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Representation in Economics & Policy

The following article only contains the edited excerpts and key takeaways from the interview. You may listen to the full conversation on Spotify.

This conversation was conducted with Prerna Kundu, the co-founder and director at the Women in Econ and Policy (WiEP) initiative. Prerna has been associated with J-PAL South Asia, where she worked on interventions in child and maternal health in Jharkhand as a part of the Payments and Governance Research Program. She will be commencing a PhD in Economics at the University of British Columbia this fall. She holds a Master’s in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the Shri Ram College of Commerce. Women in Econ and Policy was set up last year with a vision to democratise the spaces of economics, public policy, and development.

Overview of the Women in Econ and Policy initiative: Its founding and vision

During the lockdown in June 2020, Prerna and Prashansa Srivastava, who was Prerna’s colleague at J-PAL SA at the time, decided to come up with the idea of creating a space for women in the fields of economics, policy, and development. The objective set out was to discuss research papers and women’s experiences in these fields. Expecting only a limited number of sign ups to the project they had planned to initiate, today, WiEP has turned out to be a well-rounded, diverse, and, most importantly, a member-driven initiative.

From ideating on professional development sessions to organising newsletters that promote research by women and on women, the broad idea of WiEP has been to provide a space for women in these fields. WiEP recognises that inclusion is a continuous process; therefore, they want to inspire more women to be a part of the spaces in economics and policy. They realise that good role models can hugely encourage participation of hitherto under-represented identities. They wish to provide access to networks and resources that go beyond one’s existing university or other institutional affiliation(s). WiEP also wants to partner with other organizations to increase diversity in a field that is severely lacking on this front.

In her own experiences of being associated with economics for over 7 years, Prerna wishes that she had a similar space when she was an undergraduate. For her, it has been inspiring to work alongside an all-women team. Feeling comfortable and safe in a space where an individual can discuss ideas goes a long way to retain interest and passion towards a field that can be otherwise exclusionary.

Perspectives on inclusion in the field of economics

As the initiative of Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ) recently highlighted, “The Economics profession has long been too white, too male, too Western-centric, and too hostile to non-mainstream approaches…” This segment of the interview looked at how the field of economics has been highly under-represented. Prevailing attitudes and beliefs have further made it difficult to question the dominant approaches that the field stands by.

Prerna delves into the issues of representation, starting from the undergraduate levels and all the way up to faculty- and research- level positions. In 2019, only four black American women were awarded a PhD in economics, to a point where all four of them could tag each other on Twitter! A similar trend is visible in Indian academia too. A recent study sheds light on how, despite constituting more than half the students at the master’s level, women drop out from prospective opportunities along the way. Representation is far worse for other marginalised social identities – LGBTQ+ and Bahujans.

There is also no publicly available data about representation in economics. A Right to Information (RTI) in 2017-18 tried to compile data on the social composition of faculties at the IIMs, where a lot of economics, policy, and development research has happened. They found that out of 512 faculty members only two were Scheduled Castes (SCs) and 13 were Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and there was absolutely nobody from the Scheduled Tribes (STs). This is the dismal state of government institutions where Affirmative Action (AA) policies are supposed to be mandatory. 

A lot of other social sciences fields, like sociology, political science, and even the hard sciences, have been able to reduce the representation gap. However, this has not been the case with economics. This lack of representation has manifested as barriers to the field at the institutional and non-institutional levels. For example, in the case of the former and at the entry-level to the field of economics, application costs to universities abroad can be prohibitively expensive. Even the structure of the application process should be called into question; those with more resources, including language skills, can continue to (re)take their GREs, if they wish. If someone is discriminated against at the bachelor’s or master’s level, they cannot possibly keep up with the requirements of research experience and miscellaneous data skills too. Here, we see that institutions wish to be “diverse” but only with those people who can check all the boxes of their admission criteria.

Even after under-represented social groups have joined the field, barriers to comprehensive inclusion persist. During COVID-19, for example, submissions in economic journals by female economists fell dramatically compared to their male peers. In this case, women were (and continue to be) prohibited by their inability to forgo care- and house-work responsibilities. Opportunity gaps can also be created due to safety concerns between men and women in the profession. 

Non-institutional barriers mostly have to do with the prevailing attitudes and beliefs in the field, and this can make it really toxic. A study suggests that words used to refer to women in academic portals such as EJMR are sexist and misogynistic. Similarly, women presenters are treated differently than their male counterparts, with the chances of more patronizing encounters in seminars. Such an atmosphere actively deters those who could have otherwise positively engaged in the field. Unlike non-institutional barriers, however, institutional-level barriers can be fixed, as they are easier to identify. All that people have to do is to ask. We must ask women and marginalised groups (students and faculties) in colleges and other spaces of interaction about how they feel, instead of making broad claims of inclusion and diversity just for the sake of it.

Additionally, when it comes to representation, a transition from mainstream approaches towards pluralist approaches of studying, writing, and teaching economics, would be fruitful. Pluralism challenges the dominance of the West and that they-know-better about what’s good for developing countries. However, conversations around these approaches are still very limited; how valued a researcher is continues to be based on their published research in the top five journals, which publish on arguments derived from conventional economic approaches. There are clear incentives that undermine the status-quo of biases in economic research, and therefore, somewhere, even representation in the field. 

Concluding thoughts and initiatives of interest

Young scholars, PhD students, and even professors can make concerted efforts to push for diversity. The first step is to acknowledge one’s own privilege. This can be in the form of providing mentorship, sharing advice and resources, and creating opportunities of engagement for under-represented groups. Understanding one’s sphere of influence is critical too. For example, a PhD student with a grant, who is looking for research assistance, should open positions for marginalised communities, instead of continuing the inhibitory practices of the current systems. This pushes for inclusion and only increases the sphere of influence as practitioners (too) progress in the field.

Other resources, recommended by the speaker, to diversify understanding of economics: 

This podcast was conducted by Tanya Rana, an M.A. Public Policy student at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.

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