Decolonising Knowledge in the Medium of a Monolithic Language

by Farwa Sial

‘If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.’

– Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Matters of form, usually viewed as ornament, are commonly in fact matters of argument.’

– McCloskey (1992:56).

This short article explores the construction of Economic Neologism in English and its global impact on shaping implicit and explicit policies in countries around the world. I focus on how economic neologisms in English language project an air of neutrality, but in fact have no basis in the socio-economic realities of developing countries. This is demonstrated through explaining 

a) the role of English as an organised system of thought,

b) the nature of academic English in economics and its influence on developing countries,

c) a recent example of the use of Value of Statistical Life (VSL) in Pakistan based on a misguided comparison with the US, and

d) the limitations of interpreting other languages in English. 

English as an Organised System of Thought

One of the great successes of empire, binding its economic and cultural usurpation of the colonies, was the proliferation of English as a global language and as the only ‘official’ language of the world.  The strength of this legacy has defied time; the diverse geographies, languages and cultures of India are more strongly overcome by the use of English today than by any local language, signifying how English, as the language of the colonial state, took precedence over the many languages of India.

Although the Francophone sphere has remained a well-preserved niche, this enclave is no match for the global stamp of English. Outside the colonies, English has very much overshadowed the regionalism of the European Union (EU). International organisations such as the UN, IMF and the World Bank continue to lean towards the ascendency of English, in spite of their charters of multiple languages. The rise of the Chinese language as a formidable opponent, is uncertain.

As the most dominant currency, English is not particular to race, but cuts across class and geography. Its exclusiveness is not so much in the basics of the spoken word but in the intricacies of how it fuels knowledge. People across countries can communicate on some basic level using minimal English, but the source of its inaccessibility lies in the dense articulation of the language as a specialised realm of knowledge production.  This is not straightforward, since many academics from developed countries do not use English as a first language; on the other hand, many in developing countries have learned it from their earliest years of education. Nonetheless, a distinction emerges in the use of English, not simply as a language of communication but as an organised system of thought. The empire’s proliferation of language reproduced a structure of socialisation, which streamlined a linear set of ideas as opposed to embracing diverse and alternative systems of thought.

The Russian linguist V.N Voloshinov, explored the origins of language as an inherently social phenomenon, and saw language as the most efficient medium of capturing the dynamics of material changes. He described the ‘word’ as ‘the most sensitive index of social changes’ (Voloshinov 1973:19). Importantly, for Voloshinov, the significance of words was not just limited to their representational role of capturing change but went beyond the symbolism, enabling a transformation, which added new dimensions and layers to a word’s original meaning.

‘‘[l]ooked at from the angle of our concerns, the essence of this problem comes down to how actual existence…determines the sign and how the sign reflects and refracts existence in its process of generation (ibid:19).

Voloshinov aimed to develop a theory of linkages between structure and agency in the framework of particular semantic frameworks. His emphasis here is on how signs are influenced; refracting the material and social existence of a phenomenon. The socialised impact of English, as an imperial language lies not simply in what it signifies but also in what forms its refractions take on. Patois and Pidgin English are some particular linguistic examples. Additionally, English has also been instrumental in exporting Anglo-American soft power to developing countries. This is visible especially in the formation and the role of media in developing countries (Suleria 2016). These derivative languages and effectively hollowed cultural influences are accompanied by the shaping of the global academic landscape, with English as the monopolistic medium for exploring knowledge. The consumption of the English language, precedes consumption, in any sphere of knowledge. In economics, the refractive role of English lies in how it shapes ideas and economic policies.

The Medium is the Message

As a conduit of pedagogy, the English language has a history of not simply conveying the message but actively creating it. Concepts like ‘western enlightenment’, ‘scientific rationality’ of the market and a consequent linear vision of growth, encompass a message of neutrality because the language embeds an exclusivity, canonising a singular system of thought. This canonisation is fuelled by ideologies, which seek homogenisation across geographies; the ‘Washington Consensus’ for instance was exported beyond Washington but never as a consensus. In addition, compared to other social sciences, economic concepts and neologisms, carry the potential of shaping the entire direction of scholarship. A brief look at any basic course in the history of economic thought verifies this.

The ascendency of neoclassical economics and its impact in transforming the entire discipline to become an imitation of natural sciences had a reductive impact on the scope of economics as a social science. For Mirowski (1993) the pursuit of projecting economics as a ‘science’, borrowing metaphors from physics and resorting to mathematical formalism is rooted in the Western tradition of economics. By imitating natural sciences and giving a central value to empiricism, neoclassical economics transforms how metaphors operate. This is evident in metaphors, which constitute the conceptual basis and pedagogy of economics using natural laws but ultimately bearing little resemblance to the social processes, which constitute an economy. Statistical rigour, and mathematical proofs thus often take a life of their own by validating a seemingly value-free concept.

