Kate Bahn

PhD in Economics at LadyEconomist.com

Why I Became a Lady Economist

Full full 11012013 ladyecon

As I near the end of my economics Ph.D., I’ve been reflecting on my field and how I wound up here. Sometimes I see someone in another discipline and wonder, “Would that field have been easier for me?” Of course, part of being in the late stages of writing a dissertation is coming to hate what you’re doing, so the thought of doing something--anything--far removed from economics seems particularly attractive in moments of struggle. I like reading fiction. Should I have studied English? I love watching Cosmos, and Neil deGrasse Tyson seems like a really content guy, so maybe I should have been an astrophysicist?

I think I was drawn to the social sciences out of a commitment to social justice. But, admittedly, economics sometimes seems very challenging and very dull (they don’t call it the “dismal science” for nothing). And at those times I wonder where my attraction and commitment to the field comes from. What led me to this economan’s world, when so many of my sister academics just said no? Was it my personality, a natural aptitude, pressure from my parents, or some combination of all of the above? Was it pure stubbornness on my part (if men can do it, then so can I)?

I probably should have been a sociologist, but I wanted to be taken more seriously than that. I’m kidding, of course. But there is a weight, a certain gravitas, that comes with studying something as serious, scientific, quantitative, and, let’s face it, masculine as economics. (Cue the charts and men in gray suits.)

Studying economics makes me feel tough. (Well, at least tough for an academic.) Few people question whether my seeking a Ph.D. in economics is a good investment. How many English and art-history Ph.D. candidates can say the same thing? (On the other hand, a lot of people confound economics with finance and overestimate my potential future earnings.)

The downside of my chosen discipline is that I occasionally bear the brunt of being the odd woman out. Once at a conference in my field, I went to a panel on sports economics because I was interested in their economic modeling methods. You can probably guess that I was the only woman in the room, and I ended up feeling too uncomfortable to ask further questions about the models before the panelists ran off to a Yankees game together (seriously, they did). The majority of economists, especially at the upper echelons of the field, are men. And too many people continue to associate quantitative work with masculinity or maleness (it wasn’t so long ago that Larry Summers said women weren’t as good at math as men). We all know that’s a gender stereotype, but, unfortunately, a lot of people (men and women) still hold such sexist views.

Take this recent piece by Mary Kenny in The Telegraph, in which she argues that women don’t like studying science because they prefer soft fields, those with narratives and humanity. Or Princeton Mom Susan Patton’s latest drivel about how women should shape their lives in order to attract a man to care for them, which is rightly lambasted in this Huffington Post piece. Frankly, it’s enough to make me feel like I’ve time-traveled back to 1981 when economist Gary Becker’s “A Treatise on the Family” described women who specialize in fields dominated by men as “deviant.”

It’s less acceptable these days to say such things out loud, and there are bloggers like Tauriq Moosa who call b.s. on that sort of nonsense.

Still, it’s hard to overcome the unconscious tendency to link seemingly gender-neutral things, like fields of study, with gender. Gender schema theory, for example, shows that many people associate words like “hard,” “strong,” “rigorous,” and “serious” with men, and words like “easy,” “flexible,” “caring,” and “warm” with women. (A lot of people also tend to view male-gendered things as better.) Likewise, fields such as economics, engineering, math, and physics are often considered masculine, while fields like nursing, art, sociology, and elementary education are often seen as feminine.

Given all of that, I sometimes wonder to what extent my desire to be taken seriously, like one of the boys, played into my decision to become an economist over, say, a sociologist. Surely, it wasn’t the only reason, but perhaps it pushed me over the edge. The fact that my mother is a scientist who bucked traditional gender norms probably had something to do with it, too. (But she also has her Ph.D. in biology and works in public health. Both fields tend to have more women than other scientific disciplines like physics.)

I certainly can’t deny that I’ve found it satisfying to master a field that’s considered a boy’s club. Call it the lure of the forbidden. As I type, with my freshly pink manicured nails clacking on the keyboard, I feel like the Elle Woods of economics, perhaps surprising my male colleagues when they realize I can do anything they can in this macho field of ours. (For those who missed the movie, Legally Blonde, it’s a feminist tale for our times in which a shallow valley girl-type character follows her boyfriend to law school, only to find she has an aptitude for the practice and doesn’t care about the boy so much.)

Do other fields perceived as masculine also attract a certain type of woman, like me, who is drawn to the power and seriousness connoted with masculinity? And what does it say about me, as a staunch feminist, if I’m relying on masculinity to convey my worth?

I don’t know. I do know that, in practice, there are positive things about “masculine” fields that a person of any gender should embrace (even gender studies departments should teach statistics) just as there are positive things about “feminine” fields that need to be valued (economists would benefit from a better understanding of feminist theory).

I also know that until there are more female role models in so-called masculine fields like mine, few women will choose to go into them. (So thank you, Fed Chair Janet Yellen and Council of Economic Advisers member Betsey Stevenson for taking a giant step forward for lady economists.)

Finally, I know that, as hard as it is to break into a male-dominated field, the bigger challenge is often staying there. So here are a couple of tips that have helped me:

Learn to be assertive. Men and women really do tend to have different communication styles: Many women are socialized to be listeners while men often interrupt each other, so it’s important for women to learn to speak up. If you’re not vocal during class, in meetings, or at conferences, you won’t be heard. And don’t apologize too much. Saying “I’m sorry” repeatedly during an intellectual debate may make you seem insecure and less well-studied or less prepared than a man who apologizes less. I also learned this handy trick from another female economist: Lower the tone of your voice when lecturing, so you’ll be taken more seriously.

Tone down the girliness. While I’ve always been somewhat assertive, I learned to downplay my femininity in academic environments (trading dresses from the 1960s for dark pantsuits, except when I attend meetings of the International Association for Feminist Economics, where an overwhelming majority of the attendees are female). It’s a shame, perhaps, that in many male-dominated fields, women must navigate masculine social norms, but being “one of the guys” really can help take the focus off of your gender. I think Mad Men’s Peggy Olson may have been onto something when she started drinking straight whisky in the daytime with her male colleagues and distancing herself from the secretarial pool. And why do you think women in finance take up golf? One last tip: Repeatedly touching your hair can be distracting so if you have long hair, tie it back when you’re lecturing or giving a talk.

The ultimate goal is to make fields like economics less gendered. I do feel guilty now and then about trying to fit in instead of burning my bra and denouncing the status quo in my discipline. It’s the age-old feminist question about whether or not to play the game in a man’s world.

But it’s tough to change a field’s traditional cultural bias when you’re on the outside looking in. I didn’t agree with all of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, but one insight of hers that I can support is the importance of getting more women in the door, even if it’s by having them act more like guys. So for the time being, I’ll play along and bide my time until my sister economists and I can stand up and be counted in greater numbers.

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