New features now available on EconSpark: Learn more!
+7 votes
asked ago in General Economics Questions by (380 points)
Academia usually prides itself as being a place of tolerance and openness. At the same time, there is what I see as a paradox: while some evidence suggests LGBT people are overrepresented in academia (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/26/study-suggests-faculty-members-are-disproportionately-likely-be-gay), why so few of them are open about being LGBT?

Evidences are clear that a non-accepting climate/workplace culture has significant and negative impact on workers well-being (https://theconversation.com/coming-out-at-work-is-not-a-one-off-event-101118), and I don't see why things should be different for LGBT academics.

What are we not doing right?

3 Answers

+2 votes
answered ago by (3.3k points)
Why do you think there are so few, and perhaps you can define open? I don't know if its on their twitter profile, but they don't hide it on facebook, instagram or other social media. I would define that as open about who they are, but maybe there's other ways of defining it.  

I can easily think of several immediately that I know personally.  Is this is a large or a small number?  I don't know but it's probably close to 2 percent, which is within the population level estimates of the fraction of people who are LBTQ.  But I also I'm ill equipped to answer about how we can do better.  Perhaps an LBQT economist could answer about their own experience in feeling included or excluded within their departments.
commented ago by (380 points)
Thanks for your answer. I wouldn't define being open in the workplace as "don't hide it on facebook, instagram or other social media". I know borders can be blurry between what's private and what's professional, but to me being open in private circles is definitely not the same as being open with your colleagues. I know it's far from perfect, but that's the best definition of "open" I can offer yet.

I am myself gay, so I may be biased on the sample of other LGBT economists I know, but at least in my department (that has a reputation of being usually nice and welcoming), I have never, ever heard any of the LGBT researchers or faculty openly discuss about their daily life stuff in various social events. In some occasions, it even took me *years* to know if someone was gay (even though I had my suspicions, but asking directly to someone "are you gay?" is one of the worst possible aggression you can do to a LGBT person). I am myself not open, and I have zero plan to change that. In other departments, I know people who are usually vocal about their politics being incredibly discreet about their sexual orientation – which is fine, I don't judge, I just try to understand why. Overall, I am not sure I know any truly open LGBT economists except two, or three (all women, for that matter).

Also, I wouldn't use some (disputed) numbers on the general population to infer the proportion of LGBT researchers. Mostly because as shown by the first link in my question, the distribution of people on jobs according to their sexual orientation is not job independent (so there is no reasons to assume researchers are similar to the average population). And also because measuring sexual orientation is hard (people can lie, people can even ignore they're gay, for many people sexuality is fluid, etc.), even though if I recall correctly, the number considered as the good one among psychologists is more of 5 to 10% of the general population who is gay of some sort.

I personally believe that economics is, in general, a field historically and currently made of, and by, white straight males, which shapes the structure of power and the associated incentives for anyone who wants an academic job. I'm absolutely not saying economics academia is homophobic, nor that being a white straight male is a bad thing. I'm rather saying that due to the way economics (as an institution) evolved and evolves, it's probably some sort of second best for a LGBT person to "hide" it somehow (people respond to incentives. And I don't think incentives in academia take really well into account the issues faced by some "minority" groups, like women, PoC or LGBT). But I could be wrong.
commented ago by (3.3k points)
I've never want anybody to hide anything about themselves.  No one in my department is openly gay (all are in relationships with opposite gender folks, although they could be in a mixed orientation relationship).  