If economics is considered as a repository of selectivity as well as of careful omissions (McCloskey 1992) the responsibility of exploring the structure of metanarrative behind the curated message is a constant struggle for those outside this thought system. Other languages are inserted in the English language as loan words, strictly tied to culture (such as the Chinese concept of Guanxi or the Japanese business philosophy Kaizen). Words also sneak into English through a shared history of colonial/imperial experiences.  However, ‘foreign languages’ have no power to determine economic methods or produce similar neologisms. Economic concepts in English on the other hand are canonised, refracted and socialised, as the most objective and rational ways of determining other concepts such as efficiency, growth and ultimately, ways of living life.  The usage of the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) in context to the COVID-19 pandemic and its internationalisation as a ‘global policy’ tool is of relevance here.

Interrogating the Universality of Economic Neologisms: The Value of Statistical Life (VSL)

The Value of a Statistical Life (VSL)  is normally used to monetise fatality risks in cost-benefit analyses and reflects the amount of money that a society is willing to pay for the reduction in the probability of the loss of a human life. This human life is generally, a statistical, hypothetical person on a population-average basis and refers to the hypothetical victim of a circumstance or of a policy or the lack thereof, and fully discounts class, ethnicity, nationality, religion or other characteristics that such a person may or may not have. It is designed as an objective, value-neutral concept to be applicable in contexts, where cost-benefit analysis would enable a synthesis or reach an objective resolution, to an empirical evaluation of saving lives. 

As a statistical measure of predicting fatality risks, VSL, like Ogden tables[1] etc. is a construct and subject to the broader operations of how an economy is structured. This method of assessing risks to human lives are ultimately a valuation exercise and the underlying ethical concerns are tied to how capitalist systems perceive value and public utility. This is important since the construction and adoption of VSL in the US has a complex history, rooted in its origins in the Cold War.

These considerations remain unexplored, especially in the internationalisation of the concept. For example, VSL for climate change, calibrated to different contexts of developing countries, is in widespread use. These calculations do not address the fact that climate change in developing countries has been primarily led by accumulative patterns initialised and deepened by developed countries, rooted in the history of colonialism. For those arguing for a long-standing case of climate reparations, such applications of VSL to developing countries would be akin to technical fixes which pay no attention to history. Tailoring the VSL to country-contexts also raises questions about the criteria of implementing VSL based on mitigating fatality risk. Although VSL had origins in the Cold War, it has not emerged as a basis for measuring the fatality risks of soldiers or casualties in recent conflicts, for instance in the ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan and the invasion in Iraq.  Needless to say, in situations which  are invariably related to the opportunity cost to human life, VSL is an objectionable measure.

However, the current Covid-19 pandemic has revived the appeal of using economic modelling based on VSL. In a recent paper, Barnett-Howell & Mobarak (2020) used VSL to advocate social distancing policies in some “developed” countries as opposed to others, in the developing world. Pakistan was one of those countries cited in the paper. The Government of Pakistan eased its lockdown on May 9, 2020, with the Planning Minister invoking this paper among other reasons to support the government’s policy stance. As a result of the ease of the lockdown, the infection count in Pakistan increased from 36,000 (April-May 2020) to 165,062 (June 2020).  A full account of the paper, its critique and the situation in Pakistan has already been covered succinctly by Khurram Hussain and also debated by academics and activists here (in Urdu language). Without repeating the details of their critique, I summarise the bases for the largely erroneous use of VSL in this case, as follows.

Barnet-Howell and Mobarak’s estimated country-specific costs of mortality and use of VSL is based on another paper by Viscusi and Masterman (2017). The latter employed an analysis of data from the US Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) to value VSL, “to avoid hypothetical bias.” Referring to low to upper-middle income countries as “economies” as opposed to upper income “countries” Viscusi & Masterman conclude from a base U.S. VSL of $9.6 million, that different countries value human life differently[2].  Following this paper, Barnet-Howell and Mobarak’s used this US VSL of $9.6 million, to then discuss essentially Covid-19 policy recommendations, employing the VSL figures suggested for different developing countries.

