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Nobel problem: Economists want to see their profession diversify

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United States economists Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson were awarded the Nobel prize in economic science on Monday for their work on auction theory – a body of work that influences how prices are set for things such as radio spectrum that underpins telecommunications, including your smartphone.

It is a stunning achievement that acknowledges an economic theory that touches billions of lives. But this year’s award – like most years – is also an opportunity to explore the lack of diversity within the economic profession and the profound influence that can have on policies that impact society as a whole.

Milgrom and Wilson join a league of Nobel laureates in economics that are overwhelmingly male. Since the Nobel committee began awarding an economic prize in 1969, only two women have won.

Last year, Esther Duflo became the first female economist to win the prize for her work with Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kramer on their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. Political economist Elinor Olstrom became the first woman to win the prize “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons” in 2009.

There is also a dearth of women on the prize committee itself. This year, Eva Mork was the only female economist on the six-person Economic Science Prize Committee. But many economists believe it will take a more diverse field of professionals to solve the world’s most pressing economic challenges – and that more must be done to attract and recognise women and people of colour so they are regularly represented at the highest level of the field.

The myth of meritocracy

Only 24 percent of PhD economists working with the US federal government identified as Black, Hispanic, Asian or as other minorities, a 2019 study from by the Brookings Institute found, and minorities comprised just 21 percent of economics faculty in US academia. The same study found that women made up just 30 percent of PhD economists at the federal-government level and just 23 percent of economics faculty in academia in the US.

Closing those gaps starts with addressing the biases and factors that lead women and people of colour to be excluded from the field or overlooked in the first place.

I know that my research would be different if I were not a woman, and I can think of many examples of economic insights that would never have come to light in an exclusively white, male, elite economics.

Shelly Lundberg, University of California Santa Barbara

One of them is the myth that economics is a meritocracy, said Shelly Lundberg, distinguished professor of economics at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“They claim that economics is economics, you either do it well or badly, and what we are aiming for is a meritocracy, plain and simple,” Lundberg told Al Jazeera. “I think that this view is wrong, and is itself an illustration of how narrow is the viewpoint of economics now.”

And while many economists say the work – not the economist – should be the central focus when it comes to promotions, publications, and prizes, research that shows women in the field are held to “higher standards in publication and promotion,” said Lundberg.

Lundberg added that diverse perspectives also lead to diverse policy proposals that can potentially change the world we live in.

“The questions we ask and the answers we consider are informed by our experiences,” she said. “I know that my research would be different if I were not a woman, and I can think of many examples of economic insights that would never have come to light in an exclusively white, male, elite economics.”

A narrow pipeline

But how can economists make their field less white, male and elite and more diverse and representative of the societies they study?

Research shows the work starts in education.

For example, the gender gap is already evident at the undergraduate university level: there are nearly three males for every female economics major in the US, according to a 2018 analysis co-authored by Claudia Goldin, Harvard University’s Henry Lee Professor of Economics and Tatyana Avilova, the project manager for the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge.

The numbers are similar in the United Kingdom.

“Women are under-represented in economics because of the lack of role models, that is, senior economists in important organizations are usually men,” Ana Galvao, a professor of economic modelling and forecasting at the University of Warwick. “This leads to an unconscious bias linking being a top-quality economist with the male gender. This affects the choices of young women when deciding their career and currently, only 30 percent of UK undergraduate students in economics are female.”

Our questions and our research will be more thoughtful, more nuanced, more rigorous the more diversity we have in the profession with regards to gender, race, ability, sexuality, religion, family background and other lived experiences.

Tatyana Avilova, Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge

Avilova and Goldin decided to study why female students aren’t choosing or staying in the field, examining data about US students who majored in economics and graduated between 2011 to 2015.

They found that even though female students outnumber male students at the undergraduate level more broadly, there was a higher rate of males graduating with economics degrees.

One reason: women were more likely to leave the field depending on how they fared from the start. Using data from an anonymised institution called “Adams College,” Avilova and Goldin found that a woman who received a grade of B+ in a “principles” course (a fundamental economics course required for higher-level classes) had a 27 percent chance of going on to major in economics. Men, on the other hand, had a 41 percent chance of continuing if they received a B+.

