The economics field has major issue with the representation of women of colour and Black women in particular. George-Ann Ryan reports on the issue and the work of the Sadie Collective and how it takes critical thinking to change the status quo


It has been a long time coming, but the economics field is finally having a grand reckoning regarding how truly inclusive they are to women and people of colour. Articles in Bloomberg, The Economist, Wall Street Journal,  and New York Times have chronicled the issues plaguing women in the field from a lack of resources for mothers or soon-to-be mothers, to blatant misconduct through discrimination, harassment, and, in some cases, assault by fellow faculty, administrators, and advisors. These issues are not just interpersonal squabbles between coworkers but a reflection of society’s disrespect toward women, especially women of colour, with repercussions far beyond the social plane.

In the 2016-2017 academic year, 1,150 doctorates in economics were conferred in the United States of which less than one-third went to women. Even more dire, only 0.6% of these doctorates went to Black women. Although there is a funnel in the pipeline from Bachelor’s Degrees in economics through to doctorates, the drop-off rate for women and people of colour is the highest, with their proportion diminishing as cohorts rise, throughout the rank of academia.

We have long attributed this discrepancy, in part, to a lack of access to resources or knowledge about them. Many in the field have pushed for curriculum change and broader outreach and recruitment strategies to increase diversity in the field. But increased numbers through diversity initiatives will not change the status quo. To have a truly positive impact on minority and women’s participation in the field, we must think critically about inclusion.

“Challenges to inclusion include not only harassment and misconduct but implicit bias about the capabilities or deservedness of women, especially minority women, in the field. This hampers recruitment and inscription at all levels, especially when it comes to decisions of academic hiring and receiving tenure”

Women and women of colour face not only financial and structural barriers to entering the field but also cultural ones. Alice Wu, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, made headlines in 2017 with her senior thesis and its analysis of the language used against women in the Job Market Rumors Forum. The most common words used in forums about female economists and economists-to-be included: hotter, lesbian, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, and prostitute. A forum page discussing her paper’s findings is even disparaging about her findings and fitness for the profession – proving her point.

Challenges to inclusion include not only harassment and misconduct but implicit bias about the capabilities or deservedness of women, especially minority women, in the field. This hampers recruitment and inscription at all levels, especially when it comes to decisions of academic hiring and receiving tenure. Representation matters and research has proven this.

With harassment and implicit bias on the basis of both race and gender, the economics profession concretises the present power structure by diminishing minority and women’s participation at later stages in the discipline and discourages individuals from even entering.  In a field that is one of the most powerful in academia with respect to power and influence, this disconnect is dangerous.

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It is not surprising that diversity in collaborators beings good results. The necessity of these results is especially important when it comes to economics and public policy. We need representation in the halls of power where decisions are made regarding our wellbeing. Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve, has stressed the “importance of having a “diverse group of policymakers who can bring different perspectives to bear”,  highlighting the role that homogeneity in perspectives played in the Great Recession of 2008-9. In the words of Jushaw Hockett: “This is a problem. The power for ensuring the country reaches full employment rests solely with people who do not share the lived experiences of those most affected by their policies. The voices of women, African-Americans, Latinos, and representatives of consumers and labour are being shut out of key discussions over our economic future”.

Fixing this problem is what drove me to be a part of The Sadie Collective. The Collective, founded by Fanta Traore and Anna Opoku-Agyeman, seeks to inspire more Black women to enter economics and related fields whilst honouring the legacy of the first African- American to receive a PhD in Economics, Dr Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander. On February 23rd, 2019 at Mathematica Policy Research offices, we produced the Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference which paid homage to the wit, intellect, and influence that was lost to Economics through the exclusion of Dr Alexander. We brought together over 100 members of the succeeding generations of black women in Economics and Public Policy to ensure that such a loss will never happen again.

“Through the Collective, we are succeeding in bringing more black women into higher levels of Economics, offering them proximity to mentors and resources, and creating a space of belonging for women so often feel excluded in their respective institutions”

Attendees heard from Dr Julianne Malveaux, a well-known Black labour economist and former president of Bennett College; Diane Herz, Chief Diversity Officer at Mathematica, and Governor Lael Brainard of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. The keynote was given by Dr Willene Johnson, who was previously appointed as the Executive Director of the African Development Bank under President Clinton and served as the Vice President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Remarks were followed by multiple panel sessions that discussed the role of allies, navigating professional spaces, and seeking opportunities beyond college graduation. Sade Ayinde and Fanta Traore also led a personal branding workshop, which many attendees requested to have as an integral part of the conference moving forward.

Through the Collective, we are succeeding in bringing more black women into higher levels of Economics, offering them proximity to mentors and resources, and creating a space of belonging for women so often feel excluded in their respective institutions. Spaces like these are crucial but we need individuals to fill them.


George-Ann Ryan is a Masters of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs majoring in in Economic and Political Development with a focus on Advanced Economic Analysis. She is also Chief Financial Officer at The Sadie Collective.

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