A first problem with this analysis is that this value does not in any way reflect the value that the US society places on a human life vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead it is actually a representation of hypothetical costs to US policy makers and businesses, of making marginal improvements and mitigations to all those risks, be they in the workplace or by the quality of civic infrastructure and so on, which affect human life.  Aside from issues of monopoly pricing across the wider economy, the US has the most artificially inflated healthcare costs in the world. It would follow that VSL (if indeed a normal good as Barnett-Howell & Mobarak seem to be insinuating) would thus be equally over-valuated.

This situation is not true of other countries including emerging economies, in which different systems of goods and services pricings persist. Using this highly (and artificially) overvaluated US base VSL as a concrete foundation for “upper income countries” as the basis for an extrapolated comparison, is thus unjustified.  Alongside having amongst the highest global rates of infection and deaths, the United States also has one of the highest unemployment rates and attendant social unrest, as a result of the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic, if anything shows that life in the US has become exceedingly cheap, and indeed far cheaper than one would have imagined, merely a decade ago. This application of VSL in this manner, assumes that monopoly-pricing in the US, is somehow a base condition by which to measure the rest of the world. Such attempts at valuation only serve to insinuate a global marketplace for human lives, almost imperialistically conforming to the norms of the American market and economy.

Interpreting Methods

Methodological problems are often also problems of unchallenged ideas. Economic ideas, concepts and textbooks in English are translated and absorbed globally, in effect strengthening the canon as opposed to opening the space, for careful examination. Translations are not interpretations. Describing the third world literature’s feeble attempts at expanding text in other languages, Aijaz reminds us that a

 ‘mere aggregation of texts and individuals does not give rise to the construction of a counter-cannon… for the latter to arise there has to be the cement of a powerful ideology’ (Aijaz 1992:93).

Attempts at counter-ideology are made more complex, by the fact that knowledge production in English reproduces the erasure of knowledge production in other languages; many academics writing in English in fact lose formal writing and speaking skills, in their native languages.

For these reasons decolonising knowledge in economics is a complex process since it entails excavating alternatives, which demand a reimagination of possibilities and limits. Being truly multilingual would mean equal attention to all languages. Separating the objectivity of the language from its message and pluralising and empowering pedagogical practices in other languages is a start.


[1] The ‘Ogden’ tables help actuaries, lawyers and others calculate the lump sum compensation due in personal injury and fatal accident cases.

[2] According to their calculation’s lower income countries value human life at of $171,000, lower-middle income countries at $420,000 to $676,000, upper-middle income countries at $1.23 million to $2.09 million and finally the average upper income countries at $6.40 million. 


Knowledge, Power, and Economics: D-Econ Blog Launch

By Deepak Kumar, Carolina Alves, Aditi Dixit, and Surbhi Kesar

In a world marked by stark hierarchies, the constitution of knowledge is not immune to social contradictions. Varied axes of power relations among and across genders, classes, races, castes, and nations play a pivotal role in the making, remaking, and regulation of knowledge. Critical scholars from across the disciplinary and geographical spectrum have tried to understand how the social production of knowledge perpetuates inequitable power (see Stoddard, 2007).

This phenomenon is all the more critical in the field of economics where the disciplinary objective is the study of economic relations through which societies create and distribute wealth. The role of economics has not only been to passively identify and analyse these relations but also in actively moulding them. Given the significance of the economic in reproducing the social, it is important that economics as a discipline be conscious of the myriad ways in which these hierarchies influence the scope of its study, its frameworks, and methods of analyses.

Mainstream and the scientific method

While social reality is shaped by historical contingency and social conflict, mainstream economics is premised on eternal natural laws and harmony of social interests. The discipline relies on an approach that is largely limited to viewing social behaviour through the lens of methodological individualism and economic macrodynamics within the framework of equilibrium solutions of mathematical models (Hausman, 1992; Dow, 1997; Alves and Kvangraven, 2020). In this view, the ‘scientific’ progress of the discipline has been an incremental march, each ‘development’ leaving behind some inadequacy in theories past, towards a more proximate understanding of historically invariant laws.

Ideologues and adherents have rationalised this view of a ‘pure economics’ on grounds of a near exclusive claim among social sciences on the scientific method. They argue that it proffers on their disciplinary framework, and by extension its practice, a ‘value-neutrality’  – impartiality and overcoming of biases – that other approaches and social science disciplines purportedly lack (Robbins, 1932; Friedman, 1966). This is expressed in the branding of ‘economic sciences’ that gained common currency through the 20th century.

