The most influential female economist says sexism in her discipline is very real

Don’t ever list Carmen Reinhart’s name second.
Don’t ever list Carmen Reinhart’s name second.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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If you really want to piss off the economist Carmen Reinhart, refer to her coauthored research with fellow Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff as the work of “Rogoff and Reinhart.” (Whoops.)

“In economics, the alphabet rules. If the authors are not listed alphabetically, then you are the junior person,” Reinhart tells Quartz. She was not a junior author on any her papers with Rogoff. Her name should always come first. “People making this mistake is more the norm than the exception to the rule,” said Reinhart. “Even when perhaps the intention isn’t there, the subconscious does funny things.”

Reinhart is one of the most accomplished economists of her generation. She has done seminal research on international capital flows, capital controls, and sovereign debt (and with her frequent partner in publishing made one very famous Excel spreadsheet error). Her book, coauthored with Rogoff, “This Time Is Different,” on the history of financial crises, was a New York Times best seller.

Reinhart is also an anomaly in economics. In a list of the most influential economists by the number of citations of their work over the last decade, Reinhart is the only woman in the top 50 (she is number eight), and one of only four women in the top 100.

Unlike most other science and social science disciplines, economics has made little progress in closing its gender gap over the last several decades. Given the field’s prominence in determining public policy, this is a serious issue. “Whether explicit or more subtle, intentional or not, I think the hurdles that women face in economics are very real,” Reinhart says.

A recent study of diversity in economics (pdf) conducted by Amanda Bayer of Swarthmore College and Cecilia Elena Rouse of Princeton University confirms the field’s unusually wide gender gap. The researchers marshal many damning data points. For example, they show that from 1995 to 2014, while women surpassed men in doctoral degrees obtained in most science and social disciplines, essentially no progress was made in economics.

Why has economics fallen behind? Bayer and Rouse highlight the way that economics is taught. Their research suggest that the lecture format, which remains particularly prevalent in economics, is a deterrent, as women and minorities particularly benefit from more active learning methods. They also focus on implicit bias as a reason women rarely make it to the top. They cite research by the economist Heather Sarsons showing that, as Reinhart experienced, women in economics get less credit for coauthored papers than men do.

Reinhart, who was once the chief economist at the investment bank Bear Stearns, also connects the gender problem in economics to the discipline’s relationship to the finance industry—an industry that also has unusually poor gender equality. A Morningstar research report from 2015 find that fewer than than 10% of fund managers are women and only 2% of financial fund assets are exclusively run by women, compared with the 74% that are exclusively run by men. Reinhart points out that the subfields of economics that appear to her to be making the most progress in closing the gender gap, like international development and labor economics, have the least connection to finance.

While some researchers suggest that an influx of women into economics might change the type of topics studied, Reinhart was ambivalent about this impact. She was more focused on attracting talent. “Certainly, if you level the playing field, you are going to get better people,” said Reinhart.

As governments look to economics, and economists, for answers to the problems associated with inequality and globalization, the discipline will need the best people it can get.