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Philadelphia Story (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 8th, 2014

I’m on the way back from bitterly cold Philadelphia at the moment after attending the meetings of the American Economic Association (and a bunch of related societies). I was at a very interesting session on long-run discounting, which had a panel of six with (as is common) one woman[^1]. Looking around the room, I realised that the panel was actually balanced (inside econometric joke) when compared with the audience, which was about 90 per cent male.

I don’t think that the academic economics profession is quite as male-dominated as that. Some casual discussions suggested a couple of hypotheses:

(i) There were some parallel sessions on gender issues for which the audience was mostly female (not surprising, but kind of ambivalent)

(ii) Men were more likely to attend the sessions while female colleagues were more likely to be on the hiring teams. For those unfamiliar with this exercise, a large part of academic conferences consists of academics sitting in hotel rooms for days on end while a string of recent PhDs give a 15 minute pitch on a piece of research (their ‘job market paper’) followed by a ritual Q&A (a plausible but depressing story)

I get the impression that academic philosophy is even worse than economics, but that most other disciplines are better. Any thoughts?

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  1. Hermit
    January 8th, 2014 at 06:23 | #1

    I have a thought on discounting; don’t do it for the first 20 years then ignore everything after that. In symbolic terms the weight is (1+r)^-t but r=0 for t=1,2…20 so the discount weight factor is 1. Then r is infinite for t=21,22.. so the weight is 0. The reason is we can barely think one year ahead maybe 20 at a stretch if we have to. Beyond that is blank.

    Applied to climate mitigation I think 20 years is more than enough time to seek results. Remember oil production will be greatly reduced in that period forcing us to decarbonise even if climate change weren’t an issue. Hope that’s sort of on topic.

  2. January 8th, 2014 at 08:11 | #2

    Academic philosophy is pretty much a zombie profession. It’s actually humorous to read how bad the papers are. Every few months I just grab a dozen or two and read through them.

    And the consequences speak for themselves: the funding for philosophy departments, and administration’s tendency to group them in with religion has led to the progressive decline of departments.

    Conversely, economics and psychology together have pretty much taken over the social sciences. And when the analytical movement made the choice to try to make philosophy into a science it was a pretty sizable bet that failed.

    It’s not that the study of philosophy has no value, it’s that except for very notable exceptions (Dennett) where philosophers are trying to integrate ethics and the product of scientific investigation, it’s pretty barren – like the study of medieval and ancient literature.

    And given what I’ve learned from my own work, I’d argue that we can, within at most two generations, solve the problem of the logic of the social sciences. And when we do, I suspect that philosophy will, in practice, look not very much different from the scientific method, with each of the logical systems we have developed: language, logic, math, physics, and economics (cooperation), merely specializations for isolating one property of the universe or another, so that we are capable of reducing it to analogy to experience and therefore understanding it.

  3. Mel
    January 8th, 2014 at 12:05 | #3

    55% of uni students are now female in most countries and that percentage may still be increasing. Once male dominated fields like vet science and medicine now have a higher percentage of female undegrads. I bet the numbers will even up in economics as well over the course of this decade.

    I suspect males will probably continue to outperform females in career progression, participation at out of town conferences and pay partly because of sexism but mostly because females will always value family, work-life balance and job satisfaction (as opposed to pay) more than males.

    ps. As many lefties are now scrambling back into the GMO is bad camp thanks to Judy Carman’s pig study and Seralini’s rat study, I’d like to hear your opinion on this issue. I know you’ve posted on this subject in the past but I’m wondering if you’ve modified your view.

  4. Mel
    January 8th, 2014 at 12:06 | #4

    oops- I meant:

    55% of uni students are now female in most western countries …

  5. may
    January 8th, 2014 at 12:21 | #5

    psychology has taken over the social sciences?

    correct me if i am wrong but isn’t the prevailing view of psychology that high intelligence depends on the ability to be a convincing liar?

    and if so,maybe that’s why the word “zombie” has been floating around so much lately.

  6. January 8th, 2014 at 17:49 | #6

    I work in the physics department of a university. We still have an appallingly low female participation rate, amongst both students and staff. When I did my honours year in physics (1978), the 9 male students all came from lower middle class backgrounds, while the 2 female students came from very affluent families.

    Meanwhile, I often find myself in Fremantle on Friday morning, having coffee at a coffee shop in the Notre Dame university precinct. And it (Notre Dame) is awash with female students.

  7. Neil
    January 8th, 2014 at 20:45 | #7

    @Curt Doolittle – The Propertarian Institute
    Out of interest, what philosophy papers have you read in the past year that led you to this conclusion. It’s a big discipline: not hard to find crap and easy to find worthy but dull stuff. But there is also lots of great stuff.