The belief and attachment to a unique ‘way’ to do economics has imbibed in it an inflexible hierarchy, with scholars located in positions of relative privilege having disproportionate influence in defining and regulating necessary bounds of knowledge and participation. This gatekeeping is evidenced in the tyranny of the top five journals (Heckman and Moktan, 2020), the prejudice against  ideas from outside the economics mainstream (Javdani and Chang, 2019), the exclusion of heterodox contributions from mainstream journals (Reardon, 2008), dominance of the US and Europe in the discipline (Das et al, 2013), and the largely white male social constitution of the profession (Bayer and Rouse, 2016; CSMGEP, 2020).

There are inherent limitations in searching for invariant laws of the social world in the image of the natural sciences. People’s behaviour is shaped by a confluence of social, economic, cultural, and legal factors; coevolving with their relation to the natural-physical world. The laws of motion of society are then far more contingent, diverse, and volatile than can be accommodated in the reductive estimation of science subscribed to by mainstream economists. The issue here is not one of whether some degree of abstraction is necessary (to which the answer is yes), but rather if such unrealistic assumptions and claims of universality, objectivity, and neutrality are necessary. 

Heterodoxy, diversification, and decolonisation

The discipline’s monolithic approach has limited the development of a pluralist intellectual edifice suited to study the reproductive mechanism of the economic system and the society in which it is embedded. It does this by delegitimising and relegating to the side-lines people and perspectives whose contribution to knowledge systems is at odds with and therefore poses a challenge to this ideological hegemony. 

This hegemony has from the outset birthed opposition from scholars and allies located on the punitive end of exploitative social relations. Contributions from feminists, people of colour, scholars from the underdeveloped world, and scholars writing from non-mainstream perspectives have not only advocated greater representation and diversity of perspectives in the discipline but also enriched its practice by overcoming scholarly limitations of its more orthodox persuasions. They have operated – at times only implicitly – within the mould of heterodoxy given its more organic treatment of power.

Take, for instance, issues surrounding gender. Feminist contributions alleviate the otherwise blindness of economics to gender (Ferber and Nelson, 1993). Their contributions supplant much of the traditional mainstream analysis based on rational-choice and utility-maximizing frameworks by gendered processes and embeddedness of individual action in social and economic structures (England, 1989; Ferber, 2003; Woolley, 1989).

In the same vein, economists working on the political economy of race emphasise mechanisms and practices that give rise to unequal opportunities and the explicit discrimination that racial minorities confront in the labour market. They centre the role of power, emphasise the social construction of race, and focus on social relations that condition these economic outcomes. This explicitly contests the mainstream frameworks that explain racial inequalities as mere outcomes of differences in productivity owing to differences in human capital, preference, market incompleteness, or informational asymmetries (Feiner and Roberts 1990; Darity et al, 2006; Cook & Kongcharoen, 2010). 

There have, likewise, been remarkable contributions from the peripheral economies of the world, examining how unequal global relations have affected economic outcomes for underdeveloped countries (Shie & Meer, 2010; Patnaik & Patnaik, 2016). A distinctive illustration is the sharp criticism of structural-adjustment policies (Ghosh, 1997, Chandrasekhar and Ghosh, 2002) expressly rationalised with the self-assured ‘value-free’ and ‘scientific’ claims of mainstream economists. Furthermore, several scholars from the South have critiqued the conception of economic development in the image of capitalist institutions of the Global North (Frank, 1967; Amin, 2009) and have articulated alternative ways of understanding the post-colonial development process (Sanyal, 2007).

These instances are illustrative of how a pluralist approach to economics has strengthened not only the representative element in the discipline but also its intellectual prowess in explaining the nature and dynamics of economic relations. 

Resolving the contradictions

An intellectual project that seeks to decolonise and diversify economics then necessarily progresses through a re-examination of the philosophical and methodological basis of mainstream economics and by questioning its disconcerting lack of representation in terms of both identity and alternate schools of thought. It is by design a radical project. It is not, however, without formidable opposition from entrenched interests in the discipline. 

Mainstream economic thought plays a fundamental role in reproducing and valorising structures of power both in its disciplinary practice and in the social world it seeks to investigate. In doing so, it in effect hinders the progress of the discipline and its potentially progressive, democratising welfare implications for the real world. The nature of contradictions arising in the contemporary world – intensifying social hierarchies, their reactionary political manifestations, and pressing ecological constraints – demand from the discipline breaking of these restrictive moulds that hinder their comprehension and their resolution. 

The D-Econ blog series is a collective initiative to bring together contributions from academics and activists who share the vision of decolonisation and diversification of economics. It is a positive project of enhancing scholarship that challenges the Global North-centric mainstream understanding and its universal and objective claim. It promotes a diverse community of scholars and pluralism of perspectives in order to emancipate the economic study of society from the restrictive clutches of privilege and power. It seeks to engage with a community of scholars employing a Global South-centric lens of analyses, located in marginalised social spaces, and discuss issues and concerns systematically overlooked in the discipline. In doing so it hopes to democratise participation and practice of the discipline, to better understand and overcome the intense social contradictions of the contemporary world.

