Background: 

I am an Associate Professor of Economics at The University of Western Ontario. I have taught here for over twenty years. I am perceived by many of my students as being an apologist for the market. Hence they were surprised when, on November 5, I published a slightly edited-down version of the following attack on apparent sex discrimination in the hiring of economists at this university. This department has approximately 40 - 45 full-time equivalent faculty members and usually hires between two and five people each year.

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SEX DISCRIMINATION IN THE UWO ECONOMICS DEPARTMENT?

To the best of my knowledge, the UWO economics department has hired only one woman on a tenure track appointment in the past 21 years. There are presently no tenure-track or tenured women in the department.

Meanwhile, throughout the economics profession in North America, the percentage of new PhDs awarded to women rose from about 10% in 1974 to nearly 25% in 1989 [American Economic Review, May, 1991, 410]. During this same period, the percentage of women employed as assistant professors of economics at top-ranked universities increased from 7% to 16%, and it rose from 10% to 20% in lower-ranked universities. At Western the percentage was zero in 1974 and is zero again in 1991.

Our hirings have been so out of line with the changes throughout the economics profession that the question of sex discrimination is unavoidable. I asked some colleagues in the department why we have hired so few women. Here are their responses:

1. "We have tried to hire women. We interview a much larger percentage of women applicants than men. There aren't many, though, and most of them have not been good enough for us."

The evidence supports at least part of this explanation: during the past two years, we have indeed interviewed a larger fraction of the women applicants. Data for earlier years are not available. But this explanation is called into question by the large percentage of women hired at other universities. Other schools of all ranks have found women applicants who are good enough for them; it is surprising that our department has not, especially since nearly a quarter of all new Ph.D.s in economics are women. And even if there is a dearth of Canadian women economists, the UWO economics department has long hired non-Canadians as well as Canadians; in 1991, more than half of our job offers went to non-Canadians.

2."We have made job offers to women, but they turn us down."

The evidence for this response simply does not exist. Information provided by the current and previous chairs shows that no tenured or tenure-track offers were made to women in the period 1985 to 1991; and data are not available for the years before 1985. Meanwhile, seven job offers were made to men in 1991 alone; and in 1990, four men were hired.

If this explanation is correct, however, one wonders why women turned us down in the years before we stopped offering them jobs.

a."We are outbid by U.S. schools who are forced, under affirmative action, to hire women."

By itself this argument does not explain why other Canadian universities have hired women economists but we have not.

b."Because schools in the U.S. act as if they must hire women, the very best schools dip down so far into the pool of female applicants that they hire all those who would be qualified to work at UWO. Thus we can't get the ones we want, and we don't want the ones we can get."

This argument seems implausible, though, since if it were true for all schools, it would mean that the lower ranked schools would be unable to hire any women when in fact they have hired more women than the top-ranked schools. This argument also implies that on average the women at any institution are identifiably of lower quality than the men there. Perhaps Professor Rushton would like to test this hypothesis, but I have seen no evidence of its validity. It also implies that since 25% of the new PhDs are women and only 16% of the assistant professors at top schools are women (and allegedly inferior to the men there), women PhDs in economics must typically be much worse economists than men. I find it difficult to accept this implication with no evidence to support it.

 

c. "It is uncomfortable for women to be here."

So long as the economists here propound complex and implausible explanations for our not having offered jobs to women in the past, their doing so will provide an indication that women might be less than welcome. As one colleague put it, "Women are too smart to come here — they know better than to walk into a place like this."

 

3." We would like to make job offers to women, but we know the good ones will reject our offers in favour of better-paying jobs at higher-ranking schools; and so we go after others (men) we think we have a better chance of hiring."

This argument is questionable, given our history of actually hiring only a small percentage of the men to whom we make offers. None of the seven men to whom we made offers in 1991 accepted a job at Western; as usual, we consoled ourselves by noting that they took alternative offers from more highly ranked institutions. Yet this argument says we are not willing to make similar gambles, offering jobs to women who might not accept them. Since we have always been willing to make men job offers that might not be accepted, it is surprising that we appear to follow different hiring strategies for women.

