GENDER AND QUALITY AT TOP ECONOMICS JOURNALS

13 Apr 2021

Articles written by male economists are cited less than articles published by women in the same journals, a new study on gender and quality in economics finds. The authors – Erin Hengel and Eunyoung Moon – also find that men’s citations rise when they co-author with women, and that women’s citations fall while they co-author with men, conditional on acceptance.

These results imply that top economics journals hold female-authored papers to higher standards, and, consequently, do not publish the highest quality research. They also suggest that authors of both sexes will be less willing to collaborate with women, all else equal.

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Women are under-represented in top economics journals. Although they make up 20–30% of academic economists, women are only 11% of all authors published in top-five journals since 1990, 12% since 2000 and 14% since 2010.

The new study investigates why by looking at gender differences in citations conditional on acceptance to a top-five journal. The authors find that (i) articles authored by men are cited less than articles the same journals publish by women; (ii) men’s citations rise when they co-author with women; and (iii) women’s citations fall while they co-author with men.

Under strong but reasonable assumptions, these results imply that top economics journals hold female-authored papers to higher standards, and, consequently, do not publish the highest quality research. They also suggest that authors of both sexes will be less willing to collaborate with women, all else equal.

The principal analysis looks at conditional average gender differences in citations accounting for several controls, including year of publication, journal, co-author count, authors’ experience at the time an article was written, authors’ reputation at the time citations were collected and sub-field. The study consistently finds that female-authored papers are cited more than male-authored papers, conditional on publication in a top economics journal. The estimates of the size of this gap range between 12–25 log points.

The authors next analyse how citations change as the same economist co-authors with members of the opposite sex. They find that both men’s and women’s citations rise when they collaborate with women, conditional on acceptance to a top-ranked journal. Men’s citations increase 10–12 log points when they co-author with an equal share of women compared to instances when they solo-author co-author only with men. Women’s citations fall -12 to -19 log points when they co-author with an equal share of men compared to instances when they solo-author or co-author exclusively with other women.

Finally, the researchers restrict their sample to senior male economists with at least two top-five papers co-authored with a single junior author of each sex. This creates a treatment group—i.e., senior male authors co-authoring with exactly one junior woman—that very closely resembles the untreated group—i.e., those very same seniors co-authoring with exactly one junior man. Again, a senior male author’s work is more highly cited when it is co-authored with a woman: citations increase 60–70 log points when senior male economists co-author with junior women as opposed to junior men.

What does this mean?

Assuming citations are not biased in favour of women conditional on quality (as well as included controls), these results suggest female-authored papers are higher quality than male-authored papers, conditional on publication in a top five economics journal. Under additional assumptions, this is because top economics journals hold female-authored papers to higher standards than male-authored papers.

Discrimination hurts its victims and its perpetrators. In the presence of complete and perfect markets, harm inflicted on the former is fully absorbed into higher costs for the latter. As a result, it has no effect on equilibrium outcomes—e.g., women can simply publish their higher quality papers in currently lower-tiered (but non-discriminatory) journals, confident that their actions will lead to an immediate adjustment in journal rankings.

When competition isn’t perfect, however, discrimination interacts with one or more market frictions to prevent those who discriminate from fully internalising its costs. Consequently, its victims will have to partially bear them. For example, imperfect information about journal rankings may mean tenure and promotion committees’ expectations are slow to adjust to the lower quality of journals that reject too many women.

As a result, women (and the men they co-author with) are tenured and promoted at lower rates than they otherwise would be if markets were complete. To the extent that grant committees similarly rely on applicants’ past publication histories to choose between projects, women will also have a harder time funding future work.

In economics, we generally approach incomplete markets by proposing policies that try to fix individual imperfections. When the space of market failures is large and each is impossible to eradicate completely, however, policies based on outcomes are sensible alternatives.

Not only are they non-punitive and relatively objective, they may also create positive externalities that might not have been achievable using markets alone. For example, if journals clearly signal a determination to publish more female authors, they will likely decrease the relative price of co-authoring with women, encourage better co-author matches and increase the aggregate quality of economic research.

Nevertheless, an adequate understanding of the context in which discrimination occurs is absolutely crucial to responsible policy-making. More research is certainly needed, the authors conclude:

‘We hope journals are challenged to address the tougher standards they likely impose on women, willing to support the access and research needed to better understand them and open to whatever policy options most effectively check them.’

Dr Erin Hengel

University of Liverpool

Erin's research interests are law and economics, corporate finance and applied micro theory; she has also investigated gender discrimination in peer review. Erin is from Pine Bluff, Arkansas (U.S.), has an undergraduate degree from Hendrix College in Conway and received her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.