Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Women in Economics on Film

Media Matters on gender bias in economic reporting.

The relevant chart:
Male economists get more media appearances than female economists.

After Justin Wolfers shared this on Twitter yesterday, a few folks (including Nathaniel Bechhofer, Claudia Sahm, and your humble author) forwarded some hypotheses to explain the imbalance. Among them:

  1. News organization taste-based discrimination: news studios don't like female economists and are therefore reluctant to invite them on the air.
  2. Audience taste-based discrimination: producers don't think Joe and Jane Six-Pack are interested in hearing women talk economics, and are therefore reluctant to invite them on the air.
  3. Participant selection: female economists respond affirmatively to appearance requests at lower rates than male economists.
  4. Specialization: female economists select areas of concentration that may not be newsworthy (experimental econ, industrial organization, & al.)
  5. A combination of the above
On hypothesis (1):
  • The stereotype of newsrooms being old boys' clubs persists, and even if there's no truth to it, there might be lingering heuristics that link economics to men, much like the heuristic that nurses or flight attendants are female. The bias doesn't have to be pernicious or conscious to work.
  • Maladaptive taste-based discrimination has a short shelf life. Producers have an interest in maximizing ratings. If they can steal a few eyeballs by inviting incisive female economist guests on their show, they'd be derelict in their duty to shareholders not to.
  • Speaking in my capacity as an insider to the profession, female economists are on average more attractive than male economists. Television appearances are partly about substance, but style matters too. Even if I were in the same intellectual league as Claudia, I'd expect that producers would still invite her over me. She's pretty. I'm not. Then again, maybe there's a bit of moral balancing going on there too. Brains and beauty could possibly alienate mediocre viewers or something. 
On hypothesis (2):
  • There is a gender imbalance in economics, but it's nowhere near as severe as it was even as recently as 50 years ago. If audiences expect economists to be male, they may react with sentiments along the lines of "who the hell does this broad think she is?" at their worst or "silly girl, business is a man's game" if they want to swap out rancor for condescension.
  • The left more or less won the culture war. The idea of Middle America being a bunch of knuckle-dragging troglodytes stuck in 50s-era gender roles is a myth with very little basis in the survey data I frequently work with. However, recall that it's less a matter of whether or not the audience is enlightened and more whether or not programming directors believe that the audience is enlightened. The correlation there might be less than 1.
On hypothesis (3):
  • On average, women tend to be less confrontational than men and may therefore display a tendency to avoid media appearances that often devolve into bowtied shouting matches.
  • Female economists may tend to value media appearances lower compared to male colleagues. If there's an ego component to being on TV and women don't get as much out of having their ego stroked, they may have a higher propensity to reject offers.
  • Attend an AEA meeting or two. Tell me that after selecting for the economics profession that tenured female economists avoid confrontation. Ditto for the ego point (NO, I WILL NOT NAME NAMES. Don't ask.)
On hypothesis (4):
  • It's at least plausible. And of the hypotheses I've offered here, the easiest to test. 
In all, I'd expect some mixture of these hypotheses to be true (and probably a dash of something-or-other I've omitted). Luckily for this question, there are indeed clear, testable hypotheses to help folks get at the underlying dynamics that could produce such a chart. Unluckily, the typical punter might be inclined to take it as prima facie evidence that there's something scurrilous afoot in economics journalism. Something not-quite euvoluntary even.

Compared to the alternative of state-mandated quotas, I'm fond of naming and shaming. However, it might be worth taking a little time to see if we point our fingers at the right targets before doing so. Assuming a conclusion is bad form in the peer-reviewed literature. It's no better form in activism.


  1. Hypothesis (6)

    Newsroom selection is length-of-tenure biased to increase credibility of the claims and, by association, the newsroom; grey hair is a perk for public speakers all else equal. Sex bias in economic reporting reflects lagged proportions of male and female economists.

    Test of Hypothesis: map male-female proportion trends over the last 50 years to recent reporting trends.

    Corollary to Hypothesis: newsrooms invite older representatives of a sympathetic economic claim and younger representatives of an antagonistic economic claim in order to manage perceived credibility of the position.

  2. I think the fact that economics is more math heavy than other social sciences means that we should expect rates of gender participation to more closely resemble the actual sciences. Compared to the actual sciences, economics seems to be doing well with women. So it's curious that you claim science is a paradise for women compared to economics, when all the actual evidence we have says the opposite. While economics has its problems, you can get more info on short term loans here.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?