They found that “many students do not major in economics not because of true revealed preferences, but because of lack of adequate information about what economics is, what economics studies and what skills it teaches, and what careers are available to students who major in economics,” Avilova, now a PhD candidate at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera.

Using their findings, Avilova and the other members of the Women in Economics Challenge encouraged economics departments to explore ways to keep women in the discipline, including curriculum-based interventions that help students with different learning styles stay engaged, offering counselling and tutoring sessions and bringing in more diverse faculty members and guest speakers.

Bias and scrutiny

Once women enter the field of economics, they may face more scrutiny than their white male counterparts.

Alice Wu, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, focused her 2017 study on online conversations conducted on a popular forum called Economics Job Market Rumors, a virtual water cooler where economists discuss the latest comings and goings in the field and academia.

Wu found that when women were mentioned, discussions quickly pivoted towards their personal information and physical appearances.

She also found that the words used in posts with the strongest predictive power for females included “hot,” “attractive,” “pregnant,” “gorgeous,” “beautiful” and “lesbian,” as well as other more inappropriate terms. The words that were used in posts with the strongest predictive power for males, however, included “philosopher,” “keen,” “motivated,” “textbook” and “homosexual.”

The lack of diversity in the economics profession has been the subject of increased scrutiny.

In 2018, the American Economics Association created a new standing committee on equity, diversity and professional conduct, and added new inclusion initiatives, such as grants for study and travel, the costs of which can be barriers to advancement for early-stage economists.

There has also been a groundswell of grassroots activism among female economists and economists of colour.

The Sadie Collective, named after Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African American to earn her doctoral degree in 1921, is an organization created by undergraduates to address the pipeline for Black women in economics and related fields. The group shares job opportunities, holds panel discussions, and elevates minority conversations among Black economists.

The effect of the COVID-19 crisis

While there have been small signs of progress when it comes to diversifying economics, the continuing COVID-19 crisis has exposed and exacerbated long-standing inequities, too.

Preliminary research by Olga Shurchkov, an associate professor of economics at Wellesley College, found the number of academic papers submitted by women dropped substantially in March and April of this year, coinciding with the closure of schools across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic. Shurchkov also found that male faculty were four times more likely than female faculty to say they had a stay-at-home partner.

Shurchkov and her research team are continuing to collect more data on the subject, especially as virtual schooling and hybrid schedules mean that economists who also have caregiving responsibilities may have limited capacity for research and publication this fall and into 2021.

For academics, one year of professional upheaval could impact their career for decades – offering fewer opportunities for publication and achieving tenure.

There is much work to be done when it comes to creating parity for women and people of colour in economics, as well as a variety of other academic fields. But many economists are doing all they can to improve inclusion at all levels of their profession – from students to Nobel laureates.

As the pipeline of students entering economics widens, the thinking goes, representation will improve, too, including in front of Nobel committees. And that could have a positive effect in so many ways, Avilova said.

“Our questions and our research will be more thoughtful, more nuanced, more rigorous the more diversity we have in the profession with regards to gender, race, ability, sexuality, religion, family background and other lived experiences, and the better the economics discipline will be for it,” she said.

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Hybrid school might be the worst of both worlds

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Hybrid learning was supposed to be an improvement.

When school buildings closed in the spring due to the pandemic, students, teachers, and families all struggled with remote classes. But come fall, the virus was still raging across much of America. So many districts — including the nation’s largest, New York City — struck a compromise.

They would bring kids into buildings, but only for part of the day or week. That way, they’d reduce the number of students in schools at any one time, limiting viral spread, while still giving students crucial in-person time with their teachers and peers.

That was the idea, anyway. In practice, however, hybrid models could turn out to be the worst of both worlds, as David Zweig predicted at Wired in July.

To begin with, hybrid schedules don’t really solve one of the pandemic’s biggest problems for parents: the lack of child care. While having kids in school a few days a week or a few hours a day might give parents a bit more flexibility to do their jobs, “the benefits of being able to work a little less part-time and a little less erratically are not going to be anything like what you’d be getting from full-time school,” Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress who studies the impact of child care, told Vox.

And while some parents may be able to stay home with their kids on the days they’re out of school, others will need outside child care. That means kids will spend part of the week in child care centers, camps, pods, or other group arrangements — all of which increase their potential exposure to the virus, which they can then bring into their schools. “I do wonder if we are actually creating more problems through the hybrid model because now we are allowing more time for more exposures to occur,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, told Vox.

