In recent years, when I told people that I, an academic economist, might be interviewing for my next job in a hotel bedroom, I would get one of two reactions: either shock and bemusement (and, since #MeToo broke, a Harvey Weinstein joke) or, more commonly, a mildly confused shrug and a “so what?”
Now, though, the American Economic Association — the professional association for economists in academia, industry, and policy — has announced measures to move economics job interviews out of hotel bedrooms. These come after a host of other moves to improve women’s representation and inclusion (much needed in a field where less than 15% of full professors are women).
In the grand scheme of things, this is a small (but valuable) change, affecting some of the people in one profession in one country. But it’s also a useful parable about discrimination, disadvantage and the accumulation of mundane oversights.
To understand what I mean, consider how we got here in the first place. As one might expect from a marketplace designed by economists for economists, the market for post-Ph. D. jobs in economics is highly structured and highly efficient. All interviewers and all interviewees descend on the annual AEA conference in January each year to meet each other in a grueling series of often back-to-back interviews. But it comes with a problem: space. Even the largest conference hotels can’t offer enough interview spaces for everyone who wants them. The institutions that have the money and are quick enough on the button to reserve hotel suites can interview in their living room area. Others use noisy tables in a ballroom. The rest resort to hotel bedrooms. (Many make an effort to set it up as much like an office as possible. Some don’t).
This matters. It matters because for some people — particularly if they have experienced sexual assault — it can be uncomfortable at best and triggering at worst to do a job interview in a tight hotel bedroom space, often with an all-male interview panel, often with someone sitting on the bed, and sometimes sitting on the bed yourself. It matters because no professional wants to be reminded — at the most pivotal moment of her career to date — that she is a young woman in a bedroom with several older men, with all the connotations that carries in our world of objectification and sexualization. Not to mention the mental energy required to put aside these thoughts — energy an economist would rather use to be at the top of her game for the interview.
It also matters at a systemic level. If some people — predominantly women — are being thrown off their game like this in job interviews, then the economics profession is likely missing out on some real talent and excellence.
After brainstorming with other grad students and faculty at the Berkeley Summit for Diversity in Economics and at Harvard Grad Women in Econ, Kathryn Holston and I wrote a memo laying out the problem and some possible solutions, and sent it to the AEA in October 2018. Other economists also had conversations about hotel bedroom interviews online, in private, and with the AEA. With several ongoing debates about gender in economics, and a growing body of evidence of discrimination and disadvantage, the moment was ripe for change — and change came (sooner than we expected!).
So what’s the bigger lesson here? It has to do with the way systems perpetuate disadvantage. Sometimes it’s bad actors doing bad things. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are still far too prevalent in every profession. Explicit bias and discrimination exist everywhere.
But sometimes there’s no evil intent. Sometimes structural disadvantage emerges from an accumulation of mundane oversights: small, unintended barriers that may seem trivial on their own but together serve to exhaust, disempower and exclude.
Perhaps you sit in a conference room full of men throwing about yet again some outdated stereotype about women’s attitudes to work or housework or children, and wonder if it’s worth speaking up and risk being labeled the angry feminist.
Perhaps you realize that your professor and peers have been getting together to play sport or go for drinks — and discuss research — without you. They’re all men, and buddies. You’re not. You worry that if you don’t try to inveigle yourself into their circle you’ll lose out on valuable professional relationships. But maybe you don’t play basketball, or don’t like beer, or simply weren’t invited — and it’s disheartening to keep trying and failing to fit in.
Perhaps if you’re working on gender issues, you feel that you have to go over the top to show that you’re doing real science — rather than just pursuing some activist agenda — by entertaining every other conceivable explanation, however remote, for the phenomenon that you document, before positing that it might be caused by discrimination.
Perhaps you do extra work to address gender issues in your discipline — serving on committees to make sure that they’re gender balanced, or giving extra mentoring to female students. But the burden of such work falls disproportionately on you and other women, and you have less time than your male colleagues to do the research that really counts for professional success.
Perhaps you feel like you tend to get more aggressive and more patronizing comments when you present your work, but you’re not quite sure why, and you don’t know whether it’s just you or it really is a gender thing.
Perhaps every day, you walk past a wall of distinguished white men who are (rightly) honored by your institution — but it reminds you that, for most of history, people like you weren’t welcome at places like these. You have never walked past a wall of people who look like you.
Note that none of these things were designed to exclude or alienate women. Without stopping to think, few men probably even notice that they may have this effect.
And none of these things on their own would dissuade you from pursuing a particular career or sticking it out at a particular job. But the accumulation of it all? It can make life that much more difficult.
I’ve talked about gender because it’s particularly salient for the topic at hand — interviews in hotel bedrooms. But it’s not the only issue. Too often, gender gets discussed and acted upon precisely because progress has already been made — because there’s a critical mass of women in a profession to raise awareness and make change. In economics, underrepresentation by race (and likely class) is worse, and the obstacles faced are often much bigger.
The phrase “diversity and inclusion” has the feel of an irritating human-resources buzzword. But the often ignored “inclusion” part matters. For people to collaborate, learn and excel, you need a community where every individual is not just nominally present but included and valued. For the economics profession, moving job interviews out of hotel bedrooms is an excellent step toward building that community.
Anna Stansbury is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Harvard University and a Stone Ph.D. Scholar in Harvard’s Program in Inequality and Social Policy.