To be fair to some of my colleagues, in the recent past we have interviewed a larger percentage of the women applicants than men. Furthermore, we have invited a larger percentage of the women applicants for on-campus follow-up interviews (though the numbers are too small to enable any conclusions).

But the fact remains that we still have no women here on tenure or tenure-track contracts; and unless we hire some (not just one) women soon, we may face serious legal and administrative constraints on our future hirings.

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Comments:

Until I started working on that piece, I had pretty much been a luke-warm supporter of affirmative action, believing that we should try to hire the best candidates, but cet. par. it might be a good idea to hire some women. The numbers in that piece convinced me that affirmative action is probably not strong enough here. If our department has shown a proclivity for discrimination against women in its hiring (as it seems to have done), then I suspect the only reasonable remedy is to require reverse discrimination for some of the next few offers/slots. I'm still willing to be convinced either way, though.

The responses to my editorial suggesting that the hiring behaviour of the UWO economics department is consistent with sex discrimination have been interesting, ranging from standard and expected to puzzling and insulting.

One response was, "I do not disagree with your concerns..." That is pretty lukewarm support for unbiased hiring. This same person went on to assert that my point number 3 [that some colleagues' responded we don't bother making job offers to women because we know they won't accept them] seemed "like a sheer fabrication" to him. I don't know whether he was calling me a liar or whether he was arguing that this rationalization was a fabrication.

Another response was, "Do you have any friends left in the department?" The more I have thought about this question, the more I think it reflects a defensive tone that may well characterize the attitude of many of my colleagues. The implication is, "You did something that was correct and in support of the laws of the land, but it is really going to upset those whose behaviour appears to have been discriminatory." I.e., don't cross the people who may have committed some impropriety, regardless of the issue and regardless of whether you are correct. This type of response [fear?] is behind the major historical reason for tenure: academic freedom.

Yet another colleague wanted to know why I hadn't brought up the issue in the department rather than publicly. The fact is that I have been talking about the hiring practices of the department informally with colleagues for many years. In fact, it was the bogus explanations that I had been offered in my informal discussions that prompted me to write the editorial. In August, I sent a copy of the editorial to the department chair and others. I requested that it be brought to the attention of our appointments committee. No one, other than the chair, even acknowledged my concerns.

This same person asked why I wanted to hurt the department. I explained to him that I thought the only way to get the department to head off even more serious constraints on our future hirings would be for us to make some offers to women soon. This point was exactly the one I made in the last paragraph of the editorial.

One person said that sure, other Canadian schools had women, and then proceeded to name several that he thought were not really quite good enough for here. The fallacy of this argument is that most of us can name several men here at UWO that we think are also not really quite good enough for here. Some new employees work out, some don't. Each of us would name different people, probably, but the point is that in every department half the people fall below the median; aside from limited-term appointments, we haven't even taken a chance in the past seven years, and we've done so only once in the past twenty-one years.

Another person carefully explained to me that by the time academics are established with tenure and reputation, they are often 35 years old or more, which is a bit late for a woman to begin a family. He then argued that, realizing this and believing they cannot afford to risk their careers by taking time out earlier, many women decide at a younger age to devote their lives to things other than academics, and consequently they don't perform as well as men in graduate school. He had no response to the contrary evidence that even in the top economics departments 15% of all new assistant professors have been women in recent years.

And speaking of evidence, one of my colleagues even went so far as to question my scholarly integrity by asking (smiling the whole time, mind you) whether the data in my editorial were ad hoc or the results of casual empiricism. I replied that the data are from the office of the chair and from the American Economic Association's most recent report on the status of women in the economics profession. [American Economic Review, May 1991, p. 410]

Perhaps one of the most ingenious responses to my editorial was that there are virtually no women graduate students who go into the areas of mathematical game theory, that even though 25% of the economics PhDs in North America go to women, they aren't in the areas of economics that UWO consistently tries to hire.