The blog facilitates conversations that explore and emphasise how varied axes of power relations, such as gender, class, race, caste, colonialism, religion, and sexuality among others, affect participation in the academy, limit knowledge production, and contribute to its colonisation. Through this engagement, it seeks to enrich the economic study of society with a plurality of perspectives and methods rooted in objective realities of marginalised and oppressed communities.

The D-Econ Database: a response to the most common excuse

The Economics profession has long been too white, too male, too Western-centric, and too hostile to non-mainstream approaches. Today, a new tool – the D-Econ Database – is being launched to address this. 

“All the women were busy.” “There are no people of color working on this topic.” “It’s the male-dominated field that’s the problem, not this particular panel.” We needed big names and all the big names just happen to be white men based in the Global North.”

We’ve all heard these excuses many times over. Women, minorities, and scholars from the Global South are severely underrepresented in the field of Economics – and that makes putting together panels that do not simply reproduce the dominant identities in the field a challenge. The high concentration of a few dominant identities in the Economics field has rightly led to outrage against all-white and all-male panels .  

It is becoming increasingly accepted that this underrepresentation is not simply an issue of fewer women, minorities, and scholars from the Global South choosing not to be a part of the field. On the contrary, research shows that there are systemic biases that make it more difficult for economists who are not white, not male, and not based in the Global North, to be heard. An additional layer of discrimination has to do with approach. Indeed, Economics is “unique among the social sciences in having a single monolithic mainstream, which is either unaware of or actively hostile to alternative approaches” (King, 2013: 17). 

The structural exclusions in Economics

Discrimination based on identity has been thoroughly documented in the economics field. To name but a few examples of discrimination of women in economics: they face higher publishing standards than men, they are less likely to be given credit for their work when they co-author with men, and they are more likely to face a lengthy peer-review process, even while they will have a harder time getting tenure.  

The case of minority women exposes an even more alarming reality. 62% of African American women economists have reported some sort of harassment, discrimination and unfair or disrespectful treatment. Black women economists not only experience a discriminatory, sexist and hostile culture but are also cited less, paid less and are less successful in applying for promotions compared to their white peers. One can see similar patterns in the Global South, for example in Brazil where women are a small minority in the top ranks of academia or in South Africa where black women continue to be marginalised in academia.

The consequences of a narrow field

The lack of diversity in the field leads to a lack of attention to issues that specifically affect underrepresented groups, in everything from the theories and models employed to understand the world, to economic research, to public policy decisions. Economic theories, as other social theories, are affected by the context in which they are produced. Hence, theories produced in the Global North – that dominate economics textbooks globally – may not be particularly relevant for understanding global problems or economies with different institutional structures, for example, due to their colonial past or peripheral position in the global economy (see for example Chelwa 2016 or Jayadev 2018).

Marginalised groups are also more likely to bring in viewpoints that would otherwise be absent or undervalued. An example of this is that women were far more likely to recognise and engage with problems associated with excluding household work from GDP (see, for example, Nancy Folbre’s work and the Women’s Budget Group). Similarly, papers with at least one Black author are more likely to report a finding of racial discrimination than papers with no Black authors.

Moreover, diversity also tends to lead to better outcomes which can be beneficial for policy decisions. For example, gender and ethnically diverse groups tend to outperform homogeneous groups. Research has shown that creating diverse groups results in developing group intelligence because of the combination of different insights. 

Working towards a more diverse and decolonised economics is thus likely to stimulate new insights and debates in economics that monism might stifle. Decolonising economic theory, then, is not simply about providing historical context, but to acknowledge that theories from outside the Global North can provide fruitful starting points. 

In line with this, D-Econ has three interlinked goals to diversify and decolonise economics:

1. More equal representation in terms of identity,

2. More openness in terms of theoretical and methodological approach, and

3. Decolonising economics by tackling the historically produced Eurocentrism in our field and its claim to neutrality and universality.

Addressing the most common excuse

Today, Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ) is launching the D-Econ Database to tackle exclusions in terms of both identity and approach. It is a database of non-mainstream scholars that are underrepresented in terms of gender, ethnicity and/or location. The aim of the database is to increase the visibility and opportunities of these scholars by addressing some of the most common excuses for the lack of diversity in the economics profession: lack of knowledge of non-white, non-male, or non-Western scholars in the field. 