Hybrid models appear to do one thing they’re supposed to do: They give kids a little bit of the in-person interaction they missed out on in the spring. But some say there are better ways of achieving that goal, from outdoor classrooms to prioritizing in-person school for younger students, who often struggle the most with remote learning.

Education during the pandemic is an incredibly difficult problem — “people are trying really, really hard to solve this,” Madowitz noted. But it may be a case where the compromise solution is far from the best one.

Hybrid models are supposed to limit the spread of Covid-19. Experts worry they might do the opposite.

American schools began weighing the idea of hybrid instruction in the late spring and early summer, when it became clear that Covid-19 would be far from gone at the start of the fall semester. Ultimately, about 12 percent of districts around the country were planning on a hybrid start as of late August, according to a survey by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. That percentage amounts to thousands of schools nationwide — New York City alone has over 1,800, serving more than 1.1 million students.

Hybrid models vary in their execution — some have students coming in only a few days per week, while others split students into morning and afternoon groups. But however they work, the idea is roughly the same: A hybrid schedule reduces the number of kids in each classroom at once to better allow for social distancing. It may also reduce the number of people each student interacts with in-person, since students often stay with cohorts that are smaller than their normal classes. And many districts are setting aside time in their hybrid schedules to deep-clean schools, although some have begun to raise questions about how much surface cleaning really matters when it comes to reducing viral spread, Nuzzo noted.

Beyond questions about the efficacy of cleaning, there are a couple of potential problems with hybrid schedules. For one thing, hybrid education doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of students each teacher has contact with, since they may teach multiple cohorts. That’s concerning because adults are at much greater risk of serious illness or death from the virus than children are. “Really, who we’re concerned about most in terms of reducing risk in a school environment is the teacher,” Nuzzo said.

Then there’s the question of what happens during the days or hours when students are remote. While some parents are caring for children at home during that time, others are enrolling kids in camps or child care centers — some of which are adapting to care for more school-aged kids. Still other families are bringing kids together in informal groups sometimes called “pods” to share child care responsibilities. Finally, older children may be getting together with friends without adult supervision.

Overall, if kids “are in some other care environment where they are now exposed to another group of people, then we may have effectively increased the number of people all having contact with each other over the course of a week,” Nuzzo said.

That, in turn, increases the likelihood that a student could bring Covid into school and infect others. A number of epidemiologists have raised this concern in recent months. For example, William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote in an August op-ed in the Washington Post that “hybrid school plans make it easier for the virus to transmit into schools, simply by producing more links between schools and families along which the virus can travel.”

So far, there’s little comprehensive data on Covid-19 and schools in the US, let alone on hybrid models, but some data does show troubling hints. For example, the Covid-19 Schools Response Dashboard, which pulls together case counts and other data from a selection of schools around the country, found that, as of September 22, staff infection rates were actually higher at schools using hybrid learning than at schools with fully in-person instruction. There could be reasons for this beyond the model itself — for example, dashboard co-creator Emily Oster told Vox that schools might be more likely to use a hybrid schedule if Covid-19 transmission rates in the area are already high.

Still, there’s little evidence in the data so far that hybrid schedules make schools safer, and according to experts, there’s a lot of cause for concern.

With kids home for much of the week, parents still face child care struggles

The other, related problem of hybrid models is one of child care. In the spring, the closure of schools and day care centers caused a crisis for working parents around the country. The problem was most severe for women, who still shoulder the majority of caregiving responsibilities.

Women also lost a majority of the millions of jobs shed by the American economy early in the pandemic, and many economists feared that without a solution to the child care problem, even more women would be pushed out of the workforce. Mothers, especially those who are primary breadwinners, faced the prospect of “having to choose between making a living and taking care of their families,” Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told Vox this summer.

Some economists — and families — looked to fall as a possible respite, when a resumption of school would allow moms to get back to work. That didn’t happen. Instead, many districts started the fall either in hybrid mode or fully remote.

Hybrid models may have provided some parents with a bit of a break — as Madowitz put it, “for a lot of parents, anything is better than nothing.” But for many others, a few days of child care and supervision isn’t that much better than no child care at all.

