‘We’re Done Waiting’: In Economics, Frustrations Over Harassment Take an Explicit Turn Online

Disillusioned with formal reporting channels, some women are taking to Twitter with accusations of sexual harassment against senior economists in their field. Supporters say explicitly airing names previously confined to informal whisper networks — a tactic reminiscent of the crest of the #MeToo movement in 2017 — is a needed corrective to inaction, while others worry that Twitter is far from the best medium to litigate these claims.

The saga started when accusations against two high-profile male economists appeared on social media last week. Jennifer Doleac, an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University who studies crime and discrimination, named the scholars on Twitter, where she has over 50,000 followers, after receiving emails and direct messages about the accusations.

“I’m involved in these kinds of conversations,” she told The Chronicle. “And so I felt I should say something about how this is troubling, mostly because we have no way as a profession of handling these allegations.”

Her initial post circulated widely among economists on Twitter, prompting a flood of responses — many detailing their own experiences with harassment and applauding the public airing, and others expressing concern about the manner in which the accused were named.

Doleac said she has received dozens of accusations in her inbox against several economists over the past week. She has since tweeted the names of three other economists against whom she says she received allegations. Doleac has encouraged victims to reach out to her with their accusations.

Our formal institutions have been promising change and failing to deliver.

The development comes three years after what many saw as a breakthrough moment for a discipline that has long struggled with gender diversity. Revelations about discrimination reached a fever pitch when female economists called for stronger action by the American Economic Association in 2019 — two years after a report on gender stereotyping in economics by Alice H. Wu, then a student at the University of California at Berkeley, prompted professionwide conversations about latent misogyny in the field.

The response was robust. Prominent male scholars acknowledged harassment in the field. The AEA conducted a survey that found striking evidence of gender and racial discrimination, and then announced measures to prevent harassment and create a reporting mechanism. The organization established an anti-harassment code, appointed an ombudsperson, and introduced the possibility of professional consequences for members who violate the code.

Doleac, who was among the women calling on the association to take action in 2019, said these measures felt like a major turning point at the time. But she’s since become disillusioned with the association’s investigative process — and doesn’t trust university Title IX offices to hold harassers accountable either. The AEA has acknowledged the limits of its investigative ability as a professional organization.

“What is happening right now is a result of simmering frustration and anger that has been building for a few years as our formal institutions have been promising change and failing to deliver,” said Doleac, who said she was involved in an AEA investigation of one of the scholars she named publicly, as a supporter of the complainant. “We’re done waiting for or counting on our institutions to protect us.”

Justin Wolfers, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who has written about gender issues in the field for The New York Times, said the conversation unfolding now looks different from the one that was happening a few years ago. At that time, he said, the rage was directed at the field in a broad sense, and didn’t have a focus on sexual misconduct or involve publicly naming alleged harassers. “I think this current moment is, in a very literal sense, the MeToo moment.”

Wolfers said there has been little formal institutional response, but the public conversation is leading parts of the economics community to pay much closer attention to the issue. “There’s a sense of waiting for the next shoe to drop,” he said.

Doleac said she’s looking to the AEA for action. “What I’m waiting for is acknowledgment that the current system is not just insufficient, but it is backfiring, and a public commitment to changing that and figuring something else out,” she said. “I love the toolkit economics gives us. I believe there are solutions to this, and I’m hopeful that all of this will also lead to my colleagues’ taking this more seriously as an academic and research question — how do we build better institutions?”

A media contact for the AEA did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment.

The Economic Science Association, a professional organization for experimental economists, released a statement in response to the accusations on Monday, condemning “scientific and personal misconduct” and encouraging those with information about such behavior to report it to the organization.

The group also said it will be announcing a project to encourage research on misconduct in professional settings and mechanisms to prevent bad behavior.

While I think we should certainly report and investigate and do our best to limit the power of bad actors, I don’t think we should be doing it on Twitter.

Catherine Eckel, the association’s ethics officer, said the group can keep reports confidential and give accusers advice about how to proceed. But as a professional organization, it has no legal power. “All we can really do is kick somebody out of our club,” she said. And that’s for the executive committee to decide. Eckel said her organization encourages people to report to the AEA, where the consequences for the accused may have more professional weight. “Being banned from that is a big deal,” she said.

Eckel said she has seen firsthand how risky it can be for a woman’s career to report sexual harassment to a university — and how often efforts to formally report misconduct are unsuccessful, often because accused scholars find jobs at different universities to prevent their cases from going forward.

“We’ve felt really frustrated for a long time that there’s nothing we can do,” Eckel said. “Many of us know who the very few bad guys are. But to have to have this kind of thing limited to a whisper network is just extremely frustrating.”

Still, she says, if she could remove the past week’s accusations from Twitter, she would. “While I think we should certainly report and investigate and do our best to limit the power of bad actors, I don’t think we should be doing it on Twitter,” she said. “I think it’s unnecessarily traumatic for a lot of people.”

Doleac said she would prefer to have reliable processes for litigating these kinds of accusations: “I think that would be better for everyone involved.” Bringing allegations to social media, or to the press, she said, are last resorts. “I feel like we’ve been pushed into a corner where our institutions are clearly not able to keep women safe in the academy, and so we feel like this is our only option for getting some accountability — particularly for the worst offenders.”

Wolfers acknowledged that questions like these are not easy, and that there is a growing sense that formal institutions have failed to protect women against sexual harassment. “No one thinks it’s a good solution, but it may be the least worst solution,” he said.

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