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Elinor Ostrom awarded Nobel Prize for Economics

12/13/2009

by Laura Smith-Gary

[cross-posted from our favorite feminist blog Equal Writes]

This fall, Professor Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel — also known as the Nobel Prize for Economics — “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons,” becoming the first female laureate in the prize’s forty year history. She shared the prize with Professor Oliver Williamson.  Professor Ostrom, who teaches at Indiana University, is a political scientist whose research suggests that the famous “tragedy of the commons ” scenario, in which common property is ruined as each individual exploits the property trying to gain an advantage over the others, is faulty. She argues that given a chance to communicate with each other, individual players will cooperate in the stewardship of a common resource.

Because the ruin suggested by the traditional “tragedy of the commons” scenario has been assumed to be the basic state of the world, her work has important implications about the regulation and negotiations around internationally shared resources and like the atmosphere and international waters, and shared problems like climate change and pollution (for more on Professor Ostrom’s work, see Forbes and the New York Times).

Naturally, stories about Professor Ostrom have not only celebrated not only her work, they have noted her status as the first female recipient of the award. (All other Nobel prizes have had female laureates, and this year 5 out of 13 Nobel Prize recipients were women.)  However, some resented the focus on her gender. One of the first comments on the article in the Indiana Daily Student, by “Matthew,” reads, “Congratulations to Professor Ostrom! The ‘first woman to…’ thing really gets tiresome. Can’t she be congratulated in her own right, instead of immediately adopting her as a feminist slogan?” Even if we generously assume he meant “icon,” his comment reflects some important assumptions. First, Matthew believes that Professor Ostrom’s sex is irrelevant to her work and her accomplishment, and her sex is being dragged into the story by feminists desperate for a “slogan.” It is not certain from his comment, but comments like this are often made by those who believes sexism is a thing of the past, and that since there is now an even playing field mentioning sex is sensationalism and stirring up old grievances. The article, incidentally, opens with Professor Ostrom describing how she was universally discouraged from pursuing a career in economics and told innumerable times that she should teach high school or get busy having babies.

Second, he seems to think that acknowledging the fact that she’s female diminishes her accomplishment — perhaps he believes that mentioning her sex is tantamount to admitting she was given the prize for her sex instead of her intellectual achievements, or perhaps he subscribes to the idea that we should be “sex-blind”, achieving true equality by not acknowledging the existence of sex, gender, or the roles they play in our society. Third, he is ignoring the existence of context. To him, this story is only about Professor Ostrom — a story that identifies her as the first female laureate in Economics is making a statement about her and her work alone. He doesn’t seem to understand that to identify someone as the first female to achieve something is to point out something about the field, calling attention to the fact that for the past forty years, only men have won the Nobel Prize in Economics. It’s about the field of economics and about society, as well as being specifically about Professor Ostrom — the fact that a woman won the Nobel Prize for Economics this year for the first time matters.

Robin Varghese, at the filter blog 3quarksdaily, captured far more vitriolic responses to Professor Ostrom’s prize when she visited the site Economic Job Market Rumors, a site which is supposedly populated by graduate students of economics and established economists seeking jobs. While the commenters’ anger toward Ostrom there is not purely sexist — it can easily be seen as elitist as well, for instance — it is clearly motivated by her gender. (The thread Ms. Varghese captured has since disappeared, though other threads on the same topic are similarly nasty.

In the thread Ms. Varghese One person writes, to those who are complaining she hasn’t published as many papers as other economists, “why don’t you read about her contribution instead of just counting publications and talk about rankings. These are imperfect measures of impact or quality of published work.” The response to this sensible comment: “you sound like and [sic] angry woman”. Others say “ostrom – female and environmental economics, nuff said.” “this is a farce: let’s start a motion to nullify this rubbish.” “They clearly wanted a female for the 40th anniversary of the prize. They clearly wanted someone environmental. And they wanted someone to go with Oliver Williamson (who is very deserving).” My personal favorite sounds the death knell of the entire discipline while exhibiting his ignorance of history: “This is the problem with Affirmative Action: last time a woman tried to go to the moon, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after the launch. now, this is the end of Economics.” Women got their hands on some numbers, folks! Head for the hills!

