When reading about controversial topics in economics (and I assume in other fields), it’s common to have the uncomfortable feeling that if you know what the authors argued in a previous paper, you will also know what they are arguing in the current paper. One interpretation of this pattern is that authors have biases that influence their results. If you think this may be a problem, one way to push back is through an “adversarial collaboration,” which means that authors who have previously found different results agree to publish a paper together–and not in some pro-and-con format of disagreements, but actually to write the paper such that they can all agree with it.
Stephen J. Ceci , Shulamit Kahn, and Wendy M. Williams rise to the challenge in “Exploring Gender Bias in Six Key Domains of Academic Science: An Adversarial Collaboration” (Psychological Science in the Public Interest, published online April 26, 2023). In this area of research, previous work by Ceci and Williams tends to find little evidence of gender bias in academia, while Kahn has published a number of studies suggesting bias in economics, in particular. Here’s a sense of their process:
This article represents more than 4.5 years of effort by its three authors. By the time readers finish it, some may assume that the authors were in agreement about the nature and prevalence of gender bias from the start. However, this is definitely not the case. Rather, we are collegial adversaries who, during the 4.5 years that we worked on this article, continually challenged each other, modified or deleted text that we disagreed with, and often pushed the article in different directions. Although the three of us have exchanged hundreds of emails and participated in many Zoom sessions, Kahn has never met Ceci and Williams in person.
Here’s the broad takeaway of their results from the abstract:
We synthesized the vast, contradictory scholarly literature on gender bias in academic science from 2000 to 2020. In the most prestigious journals and media outlets, which influence many people’s opinions about sexism, bias is frequently portrayed as an omnipresent factor limiting women’s progress in the tenure-track academy. … We evaluated the empirical evidence for gender bias in six key contexts in the tenure-track academy: (a) tenure-track hiring, (b) grant funding, (c) teaching ratings, (d) journal acceptances, (e) salaries, and (f) recommendation letters. We also explored the gender gap in a seventh area, journal productivity, because it can moderate bias in other contexts. We focused on these specific domains, in which sexism has most often been alleged to be pervasive, because they represent important types of evaluation, and the extensive research corpus within these domains provides sufficient quantitative data for comprehensive analysis. Contrary to the omnipresent claims of sexism in these domains appearing in top journals and the media, our findings show that tenure-track women are at parity with tenure-track men in three domains (grant funding, journal acceptances, and recommendation letters) and are advantaged over men in a fourth domain (hiring). For teaching ratings and salaries, we found evidence of bias against women; although gender gaps in salary were much smaller than often claimed, they
were nevertheless concerning.
But what if I’m interested less in the overall picture of academic as a whole than in my specific field of economics. The study is broadly focused, but on those occasions when it singles out economics, it’s typically because economics looks worse with regard to gender bias.
For example, one way to look at bias in tenure-track hiring is to compare the share of women getting PhDs in a given field to the share of women who are hired as assistant professors in that field and the share of women who become tenured professors in that field. In many of the fields they study, the share of women becoming tenured professors is higher than the share of women who received doctorates in the field. Economics is the exception:
Thus, these cohort analyses offer little support for the claim of widespread gender discrimination in tenure-track hiring in GEMP [the authors’ acronym for the mathematics-intensive fields of geoscience, engineering, economics, mathematics, computer science, and physical science], even before 2000. Economics is the exception …[T]he percentage of women among tenure-track assistant professors (within 7 years after obtaining their PhDs) was similar to the percentage of women among PhDs only through 2004; for the next eight PhD cohorts, however, the percentage of female assistant professors stagnated, despite growth of newly minted female PhDs.
Here’s a description of another study about hiring, in which economics was different:
Williams and Ceci (2015) studied a stratified national sample of 872 faculty from two GEMP fields (engineering and economics) and two LPS fields (biology and psychology) to determine preferences for identically qualified men and women possessing outstanding credentials. …[I]in the authors’ main experiment (N = 363), faculty expressed a significant preference
for hiring women. This pro-female preference was similar across fields, types of institution, and gender and rank of faculty. The only group in which the preference did not appear was male economists, who showed no gender preference.
“No preference” is not an obviously bad thing. But it does make economics stand out. There is some evidence that has been interpreted to argue that women in economics need higher-quality research to publish their papers. This evidence is not based on a lower rate of acceptance of research by women at academic journals, but on the later pattern of citations of that work.
Card et al. (2020) argued that although there was no gender difference between acceptance rates [at economic journals] in their study, even after controlling for factors such as numbers
of past publications, this might not ensure that the quality of men’s and women’s accepted articles are similar. Instead, they argued that only subsequent citations to the accepted articles signal quality. Analyzing citations, Card et al. found that in economics, accepted women’s articles had higher subsequent citations, and from this they concluded that bias against women exists, despite no gender differences in acceptance rates. There might indeed be some gender bias in economics publication evaluation, particularly given that there is evidence from another study showing that the quality of writing in published articles in economics by women was higher than in articles by men, whereas the time until women’s articles were finally accepted was longer, suggesting bias (Hengel, 2022).
But this type of evidence is a bit slippery. As the essay points out, if women’s published research being cited more often is evidence of bias in economics, does that mean that if research by women was cited less often (as is true in some other fields and journals), this would prove that research by women was of lower quality? There are a variety of forms of bias that might have an effect here: bias by journal reviewers in what gets published, bias by readers in what they choose to study, and bias by future authors in what they choose to cite. There is also a possibility that women in economics tend to favor quality over quantity in their research choices. Disentangling these possibilities won’t be easy.
Other research suggests that men have an overall productivity advantage in economics. The authors describe another study this way:
In social sciences besides psychology, two fields stand out as opposites. Political science had a large female advantage in annualized publications and a 3.3-ppt female advantage in total impact (Huang et al., 2020). … In contrast, Huang et al. found that in economics, men had a 28% productivity advantage in early careers and a 50% advantage in midcareers. Ceci et al. found that the productivity gap among economists increased from 1990 to 1995 to 2005 to 2008 (from 22% to 52%), a concerning trend.
A few years back, the Journal of Economic Perspectives, where I work as Managing Editor, published a three-paper symposium on the situation of women in economics. To me, the articles make a prima facie case that economics has problems in this area–even if some of its problems, like bias against women in student ratings of teachers–seem shared across fields.
- “Women in Economics: Stalled Progress,” by Shelly Lundberg and Jenna Stearns
- “Variation in Women’s Success across PhD Programs in Economics,” by Leah Boustan and Andrew Langan
- “Fixing the Leaky Pipeline: Strategies for Making Economics Work for Women at Every Stage,” by Kasey Buckles
But I also think that some of the vexed relationship between gender and economics starts a lot sooner than academic hiring. If you go back to high school AP exams, the standard pattern is that females are more likely to take the exams and to do well on them. Economics is an exception. Males are more likely to take the AP micro and macro economics, and also to get higher scores on them. In undergraduate programs, about one-third of economics majors are women–a percentage that hasn’t changed much in recent decades–even though women are an overall majority of college students. In thinking about the pipeline for future professors of economics, It might prove useful to think about reasons behind these earlier gender differences.