UC Berkeley senior thesis reveals gender stereotyping in economics forum

Simran Sarin/Staff

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A recent study on gender stereotypes in the anonymous online forum Economics Job Market Rumors, or EJMR, revealed what appears to be a hostile environment toward women in some circles of the economics field.

Recent campus graduate Alice Wu conducted the study as part of her senior thesis, using EJMR posts from 2014 to 2016. The focus of the study, according to Wu, was to “examine whether people in academia portray and judge women and men differently in everyday ‘conversations’ that take place online.”

Wu, an economics and applied mathematics double major, said in an email that she first learned about EJMR though friends interested in reading about prominent economists on the forum.

“I was very shocked when I saw the gender stereotyping remarks, given that its users are highly-educated graduate students in economics,” Wu said in her email.

Wu used her experience with text analysis from a campus machine learning course to identify and allocate gender classifiers in EJMR posts such as “he” and “she” as strongly predictive of male versus female subjects. Wu’s analysis found that the 30 words most indicative of a discussion about women, in order, were: “hotter,” “lesbian,” “bb,” “sexism,” “tits,” “anal,” “marrying,” “feminazi,” “slut,” “hot,” “vagina,” “boobs,” “pregnant,” “pregnancy,” “cute,” “marry,” “levy,” “gorgeous,” “horny,” “crush,” “beautiful,” “secretary,” “dump,” “shopping,” “date,” “nonprofit,” “intentions,” “sexy,” “dated” and “prostitute.”

The list of words with the strongest predictive power for males contained words more directly associated with economics and academics, including “adviser,” “Wharton,” “Austrian” a school of economic thought and “mathematician.” Nine out of the 30 words with the highest predictive power for men were directly related to economics, while almost none of the 30 words in the list for women were directly related to economics.

Campus economics graduate student Emily Eisner said she found the results to be “disturbing,” but not surprising. Eisner expressed concern that while many people in the economics profession are aware of gender stereotyping in the discipline, others remain in denial that the issue is a prevalent one.

Leslie Salzinger, campus associate professor of gender and women’s studies, noted that one would be “hard-pressed” to find someone in sociology or gender studies who would be surprised by the results of Wu’s study.

“People think of economists as masculinized, so when they think of women in economics, they highlight their femininity,” Salzinger said.

While some students and faculty members were unsurprised by the results of Wu’s study, others detailed experiences that contradicted the gender stereotyping implications of the study.

Campus professor of economics Martha Olney referred to EJMR as the “kind of forum that faculty have told students to stay away from” because of its penchant for displaying “nasty, uninformed posts.” According to Olney, the issue of gender stereotyping in the economics profession has improved over the past few decades, and although the environment is not perfect, it is “far, far better than it was 35 years ago.”

“I’m kind of surprised at how conscientious both students and professors at UC Berkeley have been about the topic,” said Katarina Jensen, a campus graduate student of economics. “In this profession, everyone is kind of aware that there are biases, and that when women present, it’s often perceived differently than when men do, but I feel that many professors are trying to combat this by making everyone feel more aware of this issue.”

Contact Amber Tang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ambertang_dc.