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Opinion | ‘It Was a Mistake for Me to Choose This Field’

Economics is neither a welcoming nor a supportive profession for women. In 2017, Alice H. Wu, now a doctoral student in economics at Harvard, published an eye-opening study of online conversations among economists that provided convincing evidence that overt sexism was a serious problem in the field. Last year the economist Roland G. Fryer Jr., a star of the Harvard department, faced sexual misconduct allegations, prompting calls to condemn the widespread sexual harassment and discrimination in the profession. (In July, Harvard suspended Professor Fryer for two years.)
But if economics is hostile to women, it is especially antagonistic to black women. Black women account for 6.8 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the social sciences. But in 2017, only 0.6 percent of doctoral degrees in economics and only 2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics were awarded to black women.
Sadie T.M. Alexander, who in 1921 became the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in economics, switched to law because of the racism and sexism she encountered. A century later the experience of black female economists is disturbingly similar.
This month the American Economic Association published a survey finding that black women, compared to all other groups, had to take the most measures to avoid possible harassment, discrimination and unfair or disrespectful treatment. Sixty-two percent of black women reported experiencing racial or gender discrimination or both, compared to 50 percent of white women, 44 percent of Asian women and 58 percent of Latinas. Twenty-nine percent and 38 percent of black women reported experiencing discrimination in promotion and pay, respectively, compared to 26 percent and 36 percent for whites, 28 percent and 36 percent for Asians and 32 percent and 40 percent for Latinas.


“I would not recommend my own (black) child to go into this field,” said one of the black female respondents. “It was a mistake for me to choose this field. Had I known that it would be so toxic, I would not have.”
Many black women who might want to study economics are effectively prevented from doing so at a young age. Research by the economist Dania V. Francis provides evidence that, all else being equal, black girls are disproportionately recommended less by teachers for Advanced Placement calculus (a gateway course for taking economics), STEM classes and college preparation in general.
Black women who do become economists face discrimination when it comes to publication citations, which play a critical role in recognition and promotion in the profession. “There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that underrepresented minorities and women are under-cited,” another respondent to the American Economic Association survey noted, “and that publication lags are longer for them.”
Change in the profession will require addressing the lack of information black women are given about the field and the profession’s climate. Fortunately, several efforts to do to this are already underway, including by various committees of the American Economic Association and the newly formed Sadie Collective, which one of us (Ms. Opoku-Agyeman) co-founded.
A small practical step that the American Economic Association and individual economics departments could take is to find alternatives to student evaluations of teachers. A large and growing literature finds evidence of the ineffectiveness of student evaluations in assessing instruction as well as evidence of gender and racial bias. “As a black and female lecturer,” another respondent to the survey said, “I believe my student/course evaluations would be higher if I were white and/or male. The majority of my students are white” and some still “have a problem in seeing a black woman as an expert/authority figure.”


Last year, Janet Yellen, the former head of the Federal Reserve Board, argued that a lack of diversity among economists was a liability for the profession because it could lead to a myopic sense of the most pressing problems and the most relevant solutions. “Women and men have significantly different approaches and views on public policy issues,” she said, “which means that women’s voices and those of minorities need to be heard.”
The American Economic Association’s survey is cause for optimism, since it takes the first step of acknowledging the problem for black women in the profession. Now senior economists and institutions employing economists must meaningfully tackle it.
Lisa D. Cook is an associate professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University. Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman is a research scholar in economics at Harvard University and the chief executive and co-founder of the Sadie Collective, a group that supports greater representation of black women in economics and related fields.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.
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