“Just wander into any economics or finance conference and the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming — women and minorities are few and far between.”
– Business Insider, September 13th, 2017
Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ) is a network of economists that aim to promote inclusiveness in economics, both in terms of academic content and in its institutional structures. We are working to promote an economics field free of discrimination, including sexism, racism, and discrimination based on approach and geography. This involves promoting inclusive practices at sites that determine what legitimate knowledge is, such as conferences, workshops, journals, editorial boards, boards of economics organisations, syllabi, economics departments, and classrooms.
We take a holistic approach, as our mission involves three related, yet distinct, goals. These are:
- More equal representation in terms of identity,
- More openness in terms of theoretical and methodological approach, and
- Decolonising economics by tackling the historically produced Eurocentrism in our field and its claim to neutrality and universality.
Progress on these three fronts has the potential to nurture a field that is an open and inclusive space for thought and inquiry, which is more likely to generate knowledge and debate about issues relevant for the majority of the world than what is currently the case. Such a holistic approach would benefit the field as well as the public, given the influence economists have on public policy and political discourse. The current homogenous composition of the profession is no accident, but a result of systemic exclusion, so we also consider it to be a matter of fairness to work towards a more inclusive field.
Economics Beyond White Men: Working Towards Equal Opportunities
The lack of diversity in terms of economists’ race and gender has been well documented. Women make up only 19% of economists on average worldwide (among scholars listed on Research Papers in Economics database). In the US and the UK, where most top economics departments are located (according to mainstream methods of ranking), there are disproportionately fewer members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups, relative both to the overall population and to other academic disciplines (see Bayer and Rouse 2016). This under-representation can also easily be spotted in the list of Nobel Memorial Prize winners, which represents the ‘top of the field’, as the winners have been overwhelmingly white men (of the 81 winners, 78 are white men). 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.
Discrimination based on identity has also been thoroughly documented in economics. 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 coauthor with men, and they are more likely to face a lengthy peer-review process, even while they will have a harder time getting tenure. More generally, it has been found that in the UK black female professors face bullying, stereotyping and institutional neglect, there are no black academics in senior management positions, black students are 1.5 times more likely to drop out, and black academics experience greater scrutiny, are paid less, and are less successful in applying for promotions compared to their white peers.
Marginalisation goes beyond just race and gender identity. When devising strategies for an inclusive field, it is necessary to also consider class, ability, sexuality, and other identities that are marginalised in academia, as well as the ways in which these identities intersect (e.g. women of colour will face different forms of discrimination than white women). There are many features of the academy that are problematic in general, but particularly problematic for certain marginalised groups. For instance, expectations about working evenings and weekends are not ideal for most scholars, but this is particularly disadvantageous to those who are expected to take on family responsibilities. Improving diversity in economics must therefore involve also unpacking and addressing these structures that affect marginalised groups disproportionately, as well as the implicit biases in which discrimination also operates. Implicit bias is a form of discrimination based on unconscious attitudes or associations, which can produce behaviour that diverges from the individual’s own principles (Bayer and Rouse 2016). While most studies in Economics focus on situations where discrimination is an outcome of explicit decisions, implicit bias plays a large role in discriminatory attitudes (see for example Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004).
The lack of diversity in the field leads to a lack of attention to issues that specifically affect underrepresented groups, in everything from economic research, to the models employed to understand the world, to public policy decisions. Marginalised groups are 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). Another example is that female economists are more likely to consider labour market opportunities unequal than male economists are, given their everyday experience with labour market discrimination (see May et al. 2018). Working towards a more diverse economics is thus likely to stimulate new insights and debates in economics that monism might stifle.
Economics Has Become Theoretically and Methodologically Narrow
In addition to the discrimination of economists based on identity, there is a notable discrimination of economic thinking based on theoretical and methodological approach. Since the 1960s, there has been a narrowing of the field of economics with the rising dominance of Neoclassical Economics in the economics discipline. In this process, approaches emerging from different theoretical frameworks and schools of thought such as Classical Political Economy, Post-Keynesian Economics, Feminist Economics, Marxist Economics and Institutional Economics have been sidelined. While these schools often fall under the label heterodox economics, they do have their own constructive and active programmes of economic theory, method, logic, ontology, politics, ethics, etc. which is very often interdisciplinary (see Mearman 2009).