  8. NathanA
    January 8th, 2014 at 21:05 | #8

    When I did my PhD, 10 years ago, molecular biology and neurosciences were dominated at the group leader by males, 50/50 at postdoc level and higher females at PhD level. One of the problems with biology is that people peak a bit older, so having a family can break the careers of women who take a bit longer to get on the academic career path. Once you’re on the career path it’s a lot better, your academic record is treated relative to opportunity. So women like me, slow to achieve their potential, aren’t well treated.

    Also, pretty much any department or research group I’ve worked with has people from diverse international backgrounds, not all that have the same ratio of females to males that Australia (and others) has.

  9. Megan
    January 9th, 2014 at 00:17 | #9

    This will sound trite, but it is intended as a serious point:

    100% of mothers are female.

  10. Ikonoclast
    January 9th, 2014 at 00:36 | #10

    This may be off-topic. I’ll see Philadelphia temperature-wise and raise you Jasper and Whitehorse , Canada; already seen -35 C and -45 C with wind chill. Expect to see and feel colder soon. Not skiing BTW, I am not a skier.

    Having seen several major cities in the grip of snowstorms, ice storms etc., my one track mind is assessing, qualitatively, the extra energy it takes to run these wintry cities. Canada has plenty of oil (sort of) and intends to burn it all, that seems clear.

  11. alfred venison
    January 9th, 2014 at 06:55 | #11

    i’ve actually been to whitehorse, too, with the edmonton symphony orchestra on tour. its -35 every winter in the prairies, alberta, saskatchewan and manitoba). one year it was 33 days before the temperature moved above zero in edmonton; my dad got a “survivors” certificate from the local newspaper. the problem with these temperatures in the east is the lakes & the coast. cold moist air is a terrible thing to endure, the cold always gets in you layers of clothes with the moisture. bitterly cold at 25 below. but out west, where the climate is dry (they have to put moisturizers in their violins & guitars so they don’t crack) the cold is dry, so it doesn’t penetrate your clothes and you’re comfortable as can be in the circumstances if you wear layers; the cold stays out of your layers. i often wonder what it will be like there as the climate tanks; the rednecks reckon it’ll get warmer and everything will be fine, long moderate summers. but as we know weather will get more extreme not necessarily warmer. -a.v.

  12. January 9th, 2014 at 07:55 | #12

    Not sure what academic philosophy we are talking about.

    If it is about the meat job market, I was
    there three decades ago. The hiring people ask really dumb
    questions like “Where do you see yourself in twenty years?”
    You have the urge to say, “Not in your dump” or “Did you
    know where YOU would be? Or are you just stuck there?”

    Tapen Sinha

  13. January 9th, 2014 at 07:58 | #13

    Not sure what academic philosophy we are talking about.

    If it is about the meat job market, I was
    there three decades ago. The hiring people ask really dumb
    questions like “Where do you see yourself in twenty years?”
    You have the urge to say, “Not in your dump” or “Did you
    know where YOU would be? Or are you just stuck there?”

    Tapen Sinha

  14. Ikonoclast
    January 9th, 2014 at 08:08 | #14

    As far as my on-topic thoughts go, I am beginning to think that academia, outside the hard sciences, is lost; captured by corporatism. Our next major advances in the arts and humanities, if they come at all, will not come from universities.

  15. Donald Oats
    January 9th, 2014 at 08:12 | #15

    @Tapen Sinha
    Yeah, those sorts of questions provide virtually no useful information to the interviewer, except as a filter for those who are caught unable to contrive an answer. Not that that is a meaningful filter, yet it is used that way.

    I was once in an interview, as the candidate, when one of the two interviewers asked me “If you were offered this job, given that you also have applied for an academic scholarship to do fulltime postgraduate study, which would you choose?”

    My reply was “That depends upon the rest of the interview.” I got offered the job.

  16. conrad
    January 9th, 2014 at 11:34 | #16

    “but that most other disciplines are better”

    Psychology is certainly better in terms of the gender ratios of participants. This includes social psychology, where many of the issues they are examine are essentially identical to many of the issues economists examine (it’s certainly true of the PhD students too — I would think the majority in social psychology are female now). It would be good to look at issues which are entirely overlapped (e.g., happiness). My bet is that the gender ratios are still better. This suggests to me that economics has a bad and quite possibly deserved image problem.

  17. ArchCC
    January 9th, 2014 at 12:22 | #17

    “but that most other disciplines are better”

    In my experience, power/electrical engineering is worse, and possibly the worst of the engineering disciplines. We have one female PhD out of 15, and no female post-docs or faculty. Interestingly, although the local undergraduate student are biased heavily towards males, the international students – predominantly Chinese – are closer to 40-60 F-M.

    However, my observations of conference participants confirm that the male bias is international, in that almost all senior researchers are male and most conference participants are too. Last one I attended had about 25 women in a room of 200+, with more than half of those being students.

  18. paul walter
    January 10th, 2014 at 21:08 | #18

    It is true that a doctorate would be a cinch for me, but after reading Prof Quiggin’s post, it becomes obvious only a daft person would become an academic.