That may be especially true for parents in low-wage service jobs who don’t have a lot of control over their schedules. Hybrid models may also pose a particular problem for families that rely on grandparents or other older relatives for child care, Madowitz said, since the virus exposure of a partial week at school could put those relatives at risk. Indeed, more than half of New York City families have chosen all-remote rather than hybrid learning this fall, with some citing older family members as the reason.

With millions of kids still at home for at least part of the week, then, millions of parents — a majority of them moms — haven’t been able to return to their normal working hours. Instead of rebounding with the return of school, women’s employment plummeted this fall, with 865,000 women dropping out of the labor force in September, compared with just 216,000 men.

And while hybrid learning may be helping some parents get a bit more work in, “when you look at what’s been going on with jobs, its really hard to believe you’re gonna get this huge pop” in women’s employment from hybrid schooling alone, Madowitz said.

Not to mention, any child care break that parents get from hybrid schooling may be short-lived if schools have to return to remote instruction due to rising Covid-19 cases in the area. That’s already happened at more than 100 schools in New York City, which closed earlier this month due to growing clusters of the virus in Brooklyn and Queens. And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that the entire school system will close if the city reaches 3 percent test positivity over a seven-day period. That means any parents who have been banking on school to facilitate their work schedules will have to scramble for another solution — or quit.

When it comes to women’s employment in particular, “I’m just deeply scared,” Madowitz said.

Hybrid models may benefit students, but there may be more creative solutions that would work better

The biggest benefits of hybrid models are likely educational. “At least in the hybrid education models, the students are getting some real-time, in-person instruction,” as well as interaction with peers, which is important for social and emotional development, Emiliana Vegas, co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, told Vox.

“We know that students really thrive when they learn to collaborate,” she explained. “That’s really much harder to do in a remote setting, particularly for the younger children.”

While there’s little data so far on the effectiveness of hybrid models, there is data showing significant learning losses during all-remote school this spring, concentrated among low-income and Black and Latinx students. Experts hope that having at least some in-person time will mitigate these losses, Vegas said.

And some families have seen the benefits for their kids. Amy, a New Jersey mom who asked that her last name not be used, told Vox that remote school in the spring for her two sons, then 8 and 3, was “like a nightmare.” But with both boys in school on a hybrid model now, “this fall has been a lot better.”

Amy’s younger son, who has an autism spectrum diagnosis, “really needs the in-person guidance” and is getting occupational therapy and speech therapy during his four days at school. With him out of the house, it’s also a bit easier for his older brother to focus on remote school. He’s at home three days a week and in school for two, and though he was recently diagnosed with a visual processing disorder that can make Zoom lessons challenging, overall “things are pretty good if you’re looking at pandemic parameters,” Amy said.

While families like Amy’s are benefiting from hybrid schedules, in some districts the model doesn’t actually guarantee much in-person instruction. For example, Nuzzo said that one plan floated by her child’s district would have students come into classrooms for online lessons. “I’m not sure that that’s worth the hassle of leaving the house,” she said. “I don’t want him to be on a screen anymore if he’s going to be in a school building.”

And some fear that the educational benefits of a hybrid model could be negated by the sheer logistical challenges of bringing students into schools in the midst of a pandemic. New York City, for example, has been forced to put all its energy into health and safety, leaving little time to help teachers with the challenges of hybrid education, Tom Liam Lynch, editor-in-chief of the website InsideSchools, and a parent of a New York City sixth grader, told Vox.

Starting in the summer, parent concerns about actual pedagogy have gone unheard, Lynch said: “Parents are asking for the plan for high-quality instruction, and the city’s saying we have sanitizer.” Now it’s October, and there’s still “no leadership in terms of what constitutes high-quality learning and teaching,” he said.

Given these and other concerns, some are pushing for different solutions to the problems of pandemic education. For example, a lot of districts chose hybrid models because it was the only way to allow for social distancing within their school buildings, Nuzzo said. But districts could use outdoor space or temporary structures to make room for more kids. Alternatively, younger children could be brought back first, freeing up larger high-school buildings to host elementary-school classes.

Overall, there’s been a lack of creativity around physical space when it comes to schools, Nuzzo argues: “Think about places that were able to create hospitals and have tents and things like that, and yet we haven’t applied that level of thinking with respect to schools.”