I'm sorry that you feel that it is challenging to talk openly about what should be ordinary parts of your life.   I don't think you'd need to hide it here.  In fact, we might think we'd have a good shot at recruiting you if you brought it up because roughly 5 percent of the general population is LGBT in Oregon (based on noisy imprecise
measurements out there).  But I've never been in your shoes, and I bet I might feel similarly risk adverse in your place.  Because you are feeling uncertain about it at all, I take that as a revealed preference that we can and ought to do better.  Perhaps the AEA could have a mentoring program or something similar for LGBT economists.
commented ago by (2.2k points)
I have a sense that there are very few gay economists, but we generally don't talk about our private lives, and we seem to have much less of the sexual harassment,  sex for grades, casual sexual relationships between people in the department, and generally scandalous behavior than in the humanities or "social sciences".   So maybe economists are just not very interested in sex.  I like to think it's because we think economics is more important.
commented ago by (3.4k points)
Quick, someone call Bob Solow. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Solow
commented ago by (2.2k points)
Hah! I just  cambe back to add "Pace Bob Solow!" to my comment, but you beat me to it.
commented ago by (380 points)
edited ago by
@BenHansen451 I have no plans to continue in academia after my graduation (I find the environment way too toxic for me, especially after I've come to the realisation that winning prizes for promising PhD thesis doesn't compensate for the various psychological costs associated with an academic carrer: uncertainty, huge amount of work, egos, in my case, all the costs to hide who I am, and so on). But I'm glad to know some other LGBT folks could have a shot at your university. Is it a policy of your department, to specifically recruit LGBTQ people?

Regarding the AEA, an ad-hoc committee for LGBTQ issues has been created a few years ago (https://www.aeaweb.org/about-aea/committees/aealgbtq). Let's hope it will help the next generations of LGBTQ folks to have a better experience in academia than mine or the previous ones.

I'm starting to be a bit more open about myself at my workplace, but only to some colleagues, and always in 1-to-1 discussions where I would have to blatantly lie to continue the discussion and where I'm not too afraid to say something. I guess my near graduation and the perspective of leaving academia for good decreases the risk associated with this openness. But as I said in a previous message, I have no plans to be fully open in my department, even though I am with my friends and family.
commented ago by (380 points)
@user_8p8f5d Do you have anything to corroborate your intuition that "there are very few gay economists"? From my perspective of a gay man, there are gay economists, we just stay extremely quiet about it because we have no idea how well or how bad this information would be used against us.

I would also be interested to have more substantial evidences that economics is less concerned with sexual harassment and the other things you mention. To me, it seems there are two possible explanations: a) yours b) those things happen but no one talk about them (have you seen in the recent news what happen to women who decide to share their sexual harassment experiences?). On top of that, 80% to 90% of economics professors are men (see this document, p. 8 https://www.aeaweb.org/content/file?id=6388). The fact we hear nothing does not prove nothing exist, especially in those issues where it is widely proven that reporting is usually way below the actual numbers.

Last but not least, why do you bring sex in the discussion? Sexual orientation isn't really about sex. Sexual orientation is about having a way of life where you might share your daily life with someone of the same sex as yours. In my department, people do talk about their daily life, the children, and so on. But not the gay ones. A friend and colleague of mine got married to another man this summer, he didn't told anyone in the department about it (and he asked the few of us who were invited to say nothing about it in the workplace). How many straight people have a similar strategy regarding their wedding? Not that much, I bet…
commented ago by (3.4k points)
I'd like to make a point about diversity that this discussion illustrates. The gay economists who have commented have brought some facts to bear as well as personal experiences. So we all get to learn some things that we might not have otherwise. Diversity helps advance sensible discussion to everyone's benefit.
commented ago by (2.2k points)
@user_8p8f5d  here. No, this is just personal observation, which could be way wrong, so I hope others chime in. I do hear the occasional  gossip about adultery, live-in sex partners, divorce, and such, and about people in other fields than economics. The casual observation bias would go towards thinking there's more of this stuff among economists than other departments, so I conclude there's less--- but it might just be the localities I'm connected to. I don't really know the European continent, for example.
+8 votes
answered ago by (300 points)
This is a great question--thank you for starting this conversation.  I'm a lesbian and have been an economist for a few decades now.  While things aren't perfect, and we need to be reasonably vigilant about expanding and preserving our rights, I do think the climate has changed for the better (see my AEA evidence below).

