Increasing Diversity in Economics Is Not Only a Moral Obligation

Luiza Nassif Pires | December 8, 2020

November 3rd, 2019, I delivered remarks on the closing panel of The New School/UMASS Amherst Graduate workshop held in New York City. The panel theme was “Broadening the boundaries of political economy”. I have since graduated and successfully gone through the job market. I hope my remarks from last year can serve as encouragement for fellow female, black, African-American, Latinx, and ethnic minority economic students, as well as all students in the field who have ever felt discriminated against. I also hope that it can help my colleagues understand the importance of fighting against misogyny and racism in the field.


“Broadening the boundaries of political economy” Remarks by Luiza Nassif-Pires:

“A couple of weeks ago, when Mark [Setterfield] sent the e-mail announcing the theme of the closing panel this year “Broadening the boundaries of Political Economy” I had this unstoppable urge to participate and say something about diversity. I really had to take a step back last night (the second time my watch said it was 1 am) to analyze: What on earth was I thinking when I decided to add one more commitment to my crazy ‘thesis writing while working four jobs and going on the job market’ schedule? What is this urge to say something about diversity that kept me working late on a Saturday night?

To explain this urge I will try my best to walk you through a very specific sentiment I had last night. You see, I have been educating myself to go on the job market, I have been studying feminist economics for a while; this means reading a lot about discrimination. So I really thought I already knew all the ways in which being a Brazilian female will affect my ability to not become yet another statistic in the leaking pipeline of the gendered economic profession. So, please, picture yourself exhausted from a lot of work and proud of a paper forthcoming co-authored with a male Professor suddenly reading this:

“Sarsons (2015) using data from the CV of economists,…, documented that, while an additional coauthored paper for a man has the same effect on the likelihood of tenure as a solo-authored paper, women suffer a significant penalty for coauthoring, especially when their coauthors are men.”

Bayer and Rouse (2016)

Well, clearly my urge to be here today discussing diversity is a survival reflex. But also, it really takes someone that feels this burden to be able to express and expose it. With that comes a certain moral obligation, one that I take seriously as a privileged Brazilian woman in a Ph.D. program in the US.

Around now you should be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with broadening political economy? Well, I have established so far that I believe that fighting for diversity is a survival reflex and a moral obligation. I want to now argue that it is also necessary to improve our theories.

As economists, we are frequently still stuck in the dilemma between writing our papers using the loathed passive voice or the awkward “we” pronoun. But who are “we”? “We” are neutral observers of social phenomena. “We” are scientists in agreement. “We” share theories and opinions of how to apply them. “We” are objectivity. And in contrast, the other we, the oppressed groups, are bound to ever be objects of study that are too subjective and biased to explain the laws of the universe.

But what if the royal “we”, the bastions of objectivity, are mostly white western males? They populate our departments, our syllabi, they write our textbooks; they name our theorems and paradoxes. Can we really claim that our theories are not biased?

So allow me to discuss how this bias affects political economy by focusing on what I believe to be at the heart of political economy: “classes”. Sandra Harding, in 2004 wrote:

“Differences between nonbourgeoisie, whether or not they were industrial workers – gender, racial, ethnic differences, for example – were noted in Marxian accounts but not of theoretical interest. Indeed, no theoretical framework was created within classical Marxism to explore the distinctive forms of oppression and sources of resistance that might characterize differently such groups.”

Harding (2004)

I believe that to broaden political economy we need to open the black box that is the working class and understand how oppression plays a crucial role in explaining economic dynamics.

How do we achieve that? We borrow some methodological tips from our fellow social scientists. We take a deep breath and absorb all the evidence of discrimination in our field. We stop selectively regarding the partial perspectives of gendered and racialized groups as “bias”. We recognize that their particular life experiences provide them with an advantage in the form of neglected standpoints and render them important sources of resistance. We fight discrimination in the field and increase representativeness. We broaden not only the applications but most importantly we review the theories. We refuse the idea that applications of a biased theory can be unbiased and can produce reliable results that consistently validate or deny such theories. We move away from the myth of objectivity and imagine a good theory not as a picture taken from a neutral perspective but as a mosaic, and to build this beautiful mosaic we encourage and nourish partial perspectives and understand that only by feeding the sources of resistance will we be able to break the big hegemonic picture that neoclassical economics is still presenting on the walls of the church of economics.

Finally, I would like to end by asking everyone in this room two tiny easy favors: First, the next time you write a syllabus, please add diversity to it. Second, the next time you read a CV, exercise questioning yourself about every small judgment you make. Remember that you are a human being living in a structurally unjust society and that discrimination inevitably happens when you fail to recognize that you live and think in a biased world. Change is possible. We must fight for it.

Thank you!”

Bayer, A. and Rouse, C.E., 2016. Diversity in the economics profession: A new attack on an old problem. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30(4), pp.221-42.
Haraway, D., 1988. Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies, 14(3), pp.575-599.
Harding, S., 2004. The feminist standpoint theory reader: Intellectual and political controversies. Psychology Press.
Sarsons, H., 2015. Gender Differences in Recognition for Group Work. Harvard University Working Paper.


Leave a Reply