Over a week ago, Justin Wolfers wrote in the New York Times about new research by Alice Wu (a Berkeley undergraduate student with skills in machine learning). Her paperexamined discussions on the website Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) and found that women who were discussed on the site were more likely to have personal rather than academic comments; although that is a kind interpretation. Indeed, women were subjected to more of what can clearly be termed verbal abuse, slander and threats than men.
As one indicator the 30 words most uniquely associated with discussions of women were: hotter, lesbian, bb (internet speak for "baby"), sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated and prostitute. By contrast the words most uniquely associate with men were juicy, keys, adviser, bully, prepare, fought, wharton, austrian, fieckers, homo, genes, e7ee, mathematician, advisor, burning, pricing, philly, band, kfc, nobel, cmt, amusing, greatest, textbook, goals, irate, roof, pointing, episode, tries.
As a reflection of the economics profession, it was not a pretty picture.
My initial reaction to this was that this type of thing was not uncommon for the Internet and in terms of gender issues in economics we had much more important things to worry about. I wasn't necessarily alone: Tyler Cowen published this thoughtful piece on the problems of having a tenure system. See also Diane Coyle in the Financial Times.
As you can see from the title of this post, I have changed my mind. EJMR is a problem and we need to do something about it. My reasoning is this: it does not take much searching through the site to see just how badly women are treated. Wu's research, if anything, understates the whole problem because it looks at words, not context. The context ain't pretty.
But the key is that it is specific women. There is hardly a woman in economics that, at one time or another, hasn't received derogatory statements on the site. And from following Twitter discussion on this, those comments invariably come from people who have encountered them in real life. In other words, if you are a woman attending a conference or seminar, you can look out at a sea of people with the knowledge that one or more of them has, in the worst cases, threatened you with violence. They have done so anonymously which only makes it worse. EJMR makes women in our profession profoundly unsafe. This is something that is shockingly awful and cannot be dismissed lightly. The site is causing considerable external harm. It is not some private community but one, precisely because it is an insiders forum, doing more harm than good.
What can we do about this? One option would be for EJMR to change its ways. But we do not even know who runs it. The whole thing is under a cloak of anonymity which is something that should also disturb us.
A simple way to start that change would be to actually take Wu's research and ban all of the words she has identified as being associated with stereotyping. The research is there, it could be simply implemented.
That would be a start but, as you can imagine, it might quickly evolve away. We need something stronger.
My more significant thought is a simple one and, if I may add, an economic one: follow the money. As a website, EJMR makes its money from ads. (One service values it at almost $100,000). There are two types of ads on the site.
The first are Google Ad Sense ads. These are ads served up by Google and feature advertisers like the Financial Times. Google have terms and conditions, however, and the one on "dangerous and derogatory content" seems to fit the bill:
We believe strongly in freedom of expression, but we don't permit monetization of dangerous or derogatory content. For this reason, Google ads may not be placed on pages containing content that:
Threatens or advocates for harm on oneself or others;
Harasses, intimidates or bullies an individual or group of individuals;
Incites hatred against, promotes discrimination of, or disparages an individual or group on the basis of their race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, age, nationality, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or other characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination or marginalization.
You can complain about any site here and I have done just that (citing Wu's research). One could also do that pointing to particular posts.
The second type of ad appears to be a permanent one for Econ-Jobs.com. This is a website run by a Mr David Jones in the UK. But that site is funded by the economics profession in the placement of job ads. They are not affiliated (to the best of my knowledge) with EJMR but this looks like an important financial relationship for EJMR. In other words, who is funding EJMR? We are!
I contacted the support site for Econ-Jobs a few days ago and they are looking into the issue. However, in the meantime, I do not see how any employer of economists can advertise on Econ-Jobs knowing their positions will show up on EJMR.
Now some may query whether doing something to harm EJMR is an assault on free speech. I am not proposing a government law. Nor am I proposing that they cannot exist even if I don't want them to. To be sure, I believe it is possible to have a site for discussing 'inside economics' stuff without the assaults on individual members of the profession that we see here. So in principle, things could evolve.
My point is that, while it is what it is, we don't have to fund it. We don't have to support advertisers or advertising platforms that fund it.
[Update #1 (August 28, 2017): Not long after this post went up, a new post from the owner of EJMR (going by the name of Kirk) appeared. It led with this:
EJMR has and always will condemn sexism. Over the years the site has become much better at tackling attempts to post sexist content, with a growing team of moderators, stronger moderation policy, and a programmed bot to auto-delete offensive posts. Indeed I believe most of the words that were cited as most offensive in the study were on the auto-delete bot for over a year, so you would not be able to find them with recent data. Unfortunately the bot would not have deleted these words in old posts, as the bot only targets recent posts to keep its load on the server low.
To help remedy this, last Wednesday I backdated the bot so it would auto delete all old posts with the offending words.
If someone wishes to suggest any words that should be added to the auto-delete bot they can ask the moderators.
This is (was) my first suggestion above and so it is good to see that it is being done. Some quick searching on the site indicated for me that this may well be the case. I want to acknowledge this as a positive step. And it may well satisfy Google Ad Sense.
That said, unfortunately, the site has managed to attract a set of users who continue to generate the harm we have seen over the years. What needs to be done is for a repeat study by Wu (or someone else) that examines the site in six months to a year to see if there has been a change. Statistical evidence convinced us there was a problem. Statistical evidence will convince us there is no longer a problem.]
[Update #2 (August 28, 2017): As of this morning (7am), Econ-Jobs.com advertisements are not on EJMR. I do not know if this is permanent but my objection to Econ-Jobs.com was that its ads for jobs were appearing on EJMR. If that is no longer the case, there is no reason to stop using Econ-Jobs. I will continue to monitor this and update if the change should not prove permanent.]