Finance: Research, Policy and Anecdotes

MeToo has arrived in economics academia

This is a topic I don’t enjoy writing about at all, actually I rather hate it.  But ignoring it is not an option!


Outsiders (or economists not on social media) might have missed the storm last week, triggered (as far as I can see) by a female behavioural economist in Germany raising serious accusations of sexual abuse against a more senior male economist. Not knowing any of the three people involved, I will certainly refrain from commenting on this case. However, it became quickly clear that this had hit a raw nerve, with more female academic economists coming out with ‘j’accuse’ against specific male economists. It quickly developed into a storm and has triggered an important debate.


First of all, I am disgusted by the idea that senior academic economists abuse their position for sexual favours. Having been approached by young economists of both genders for advice and offering of research assistance to get a head-start in the profession, my stomach turns thinking that other economists might abuse such situations. And no degree of academic excellence should serve as shield for such people. This is not only about creating an inclusive community, it is about basic decency!


I have mixed feelings on the social media campaign accusing specific individuals of misbehaviour: bad or even criminal behaviour should be addressed through either administrative or legal channels!  BUT: I understand the frustration of many victims who have seen perpetrators walk away free.  There are clearly senior members of our profession who have abused their position and have gotten away for far too long. Calling them out publicly as last resort, everything else having failed, can be justified. And this is also on the background that there is clearly a limitation of what any system to judge and penalise sexual harassment can achieve: too often, there are “he says, she says” situations, reference to different cultures, misunderstandings etc. Yes, there are clear-cut cases, but there are also many cases that non-observing outsiders might perceive as borderline (even though they are not!).  As pointed out here, the problem of publicly accusing people is that it might make male economists more reluctant to work with female economists. And unfortunately, there is the risk that innocent bystanders are pulled into this, simply by being co-authors or friends of perpetrators (which also happened this weekend). So, having missed the chance to address the problems in due time has resulted in a very bad situation!


If we cannot completely rely on administrative procedures against sexual harassment, where does this leave us?  As pointed out by some economists (of both genders), we have to start on a much more basic level, long before it ever comes to such mis-behaviour.  Most of these challenges are for us male economists, though some also for our female colleagues (I am arguing purely in terms of heterosexual people for simplicity, but this also extends to gay and lesbian economists): First, call out bad behaviour when you see it (I have done so in a ‘borderline case’ though have never been in a really serious situation).  Second, no locker room talk among academic economists (if you really urge to have such conversations, get a separate group of friends). Third, young economists should be explicitly encouraged to speak out, both privately if they perceive certain words or behaviour as crossing a line, and publicly if it clearly has gone too far. I sincerely hope that I will be told clearly if my behaviour has crossed a line even though I have no intention of doing so. These are some initial thoughts; there is certainly much more to say and to do and I hope that the social media storm of the past weeks will lead to a serious conversation and continuous improvements.


Finally, I saw one tweet this weekend which encouraged victims of sexual harassment to ask editors to not send a submitted paper to this specific person as reviewer.  Being an editor, I fully concur with this!  If you feel that there is a person that should be ineligible as a reviewer for your paper for such (or other) reasons, say so!


In a nutshell, there will always be bad apples – calling them to order early on or forcefully going against them is important.  As important is the overall work environment.  We will not change the world overnight, but we can (and have to) take small steps. Let’s hope we can channel the justified anger into a better work environment, for everyone's benefit!