I might laugh now, but these are the TAs and professors of the next generation of young economists. While internet forums are notorious for bringing out the worst in people, it would be folly to think that the things they speak in internet anonymity aren’t in their minds during their everyday interactions with the female economists with whom they come into daily contact.

It’s widely acknowledged that economics, like most math, science, and engineering disciplines, is populated by a higher percentage of men than women. This is not only evidenced by the last thirty-nine years of Nobel Prizes in Economics. For instance, by my count only 3 of Princeton’s 35 Professors of Economics are women (out of 54 faculty members in the Economics Department, 10 are women, perhaps signaling that there are a slightly higher percentage of women in the next generation of economists who are now serving as lecturers and assistant professors).

No doubt there are a variety of factors responsible for this disparity, and a number of potential explanations have been proposed. A few years ago, the then-President of Harvard and current National Economic Council to President Obama, Larry Summers, aroused fury when he suggested that biological differences could account for the lack of top female economists. This idea takes several forms, from “men have more variable intelligence than women” (so the best and worst economists will be men, with more women in the middle), to more preposterous explanations. I still remember one upperclassman explaining to me seriously over dinner one night when I was a sophomore that the reason women weren’t good at economics was because economics was predicated on the existence of a “rational” actor — and women, being hard-wired for empathy rather than logic, were incapable of truly accepting and understanding “rational” actors. (I found out later that economists in general were having a more and more difficult time accepting the existence of a truly rational actor, but that’s besides the point.)

Others who discuss the lack of women in economics acknowledge the role of sexism in society and academia — for instance, the discuss the expectation that a heterosexual woman with a very demanding job will still be responsible for more child care than her male partner, or the fact that women are trained not to demand attention from their advisers and professors. Others acknowledge sexism within the academic system, pointing out that women are steered to, and made to feel welcome in, humanities and frozen out of maths and sciences. Advisers and professors often take female students less seriously than male students, some economists  warn, and “woman’s issue” work on issues like gender pay gaps are often regarded as less important than topics studied by their male peers.  One economics professor, writing to young female economists, points out that even supposedly beneficial “affirmative action” policies can harm female PhD candidates, as universities are often eager to have women on committees to provide a “female perspective.” The women are then expected to devote large amounts of time to committee work that doesn’t provide them with much exposure but cuts into their research time.

Even in the face of the many obstacles female economists have faced and continue to struggle with, folks like Matthew, the commenters on Economic Job Market Rumors, and Larry Summers himself are unwilling to consider the role of gender in economics in any terms other than unfair-affirmative-action and maybe-women-are-just-bad-at-this. One commenter responded to a  post on the blog Economic Logic discussing the lack of female economists by writing “I like the Summers conjecture a lot.” Apparently, he thinks it is true — but his words reveal the deep emotional appeal Summers’ explanation gives. He doesn’t need to take responsibility for addressing the myriad ways sexism discourages women from pursuing serious careers in economics — women’s absence in the field is probably biological! It is difficult — probably impossible — to prove that there’s no inherent quality that makes more successful male economists than female, but the alacrity with which many people leap to that explanation demonstrates how unwilling they are to face any other possibility.

Instead of allowing this easy, simplistic viewpoint to dominate, we need to accept and actively work against a culture of sexism in economics. To begin, we should congratulate Professor Ostrom on her work and on her perseverance in a hostile field. Or, of course, we could all sit back and wait for economics to explode when they hand her her medal.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 01/03/2010 11:14 am

    Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  2. 01/03/2010 2:47 pm

    Hi, I just started reading your blog – thanks for writing. As an FYI that it’s not displaying properly on the BlackBerry Browser (I have a Tour). Anyway, I’m now on the RSS feed on my home PC, so thank you!

  3. 02/03/2011 9:32 pm

    Great article…very well thought out and interesting…thanks for sharing it!

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