The Dark Corners of Polite Society

The business section of The New York Times on Sunday, August 20, 2017, contained an article, “Exposing a Toxic Milieu for Women in Economics,” by Justin Wolfers, that, for me, added one more brick to the wall of an already awful week. We saw clansman and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, resulting in violence and death. We saw terrorism attacks in Spain and Finland. We saw our national leaders respond inconsistently, offering little moral or ethical leadership designed to bring us together. I wanted nothing more this beautiful Sunday morning than to curl up with good coffee and read The New York Times.

Then I came across this article and was smacked in the face with the reminder that there remain many deep rifts among us, and the one around gender is too often overlooked.

Alice H. Wu, a Berkeley senior who will start her Ph.D. at Harvard, did her award winning thesis, titled “Gender Stereotyping in Academia: Evidence From Economics Job Market Rumors Forum,” by mining over a million anonymous posts on an online message board commonly known as This site began as a forum for economists to exchange information or gossip about job availabilities but has evolved into what is lightly called a “virtual water cooler” and is frequented by economics faculty members, graduate students and others working in the economics field.

An important caveat remains: it is an anonymous site and thus impossible to know whether authors are men or women or even economists. However, economists themselves follow it closely.

Not content with the NYT’s summary, I found the original paper. Ms. Wu’s findings should give all of us pause. The top 30 words most uniquely associated with discussions of women that were clearly economics related and professionals in the economics field – removing general discussions of partners, etc. – were, in order: hotter, lesbian, bb (internet abbreviation for baby), sexism, tits, anal, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dumb, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated and prostitute.

The list of words uniquely associated in economics related discussions or professionals in economics that referenced men is hardly parallel; the top 30 words were, again in order: juicy, Keys, adviser, bully, prepare, fought, Wharton, Austrian, Fieckers, homo, genes, e7ee (user name on the forum), mathematician, advisor, burning, pricing, Philly, band, KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), Nobel, cmt (constant maturity treasury business), amusing, greatest, textbook, goals, irate, roof, pointing, episode, and tries.

I went to the online forum this morning and found posts making threats to Ms. Wu and other posts offering concerns that her paper would result in more monitoring of the site and worries about the regulation of free speech.

I am speechless.

But here’s the worst of it. The NYT article quotes George Borjas, an economics professor from Harvard, who wrote on his blog last summer that he found the forum “refreshing.” “There’s still hope for mankind when many of the posts written by a bunch of over-educated young social scientists illustrate a throwing off of the shackles of political correctness and reflect mundane concerns that more normal human beings share: prestige, sex, money, landing a job, sex, professional misconduct, gossip, sex…”

The Times goes on to report ‘in an email sent on Wednesday, after he received a copy of Ms. Wu’s paper, Professor Borjas said his views had not changed.’ Here is a professor, I suppose teaching bright, young women – after all, they got into Harvard – who finds no issue with the language used about women on this board. Instead, applauds the forum itself as refreshing. The message is clear that it is ok to speak like that about women. The subtext is clear, too. Boys will be boys.

Locker room talk with an anonymous cloak, conducted by some of most well educated social scientists in the U.S., is not an isolated incident. In the past 12 months we’ve seen Columbia University discipline some of it’s wrestlers, Harvard University discipline the men’s soccer team and Princeton discipline the men’s swimming and diving teams, all for some combination of misogynistic or racist writings.

What are we teaching our sons?

Women have made great strides in the workplace. Don’t think for a minute that the playing field is now level. There are still many dark corners in this bright new world.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. Robert Frost

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • EM Novak says:

    Welcome back. I enjoy your writings on such a variety of topics. This posting should be read aloud in classrooms, lunchrooms, wherever women gather. It reminds me of the concerns women had in the 70’s and 80’s. It concerns me that we still are talking about it in 2017. I guess we should not have been shocked by the president’s view on women (and what he can do to them) nor shocked even more that it didn’t bother so many in the general public. The “old boys’ club” continues to be alive and well.

  • Susan Wall says:

    I am flabbergasted by this report and the Harvard professor’s responses. From personal experience in the workplace, I thought we were long past this type of behavior. But recently we had an event at our company that, while not as severe, was still shocking. I am the executive sponsor in our location for our company’s global “Women in Leadership” initiative. We had a female speaker in the office who was highly recommended as a mentor by one of the women in our group and is a published author and speaker at many conferences. Our group was shocked at the way she characterized and advised women. Her presentation was filled with stereotypes that women ‘talk too much’ and ‘are too shrill’. Basically, the feedback I heard was that she encouraged the women to be more like men in order to be successful in the workplace. That was what we heard in the 70’s. The women in our group were absolutely horrified. I wished I had been there, (instead of on vacation) to be supportive and challenges her assertions. But maybe, that is the world she is still experiencing like Miss Wu documented here. I find that to be deeply saddening.