This last argument may be correct; I don't know if the data would support it. But if correct, it suggests that the UWO economics department is right in step with the rest of the profession, doing the wrong thing. Recent studies published in the Journal of Economic Literature [September 1991] strongly argue that the profession is placing too much emphasis on mindless machinations and not doing a good enough job researching and teaching about institutions and public policy. If this last argument is correct, not only does UWO need to consider hiring more women, but the lack of job offers to women implies that it must also reconsider the areas of economics in which it hires in the future.

But the main point of this piece should be this: only one person here at UWO said that the piece was long overdue and that this department needs to change its hiring strategies, "The people here are pretty Neanderthal about a lot of things." Virtually all of the remaining responses were very defensive. Defensiveness by itself should not pose a problem. Free academic exchange should also pose no problem. But ad hominems and irrelevancies in that defensiveness suggest that there is a problem here.

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On November 12th, The student Gazette published a letter from Professor Glenn MacDonald [a full professor in economics at UWO who has recently accepted a position at Rochester; he has published quite a bit and has been on the editorial boards of several journals]. He says:

 

John Palmer's column gives a highly inaccurate impression of the Department of Economics. He has had little recent involvement in hiring and simply does not know what he is talking about. The few facts he mentions are well-known and correct, but many salient facts are left out.

Our success in persuading female candidates to visit Western, or to accept jobs when offered, has been terrible. This can be seen as evidence of hostility towards females, but a much more compelling explanation -- consistent with much time on the hiring committee -- is that women can do better by going elsewhere.

Well-qualified women have declined invitations to visit Western because they already had an offer from a stronger department. When we have persuaded a strong female candidate to visit, either we have been outbid, or concluded that the condidate was not strong enough to pursue.

What should the university do? Economists and students will resist lowering standards. Among the reasons is that it would result in the typical woman being a comparatively weak scholar, which hardly seems desirable from a role model perspective.

Offering comparable women superior terms will also be resisted since economists do not think of gender as important for job performance, and will see paying extra for personal characteristics that do not enhance job performance as wasteful.

A better option is for the university to provide the Department of Economics with extra funds to compensate female economists. ...

...

Personally, I would prefer that there were more women in the department purely because I enjoy interaction with a variety of people. However, I do not expect the university to devote resources to satisfying my preference for diversity any more than I expect it to paint my office if I dislike its color.

...

My response:

Professor Glenn MacDonald's defence of past hiring practices in the UWO economics department is an intriguing caricature of attitudes expressed by several of my colleagues during the past few years. It is pathetic, and it is wrong.

He asserts: "When we have persuaded a strong female candidate to visit, either we have been outbid, or concluded that the candidate was not strong enough to pursue." Information provided by both the current and the former chair indicates that Professor MacDonald is incorrect: during the past seven years we have never been outbid for a female candidate. In fact we have not made a tenure-track job offer to a female candidate in the past seven years. It is difficult to be outbid if we haven't made any offers!

After making the factually inaccurate statement about our having been outbid, Professor MacDonald suggests gratuitously that we will have to either lower our standards to hire women or pay them differentially more. How does he know we would have to pay more to attract highly qualified women to our department? We haven't even tried! And yet we frequently make offers to males for whom we are outbid. As I noted in my original editorial, we made seven offers to males in 1990-91, and not one of them was accepted. It is very surprising that our department has chosen not to take a chance on at least some of the females for whom Professor MacDonald alleges we were outbid.

Like Professor MacDonald, I would like the UWO economics department to hire the very best people possible. My concern is that our past hiring practices indicate we have not hired, or even attempted to hire, some women who have been found by other top-ranked departments to be good enough for them.

If, in fact, we had made job offers to some of the best women on the market in the economics profession during the past seven years, my original column would not have even been thought of, much less written. We have shown time and again, though, that we are willing to offer jobs to new PhD males and then congratulate ourselves for our good taste when they decide to go to Princeton or MIT or Stanford, etc. Our not having shown a similar willingness toward new PhD females smacks of sex discrimination. It also means we may not be hiring the best people available.

John P. Palmer

Associate Professor of Economics

 

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