We see heterodox economics broadly as the study of production and distribution of economic surplus, where there is a recognition that capitalist economies show destabilising tendencies and are structured by power relations. The different schools of thought within heterodox economics present us with independent alternatives to contemporary mainstream economics – which defines economics more narrowly, as the study of the allocation of scarce resources, how people use resources to respond to incentives, or the study of decision-making (see the AEA definition).
To us, it is therefore essential to emphasise that diversifying economics does not only mean making the field more inclusive of non-white and non-male scholars, but also to open the mainstream of the field up to heterodox approaches. We believe Economics – or the study of economic phenomena (a definition in line with Chang 2015) – would benefit from increased theoretical and methodological diversity, just as other social sciences.
What’s more, diversity in terms of identity and approach are intrinsically connected, as mainstream economics may alienate women and minorities, given its focus on marginal productivity, among other things. As pointedly illustrated in a recent Forbes (2019) article: “For whom is ‘you get what you deserve’ likely to strike a chord? Women? People of colour? White males?”
Decolonising What Economics Is and How It’s Done
Finally, historical processes of colonisation and imperialism have led to a limited understanding of what counts as expertise and who counts as an expert, discriminating against non-Western identities and ideas. To us, decolonisation of economics means 1) to recognise the historically produced Eurocentrism in our field, and 2) to work towards identifying and breaking down the barriers that exclude scholars and ideas from outside of the Western world, and 3) to reconsider economics’ claims of merit, neutrality and universality.
Economic theories, as other social theories, are affected by the context in which they are produced and they might express certain privileged perspectives. Economic theories produced in Western societies – that dominate economics textbooks globally – may therefore 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).
Decolonisation is not simply about providing historical context, but to acknowledge that theories from outside the West can provide fruitful starting points. Scholarship from the Global South has, for example, provided important contributions to our understanding of subordination and uneven development. In fact, Comaroff and Comaroff (2012) have argued that theories developed in the Global South are increasingly relevant to understand processes that are now taking place in the North, such as informality, austerity, and rising inequality. The adoption and adaptation of Latin American dependency theory to understand core-periphery relations in the Euro-zone is another example (see here). Scholars based in the Global South that use methods of investigation and starting points that do not conform to the mainstream are likely to be doubly underrepresented in the field.
D-Econ supports the wider movement to decolonise the university, with the aim of radically transforming the terms upon which knowledge creation and education are done. This involves questioning of shared assumptions and interrogating the relationship between the location and identity of a writer and how they write about their subject (as Sabaratnam 2017 has argued). With this in mind, we aim to think creatively and radically about how we can reverse the marginalisation of ideas and scholars due to the Westernisation of the field.
Working Towards A Holistic Approach
D-Econ promotes a holistic approach based on the three building blocks outlined above: 1) diversity of identity 2) diversity of approaches, and 3) decolonisation. The holistic approach distinguishes D-Econ from existing initiatives promoting diversity and pluralism in economics. We strongly believe that any approach that focuses exclusively on only one of the above-mentioned three elements runs the risk of being inadequate, as it ignores other key aspects of marginalisation in the field. For example, diversity in identity is not enough to reverse the biases in the field if the dominance of the current paradigm is not also challenged, and challenging the dominant paradigm is not enough to ensure decolonisation. With this in mind, we aim to work with organisations and activists across the world that have similar missions in order to achieve our common goals.
We caution against simplistic approaches aimed at resolving problems by training and mentoring women and members of other underrepresented groups to make them compatible with dominant approaches and cultures, because such an approach does not address the underlying problems with the sector. We believe that problems faced by marginalised groups should, on the contrary, be considered starting points to improve our academic environments and scientific culture in order to make it more inclusive. With this starting point, we can start to think about how to tackle several forms of marginalisation in a more comprehensive manner in order to foster an economics discipline that is truly open to diverse theories, methods, and academics.
How Do We Move Forward?
We believe the structural barriers to diversity and decolonisation are due to institutional, political, and historical discrimination, as well as implicit biases. Identifying and addressing these will be a core part of our work, in addition to encouraging debate on what needs to be done among diverse voices.
Our current and upcoming projects include:
- Developing a database of marginalised scholars, in terms of identities, approaches, and geographies;
- Developing guidelines for inclusive practices within organisations and conferences,
- Stimulating awareness, debate and reflection on forms of exclusion, and ways that we can work to diversify and decolonise the field, and
- Connect and construct a network of international organisations and activists across the world with similar missions.
To join our effort and support our mission, see here.