Do I have to wait for tenure?

Yesterday, I attended the ASSA panel discussion, “How Can Economics Solve Its Race Problem?” with my colleague Soala Ekine.

I was deeply impressed with the leadership by example of the panel members in being open, vulnerable, and deeply conscientious in their discussion.

Throughout the event, the panel called on tenured professors and leaders in the profession (journal editors, leaders in the various professional organizations) to take responsibility for actively questioning and changing the racist, colonialist, and elitist culture in economics.

During audience questions, I asked the panel:

I know someone who is renouncing the label of economist and calling themselves a social scientist because of the culture in the profession. Despite warning signs, many of us still want to enter the profession – in addition to the advice for how leaders can drive change, what advice do you have for those of us coming up in the profession to also be drivers of change throughout our careers?

I think a more precise version of what I was trying to ask is, How and to what extent can non-tenured professors, grad students, and even RAs contribute to cultural changes without sacrificing longterm success in the profession?

Underlying even that question is: Assuming there would be backlash to being outspoken on these issues, would it still be worth it to be very outspoken? In order to establish what you believe is right and wrong, unequivocally, and unapologetically, directly try to make those changes? Or is your overall impact on the profession greater if you use more subtle and incremental techniques to try to make changes over a longer period of time?

There’s an empirical question that needs to be answered in all of this: To what extent does activism within the profession detract from your lifetime effectiveness as a researcher? And is it worth it anyways? (I lean yes, do it anyways, but maybe there’s certain better techniques?)

I’m imagining a situation where the leadership is NOT making changes. The expectation for young researchers is deference to seniors and adaptation to the toxic culture. It can be risky to speak against norms set by the people who you are going to rely on for recommendations in order to take the next step in this career, especially for non-white, non-hetero, non-male researchers.

If all goes perfectly according to plan, I will have tenure at a fancy research university in about 13-15 years. That is a long time to wait to be “allowed” to contribute to culture changes, or to wait to act in order to avoid backlash that could injure my career.

For those of us who are sticking with economics despite the many warnings signs (bullying, racism, sexism, colonialism, mental health challenges), who love the work, who want to be part of a change in these problems with the culture in the profession, there are non-trivial tactical questions of how to be change agents without decreasing our overall impact during our careers.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time for the panel to fully address any specific advice on that front.

I guess my hypothesis is that – assuming that it would indeed be really bad to be too “controversial” or outspoken too early in your career (I’d like to think that the warnings against causing too much trouble before tenure are overblown, but it does seem like there is a strong consensus that speaking up too early will damage your career prospects, thus reducing your overall career effectiveness) – the best way for young researchers to effect change will be through peer relationships, and how they interact with those coming up behind them.

Advocating for each other (especially for peers of color or who are not men), social support and encouragement, and a more collaborative mindset overall are some ways that younger researchers can reinforce better social norms in the profession. Also, we can resist the pervasive idea that the best researchers are the ones who minimize all service work to spend the maximum time possible on research. Service work is important and those willing to do that work can be the ones who set departmental norms to combat discrimination in the profession.

I think another path can be taking the role of student seriously by asking a lot of questions about how things are done, uncovering unspoken rules, asking for greater transparency in how the status quo operates, and trying to find the data to answer these questions. A lot of the panelists are doing amazing work on this front already, and we can all continue this work.

Every generation that we can improve the culture creates more room for the next generation to make progress, too.

This post is missing something else: How do these paths to making change look different for young economists of color? I’m a woman, so I’m seeing through that lens, but my small amount of Indian heritage doesn’t mean much in terms of understanding how the rules (and the urgency of these challenges) are different for economists of color in the U.S. In particular, grappling with these issues is not as much of a choice for economists of color as it is for white economists. Plus, as my colleague Soala pointed out during the Q&A, the rules for success also change for international students of color.

I also feel a bit yucky about the whole question because I don’t think the question of how and whether to speak up against discrimination should depend on the long-term career effects of speaking up. That is likely a case of over-optimization (a classic economist problem), at the expense of living up to my values.

My overall feeling after the session is in line with how many of the panelists wrapped up the discussion: I am cautiously optimistic. About the profession overall and about my own ability to effectively change the culture as I learn more and try to practice what I’m preaching here.

The panel included Randall Akee (UCLA), Cecilia Conrad (Pomona), Trevon Logan (The Ohio State University), Edward Miguel (UC-Berkeley), Marie T. Mora (U Missouri-St. Louis), and Ebonya Washington (Yale). It was chaired/introduced by Janet Yellen. 

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Hannah Blackburn

Hannah Blackburn is a Research Associate at UCSD with JPAL's Payments and Governance Research Group, under Professors Paul Niehaus and Karthik Muralidharan.

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