And yes, there are bound to be many more LGBT economists and scholars in other fields than we know about, since many are still not open.  We've learned a couple of things about the closet from research.  First, about half of LGBT workers in the US are basically still in the closet at work (see http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/06/13/a-survey-of-lgbt-americans/, for example), so LGBT academics aren't alone in not being completely open.  Second, the closet is not a healthy place--it's associated with health issues, lack of engagement, stress, etc.  Third, it's also not great protection against discrimination, since we lose out on the ability to create stronger relationships with our colleagues, and our colleagues are probably trying to figure out why we seem so mysteriously devoid of a personal life if we're not out.

What's a better strategy for changing the climate?  Well.....

We've had a couple of efforts to make economics more open and welcoming to LGBTQ people.  Back in the 1990's we had a lunch for people who were out enough to show up for that--we got anywhere from 10-20 people typically.  When the guy who paid for it retired, the lunch ended.  Fast forward to a few years ago:  Kitt Carpenter and I, with the help of the AEA, started up another effort to bring us together.  We got 60+ economists at our first breakfast (despite the ungodly hour of 7 am) at the meetings in SF, a bunch in Chicago, and filled a ballroom in Philly for a lunch last year. We've got more happening in Atlanta.  Times  have changed--we can make more change by being open than closeted.  And many more people ARE being open.  

In addition to trying to open up our profession for all LGBTQ economists, there is also a growing and lively intellectual environment for research on the economics of LGBT life and families.  We'll have two sessions in Atlanta.  

Anyone can email me if you want to be on our mailing list, which is not shared with the AEA:  lbadgett@econs.umass.edu.  A new issue of our newsletter will be out soon.  Check out the group here for past issues and our statement from last year on our profession's climate: https://www.aeaweb.org/about-aea/committees/aealgbtq.
commented ago by (300 points)
Well, it's very interesting that I wrote out the L-word (I'm a L-rhymes-sort-of-with-thespian, named after an island in Greece) and the software  here replaced it with ******.   How ironic--I came out but got erased!
commented ago by (380 points)
Wow, the censorship of "lesbian" was brutal  It shows where we come from, and all the work that we still need to accomplish as a profession to be more inclusive.

Also, thank you for this reassuring testimony. I'm a graduate student so I haven't spent enough time in economics to notice a substantive change in the milieu. I'm glad to know things have improved, even if we're not there yet.

It's also reassuring to see the work done alongside the AEA. I would have loved to attend the ASSA meeting and the LGBT events, but I probably won't be able to come. I really hope that thanks to initiatives like this, next generations of LGBT economists will benefit from a more inclusive workplace.
commented ago by (300 points)
Hope to see you there someday!  In the meantime, the AEA's EconSpark team quickly changed the software so that we can use words like lesbian!
commented ago by (380 points)
That was fast from their part, but it still shows how much work still need to be done… Hope to see you there too! Even though I'm looking for a non-research job outside academia after my graduation, so I suppose my opportunities to attend scientific events will become quite rare afterwards.
commented ago by (2.2k points)
"Wow, the censorship of "lesbian" was brutal  It shows where we come from, "
    I think what it shows is the unreasonableness of the software Econsparks is using. I wonder if I say "Jewish" if it will censor that too? This is a test.
+2 votes
answered ago by (1.8k points)
I have been gracious enough to participate in the AEA mentoring program through my graduate studies and have met wonderful people working towards making academia more diverse and welcoming. One aspect of diversity in academia is not just having a diverse representation, but also having research reflect that. For example, there will be a special issue of Review of Black Political Economy devoted to black LGBTQ topics (https://twitter.com/TrevonDLogan/status/1049369069676322818).
commented ago by (380 points)
I completely agree. But I firmly believe that having a more diverse population of researchers will "naturally" lead to more diverse research topics (I'm almost to the point to say that a diverse pool of economic researchers is a *necessary condition* to have a more diverse range of research topics). It is a truism to say that, but white straight males are interested of white straight males problems, as black LGBT people are interested in black LGBT people problems, and so on…
...