is the Sexism Problem in Economics?"

Noah, who blogs at Noahpinion, refers to a recent article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest that draws the following conclusions about most math-intensive fields:

We conclude by suggesting that although in the past, gender discrimination was an important cause of women’s underrepresentation in scientific academic careers, this claim has continued to be invoked after it has ceased being a valid cause of women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields. Consequently, current barriers to women’s full participation in mathematically intensive academic science fields are rooted in pre-college factors and the subsequent likelihood of majoring in these fields, and future research should focus on these barriers rather than misdirecting attention toward historical barriers that no longer account for women’s underrepresentation in academic science.
However, the paper notes that Economics remains an outlier in a few respects, including promotion and compensation.

Miles, who blogs at Confessions of a Supply Side Liberal, goes on to provide a list of the various, sometimes subtle ways, the path to the top of the profession in economics is still steeper and rockier for women compared to men. I don't think there is a mindset within economics that is unfavorable to women. But a neutral mindset does not always lead to neutral behavior, and as a profession, this is an issue that we should all take seriously.

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