There’s also the potential for rethinking what school buildings are for. In New York City, a lot of the conversation around reopening schools (and closing them in the first place) has been around the crucial social services schools provide, from child care to meals for food-insecure students. Instead of trying to reopen schools on a hybrid model, the district could have focused on delivering those face-to-face services while keeping instruction remote, Lynch said.

Such a solution “would have freed up building principals to be able to very creatively use millions of square footage of New York City school building space for tons of non-academic services,” Lynch said. “You could have child care at your local school in some form; you could have access to guidance, to meals, to a nurse; you could have even informal clubs and other kinds of activities that students could come in for.”

But so far, such a solution isn’t on the table in New York City. And overall, in a time when policymakers are faced with many competing priorities, schools can often feel like an afterthought.

“I am very frustrated about governments that have made faster decisions to reopen restaurants and bars and movie theaters and public gatherings well in advance of opening schools,” Nuzzo said. “It just feels like very short-term thinking.”


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Pakistan lifts ban on TikTok after app vows to moderate content

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Regulatory body PTA says video-sharing app provided assurances it will block accounts spreading obscenity and immorality.

Authorities in Pakistan have announced the lifting of a ban on TikTok, saying they received assurances from the video-sharing app that it would “moderate” content in accordance with local laws.

“TikTok is being unlocked after assurance from management that they will block all accounts repeatedly involved in spreading obscenity
and immorality,” the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said in a statement on Monday.

Earlier this month, the regulatory body said it had blocked the popular app after receiving complaints of vulgarity from members of the public.

In a statement published on Saturday, TikTok said it was “disappointed” that users in Pakistan were unable to access its service.

“Over the past year, we’ve made concerted efforts to address questions from the Government of Pakistan around our content moderation process, including significantly increasing the capacity of our local language content moderation team,” TikTok said in a statement.

The company said that even after the ban, it continued to “engage with the PTA to demonstrate our commitment to comply with local laws”.

“Though the PTA acknowledged and appreciated these efforts, our services remain blocked in the country and we have received no communication from PTA,” the statement added.

History of censorship

The move against TikTok came months after livestreaming app Bigo Live was banned for the same reasons, while dating app Tinder has also been blocked in recent months.

In August, authorities warned YouTube to block “vulgarity and hate speech”. The online video platform introduced a localised version in Pakistan after a ban that lasted for several months in 2012 following protests against a movie deemed insulting to Prophet Muhammad.

In 2016, Pakistan’s parliament passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act to regulate, among other things, online content.

It gave the PTA broad powers to block content considered to be against “the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or … public order, decency or morality”.

Rights groups said PTA had blocked more than 800,000 websites and platforms from being accessed within the country.

The list of blocked websites includes pornographic platforms but has also included news outlets considered critical of the country’s security and foreign policies, some social media and some websites of political parties.

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‘The next 6 to 12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic,’ expert says

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How would things taste if you lost your sense of smell? It’s a question that has become surprisingly common this year.

Anosmia — or “smell blindness” — is a condition which is thought to affect around 5% of the population. But with loss of smell and/or taste two of the recognized symptoms of Covid-19, this previously little-known condition has come under the global spotlight.

Not only have people been unable to smell or taste while sick with the virus, many people report long-term loss of these senses while recovering. 

Dutch cookbook writer Joke (pronounced Yok-e) Boon suffers from anosmia. She lost her sense of smell at the age of four — probably a combination of a severe cold and having her tonsils removed. 

Despite this, she has written five cookbooks. So how does someone without a sense of smell experience food? For Boon, it’s mainly with her brain — by employing a facial nerve.

Starting from the ear and branching out in three strands towards your eyes, nose and jaw, the trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensory perception in the face. It’s meant to protect us from danger — stimulated by, for example, smoke and ammonia. But certain food ingredients can also set it off. 

“You know the feeling when you eat too much wasabi at once?” says Boon. “I use this nerve a lot to ‘taste’ my food, I play with it. I can also feel ginger, mint, mustard and pepper this way. Pepper and ginger are warm and tingling, whereas mint and horseradish create a cold sensation.” 

She says the color, texture and even sound of food have big roles, too.

Read the full story here:

The chef who can't smell or taste

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