In economics, harassment-related frustrations take an explicit turn online

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Disillusioned with official reporting channels, some women are taking to Twitter to accuse senior economists in their field of sexual harassment. Proponents say explicitly disseminating names previously confined to informal whispering networks – a tactic reminiscent of the crest of the #MeToo movement in 2017 – is a necessary corrective to inaction, while others worry Twitter is a long way off. be the best way to litigate these claims.

The saga began when accusations against two top male economists emerged 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 more than 50,000 followers, after receiving emails and direct messages about the charges.

“I’m involved in those kinds of conversations,” she said. The Chronicle. “And so I felt I had to say something about how troubling this is, mainly because we have no way as a profession to deal with these allegations.”

His initial message circulated widely among economists on Twitter, prompting a flood of responses – many detailing their own harassment experiences and applauding the public airing, and others expressing concern over how the defendants were named.

Doleac said it received dozens of accusations in its inbox against several economists over the past week. She has since tweeted the names of three other economists against whom she says she has received allegations. Doleac encouraged victims to tell him about their accusations.

Our formal institutions promised change and failed to deliver.

The development comes three years after what many saw as a watershed moment for a discipline that has long struggled with gender diversity. Revelations about discrimination came to a head 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 student at the University of California, Berkeley, has prompted profession-wide conversations about latent misogyny on the ground.

The response has been robust. Prominent male scholars have admitted to being harassed in the field. The AEA conducted a investigation who found stark evidence of gender and racial discrimination, then measures announced to prevent harassment and create a reporting mechanism. The organization established an anti-harassment code, appointed an ombudsman, and introduced the possibility of professional sanctions for members who violate the code.

Doleac, who was among the women who called on the association to take action in 2019, said the measures seemed like a major turning point at the time. But she has since grown disillusioned with the association’s investigative process — and also doesn’t trust the university’s Title IX offices to hold harassers accountable. The AEA has recognized the limits its investigative capacity as a professional organization.

“What’s happening right now is the result of seething frustration and anger that has been building up over the past few years as our formal institutions promise change and don’t deliver,” said Doleac, who has said he participated in an AEA investigation of one of the academics it publicly named, as supporters of the complainant. “We are done waiting or relying 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 that was happening now was different from the one that was happening a few years ago. At that time, he said, the rage was directed at the broader field and did not 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 have been few formal institutional responses, but the public conversation is causing part of the business community to pay much more attention to the issue. “It feels like you’re waiting for the next shoe to drop,” he said.

Doleac said she was counting on the AEA to take action. “What I’m looking for is recognition that the current system is not only insufficient, but backfiring, and a public commitment to change that and find something else,” he said. she declared. “I love the toolbox that the economy offers us. I believe there are solutions to this, and I hope all of this will also lead my colleagues to take this more seriously as an academic and research question – how can we build better institutions? »

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

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

The group also said it would announce a project to encourage research into malpractice and mechanisms to prevent bad behavior.

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

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

Eckel said she’s seen with her own eyes 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 fail, often because that the accused academics find jobs in different universities to prevent their case from going forward. .

“We’ve felt really frustrated for a long time that we couldn’t do anything,” Eckel said. “A lot of us know who the very few bad guys are. But having to limit this stuff to a network of whispers is just extremely frustrating.

Still, she says, if she could delete last week’s accusations from Twitter, she would. “While I think we should definitely report and investigate and do our best to limit the power of bad actors, I don’t think we should do that 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 charges: “I think that would be best for everyone involved.” Bringing allegations to social media or the press, she said, is the last resort. “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 think that’s our only option to get a some accountability, especially for the worst offenders.”

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

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