The database already has over 100 entries and new scholars are being added every day. This is a communal project of co-creation driven by a grassroots movement – we rely on your help to add scholars. Are you wondering if you qualify as ‘underrepresented’? The infographic below can help you figure it out. Read more about the database here and submit an entry here.

Read this blog post in Spanish or Portuguese.

D-Econ Workshop at the Exploring Economics Online Summer Academy 2020

summer-academy-for-pluralist-economics-2020-workshopsD-Econ will be hosing a workshop at Exploring Economics’ Summer Academy August 10-16th 2020. The summer academy’s title is “Mainstream Economics Sold Out? Exploring Ways into Sustainable Futures.” This is how the purpose of the Academy is described:

On the one hand, we want to debate whether mainstream economics has indeed sold out or whether there is an increasing acknowledgement of unorthodox, non-neoclassical thinking. On the other hand, we want to explore the transformative potential of the coronavirus crisis not only with regard to the global economic system but also to the discipline of economics. What kind of economic thinking is needed to lay down pathways towards sustainability and international solidarity, instead of ecological destruction and xenophobic nationalism? We are convinced that this can only be done from a pluralist perspective. Indeed, there is not a single path towards one shared future but multiple ways to a plurality of possible futures. However, such a perspective challenges us to overcome Eurocentric thinking and to take into account the diverse voices of the so-called global south.

The registration period for the Online Summer Academy is open until the 24th of June.

Read about all the workshops here. Information about D-Econ’s workshop is below. Continue reading

Podcasts about D-Econ

D-Econ members have been asked to talk about D-Econ in different forums this year. Here are two interviews with D-Econ members in the form of podcasts. We hope you enjoy them!

Economia Decolonial (in Portuguese)

On the 10th June 2020, Por uma questão de classe podcast invited D-econ member Carolina Alves to talk about “Economia Decolonial” and introduce the D-econ initiative to the Brazilian audience. In a sequence of stimulating and pertinent questions by economists Joelson Carvalho and Jadir Eduardo Corrêa Junior, the conversation also included issues related to ‘the Cambridge School’ of economics, heterodox economics, Marxism and Brazil’s current government. 

Women in Science (in English)

On February 27th 2020, the “Women in Science” project invited D-Econ member Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven to talk about diversifying and decolonising economics. This was a part of the Great Speaker Series campaign in Portugal in partnership with the British-born co-working space Second Home Lisbon. Ingrid outlines how D-Econ came to be, how she came to be interested in heterodox economics, and why and how the missions of diversifying and decolonising economics are so essential.

Is career mentoring a panacea for gender inequality?

ArianeAgunsoye-mentoring-image4-1

Ariane Agunsoye highlights the inadequacy of mentoring in overcoming gender inequality in academia especially during this pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis has once more exposed inherent inequalities in academia. The pandemic and the female academicNow more than ever we need to talk about how lack of equality and home affects women at work and Women academics seem to be submitting fewer papers during coronavirus at work are just a few of the recent headlines. While there is an upsurge in articles outlining the disproportionate effects of lockdown on women, there has been surprisingly less critical engagement with the support mechanisms in place that are meant to reduce gender inequality. Not even hindered by the current pandemicmentoring is promoted as a panacea for the career advancement of women academics. We at D-Econ have already cautioned in the past against rather simplistic approaches in tackling systemic issues. Mechanisms such as coaching, mentoring, shadowing, and training often individualise structural problems without questioning the system in itself. The current crisis highlights more than ever the inadequacy of mentoring in overcoming gender inequality in academia.

Three deficits: representation, accessibility, time

Academia suffers from three deficits that result in creating and maintaining unequal structures. First, women are largely underrepresented in academia, as shown in the latest report on gender equality in academia from the European Commission. In spite of an increase in female doctoral graduates in the European Union, culminating in a near gender-balance (47.9 percent of doctoral graduates were women in 2016), their career trajectories remain highly unequal. Occupying 41.3 percent of all academic positions, the share of women in senior-level positions lies only at 24 percent. Perhaps most importantly to note here is that while female doctoral graduates and academics increased by 10 percentage points since 2000, the change of women academics hired at professorial level rose only by one percentage point (from 6.4 percent in 2000 to 7.4 percent in 2016). Moreover, only a third of researchers are female (with no change since 2000). The lack of representation is even more alarming in the case of minority women. With only 25 female black professors (out of 21,000 professors), white women and black men are six times more likely to become full professors in the UK.