  19. Robert
    January 11th, 2014 at 00:10 | #19

    I’ve been a master’s student in academic philosophy, but I don’t have a background in economics. Philosophy’s problems seem far worse to me. That said, I do have a tentative sociological explanation for both.

    Both economics and philosophy are subjects where analytic rigour is heavily prized, but where the standards for truth are a lot murkier than in hard science. Philosophy, for example, places a lot of emphasis on validity of argumentation and formal rigour, but it is harder to work out what makes arguments sound rather than valid.

    This leads to a style of argumentation that many women find unpleasant (for sociological rather than biological reasons). From personal experience, it is sometimes heavy on brown-beating, and ego-driven rather than cooperative. Economics seems similar (see e.g. Krugman on mathematics in economics http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/11/mathematics-and-economics/?_r=0).

  20. W. Smith
    January 11th, 2014 at 14:37 | #20

    This is completely off the topic, but given Christopher Pyne’s recent talk about “left” bias in the nation school curriculum, I thought I’d raise this question: why do we never hear about right-wing bias in the economics departments of many of our universities?

  21. paul walter
    January 12th, 2014 at 18:28 | #21

    Anything left of a Tamerlane and Genghiz Khan rampage is Trot to them.

  22. January 14th, 2014 at 14:18 | #22

    @W. Smith
    That is a good point!

  23. January 14th, 2014 at 21:00 | #23

    I’ve been reproached by Mel (interestingly) on the LP thread for “overstepping the boundaries of civility and common sense” in my remarks about sexism and this blog, so I think I should at least try to respond politely to the “Any thoughts?” question posed by Prof Quiggin on this one. The trouble is though that people like me, and many others wiser and more knowledgeable than me, have been talking and writing about this stuff for years, so inevitably one gets a frustrated sense of ‘why do I have to explain this again’?

    It’s good that the questions are being asked, but as a post graduate rep in a history department, I presented on this kind of stuff to the senior members of the department back in 1995. I’m not sure what history departments look like now, having not been in one for years, but they probably are better now. But if economic departments are bad in terms of gender equality, I’m sure there would be loads of resources and precedents on how this could be addressed – it’s more about the will to address it, isn’t it?

  24. Megan
    January 14th, 2014 at 22:24 | #24

    @Val

    I was critical of the recent campaign to send female sanitary products to Scott Morrison as a form of protest against the treatment of, specifically, female refugees.

    My reasoning was that:

    (a) it would have absolutely no positive effect on actual policy and would, in fact, only fall into the service of counter-productive stereotyping and all the ‘made-for-news-ltd’ talking points that would inevitably follow; and

    (b) that it was ‘puerile’, rather than intellectually admirable or creatively inspirational – such as to have the (presumably) desired effect of gaining decent treatment for refugee women, rather than simply scoring cheap and nasty ALP-v-LNP political points.

    In my view, when ‘ALP’ & ‘LNP’ “points” are an equally interchangeable currency we have a very big problem with our democracy.

    I was attacked on ‘twitter’ for even questioning the campaign. But my concern is for the refugees – I couldn’t care less about the fate of our Ford/Holden, Coles/Woolworths, ALP/LNP political duopoly. I’d like my democracy back.

  25. January 14th, 2014 at 23:20 | #25

    @Megan
    Hi Megan
    I can’t see any connection between your comment and my comment #23, which was really about institutional sexism in university departments, but anyway it’s too hot to sleep in Melbourne so …

    Oh I just realised you might be responding to my earlier comment about LP being secretively pro ALP sometimes. But is Destroy the Joint associated with the ALP? I don’t think they are, are they?
    Anyway, I actually thought it was quite a clever campaign and might shame the LNP into doing something about that particular humiliation – beyond that I hadn’t thought really, but you could be right, I don’t really know. I agree that Destroy the Joint do some odd things – I had mixed feelings about the ‘convoy of cleavage’, I think sometimes that kind of stuff is to get media coverage but it can have adverse effects for women, feeding in to media stereotypes. On the other hand it was good they responded to whichever of the ridiculous news limited women criticised Gillard for supposedly showing too much cleavage (I mean for crying out loud).

    But returning to your point about refugees, what should we do? What can we do? I am one of those people who resigned from the ALP over that issue (at the time of the Tampa) but I just don’t know what to do now.

  26. Mel
    January 14th, 2014 at 23:36 | #26

    W Smith

    This is completely off the topic, but given Christopher Pyne’s recent talk about “left” bias in the nation school curriculum, I thought I’d raise this question: why do we never hear about right-wing bias in the economics departments of many of our universities?

    American academic economists overwhelmingly identify as Democrat, the ratio being 2.9 Democrats to every 1 Republican according to Klein and Stern (see Table 5).

    I suspect most academic economists in Oz would also identify as centrist or slightly left of centre but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.

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