Second, women’s access to the institutions of knowledge dissemination is highly unequal. When considering that internationally recognised publications are taken as an indicator for promotion, it is alarming that on average, men publish twice as much as women. This appears to be prevalent more in some disciplines (e.g. economics) than in others (e.g. educational studies). In the top four economics journals, the share of women authors per paper is on average 15 percent. Meanwhile, only eight percent of the papers are authored principally by women, and only four percent solely written by women. More generally within the social sciences, men cite other men more than they cite women.

Third, women face an imbalance in terms of workload. Women still conduct the majority of care work often without an appropriate support system. Strikingly, the UK fares the worst among developed countries with regards to sharing of responsibilities within households: UK women conduct on average 60 percent more unpaid work than men. This double work burden has a negative impact on promotion due to reduced publications (two children result in a loss of 2.5 years’ research output), but also due to expectations of being constantly available, joining evening seminars, and conducting numerous research collaborations. If universities are serious about tackling gender inequality, these three deficits in academia need to be addressed.

Can mentoring help overcome these deficits?

To promote gender equality, numerous studies have outlined the benefits of establishing a productive mentoring relationship. By sharing their knowledge more experienced scholars, it is argued, can help early career researchers to build self-confidence, increase competence, and avoid isolation (which is a risk deemed particularly prevalent in academia). While having a support system is important, I doubt that mentoring programmes can overcome the three deficits: the representation deficit based on the number of women in senior positions, the accessibility deficit based on a lack of diversity in terms of knowledge production, and the time deficit based on unequal workloads.

Sure, a mentor could be helpful in reducing the representation deficit by taking up the role of a sponsor and collaborator. Not only has it been proven that being mentored  increases confidence, but also that a mentor can introduce early career researchers to their own networks and co-develop research projects. This, in turn, would enhance the profile of the junior academic and increase visibility, both of which are conducive for promotions. Yet, these initiatives do not tackle any systemic issues in the form of gendered perceptions within promotion panels. When having achieved similar or even more qualifications than men, the evidence shows that women are not promoted equally (which is intensified by a minority ethnic background). Mentoring does not address these systemic issues, but instead places the responsibility on the individual to develop career strategies within a dysfunctional system, thereby indirectly reinforcing it.

It is also questionable whether mentoring can reduce the accessibility deficit. Yes, formal mentoring has been found to be conducive to an enhanced publication record but this process in itself is problematic. Academic promotions are to a large degree dependent on publications where journals work as gatekeepers of knowledge. The mentor can teach the mentee the “particular kind of knowledge” requested by academic journals. However, the theories, methodologies, and geographical locations considered acceptable by journals not only downplay power imbalances based on gender and ethnicity, but also deepen them. At the same time, a mentor cannot influence gender bias in the publishing process, even when teaching the right kind of knowledge or collaborating with mentee. To name a few: women face higher publishing standards, are less likely to be given credit for their work and face a lengthier peer review process which in turn is detrimental for promotion.

Against this backdrop and the existing time deficit, it should not be surprising that there “have been negligible number of submissions by women” since the lockdown. Those with fewer care and domestic duties are able to use the lockdown to produce more articles and improve their publishing profile, while those with care duties – mostly women – are left behind. Carers now have to find time before or after the children are awake to record online lectures and manage student activities and then use a few hours during the day to work on research. Since the lockdown, journal editors have noticed that women have submitted fewer papers than usual at this time of the year in contrast to men who have submitted 50 percent more papers in some disciplines. While a mentor could give advice on how to manage time, they cannot make up for the fact that academia suffers from a substantial support deficit, often assuming uninterrupted working lives when evaluating career trajectories for promotion.

Given that these sexist practices continue to exist in the workplace and at home, a focus on mentoring as the solution props up this current system without challenging the underlying structures. Instead, the solution relies on helping “women build their skills and capacity” to succeed in a male dominated environment, placing the responsibility onto women. We at D-Econ have recently argued that career mentoring cannot be a panacea to overcome systemic limitations, but that a holistic approach is needed. Rather than mentoring programmes, we need clear-cut promotion categories which do not give too much leeway for interpretation. We need more emphasis on publication practices, highlighting inequalities and tackling these, for instance through measures as suggested by womenalsoknowstuff. These include, amongst others, journal editors checking the gender composition of references and encouraging authors to achieve a balanced citation practice. Finally, we need to reduce home inequality while acknowledging different life trajectories when evaluating promotions.

Ariane Agunsoye is a Lecturer in Economics at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is also on the steering committee of D-Econ, a network of economists who aim to promote inclusiveness in economics.

This post was originally published on the LSE Blog on Higher Education.

D-Econ Statement of Solidarity with Black Lives Matter and Affirmative Action Points related to the Discipline and Pedagogy in Economics

In the midst of the global pandemic, governments all over the world have unleashed a series of violent attacks on people that are protesting the violence inflicted on Black people. The brutal killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black people has once again brought systemic racism and discrimination of Black people in the spotlight.  As we know these are not one-off incidents, but rather what Black people have always been experiencing: unresolved issues of race and discrimination in the US and around the globe are not a single event or a series of recurrent events but constitute historical and institutionalized racism. As a platform which advocates for both decolonizing and diversifying economics, D-Econ joins other organizations in condemning this violence and systemic discrimination.

We are heartened to see the outpouring of solidarity for the Black Lives Matters Movement among economists. However, we believe urgent and comprehensive action is needed to truly ensure that Black Lives and Black voices matter in the profession. In line with our mission statement to reform the discipline of economics, we have issued the following non-exhaustive points for affirmative action for universities, managements, and academic and non-academic policy and advocacy institutions. We believe implementing these points transcend the need for performative alliances with Black academics and activists.

  1. It is imperative that universities and policy research organizations increase the employment of Black academics, policy specialists, and NGO advocates in permanent roles. Without the input of Black people, it is impossible to actually have meaningful change. This will not happen automatically, and university and research organizations need to actively seek out and recruit Black economists, specifically Black women economists. In the meanwhile, it is crucial that the work and voice of Black academics be amplified.
  1. Universities need to make a special effort to recruit and retain Black undergraduate and graduate students in their student body, and to ensure that they create a safe space for them against racist discrimination and violence. This is the only way that departments can become inclusive spaces and contribute to the upliftment of Black people and other underrepresented minorities. Armed police should not be present on university campuses, as they seek to profile, threaten, injure, and arrest Black students. Not only is this deeply unjust and dangerous, it is directly inimical to learning, especially those that are disproportionately targeted by police. 
  1. The curriculum of courses that are taught in economics department need to center racial capitalism, structural violence, and systemic discrimination. It is not enough to relegate this to optional courses. This needs to be compulsory education for all students. The teaching of economic history, specifically that of slavery and colonialism is indispensable to the understanding of present day inequalities and structural violence, and should therefore should also be made mandatory.   
  1. Several institutions within the discipline are institutionally discriminatory. These range from using the GRE and English language tests for graduate school admissions, REF in the UK, which discriminates against non-native speakers of English and non-white people and women by rewarding productivity in publishing while being less concerned with quality, ranking of journals and departments determining promotions and hiring decisions, among others. These need to be re-evaluated in a serious way. 
  1. All instructors need to ensure that they do not exclusively require students to read books and articles by white men. And this should not be limited to courses on racial inequality: Black academics study all sub-fields of economics, and their scholarship, and those of other underrepresented minorities, need to be in all courses. 
  1. All journal editors should periodically publish the race and gender breakdown of their publication and submission statistics. They should also report on the measures taken to increase the diversity within publishing. Furthermore, we need to ensure that journal editors are held accountable for the performance of the journal under their stewardship.
  1. Bullying and policing of minorities based on issues of representation should be scrutinized and investigated thoroughly, especially involving those in positions of power and junior staff members.
  1. Economics is not only a North American and Western European profession, and publishing, hiring, funding, and conferences should reflect this fact. The profession needs to deal with its Eurocentrism, in part by valuing knowledge that is produced outside the usual boundaries of  elite institutions in North America and Western Europe. 
  2. Racism is a structural problem, and therefore the solution needs to be structural. It is not enough for individuals to voice support for anti-racism, which is required but is the bare minimum. In fact, many individuals may face repercussions for speaking up against powerful gatekeepers in the profession. Anti-racism in economics needs to be institutional, with it being the focus in curriculum, methodology, hiring decisions, accountability of journal editors, diversity in conference and seminar programs, among others. Change must be initiated by institutions.

Decolonising and Diversifying Economics and Economic History (D-Econ @ LSE)

Ariane Hillig (Institute of Management Studies, Goldsmiths) and Professor Tirthankar Roy (Department of Economic History, LSE) will be discussing decolonising and diversifying economics and economic history at LSE on Thursday 20 February 2020. The discussion will be chaired by Dr. Akile Ahmet (Inclusive Education, LSE’s Eden Centre).

The Speakers will discuss key questions, challenges and relevant initiatives in decolonising and diversifying their respective disciplines.

This event is organised by the Eden Centre for Education Enhancement, Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity (LSE) and the Decolonising LSE Collective.

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