Review of Engendering Economics: Conversations with Women Economists in the United States" by Paulette J. Olson and Zohreh Emami

by Arjo Klamer

Review of Social Economy, ol. LXII, no. 4, December 2004, pp. 558-561.

Picture: Zohreh Emami

Reading these series of conversations of "mature" women economists is enlightening and illuminating. Eleven women tell their stories. They talk about their families, their education, important people in their lives, the opposition that they have faced as women and blacks in a dominantly white male profession, their careers, and their economics. Anyone even slightly interested in the world of economists as well as that of female academics will be drawn into these stories.

The interviewers, Olson and Emami set out on a mission when conducting these conversations. As they explain in their introduction they were not just interested in the stories of mature women economists, but they also wanted to show how oral history can be a legitimate method of research in economics and contributes to our understanding of the sociology of economics. The questioning reveals more. They wanted to find out whether anything can be learned from the family backgrounds of these women, whether they had troubles "plugging into" the social networks of economists, and how much resistance these women had met in their careers, They also wanted to find out about their relationship with feminist economics, and how their family life figured in. This makes for a wide array of issues that gave them plenty to talk about.

Maybe there were too many topics to discuss. Maybe the interviewers were hampered by working together. Maybe the editing could be improved upon. For if I may express a point of criticism, the interviews do not always flow as well as they could. Questions do not always follow logically or are too open ended ("Marianne, how would you describe your evolution as an economist?"). Getting a good interview is easier said than done. When I did mine (as reported in Conversations with Economists), I tried to find everything I could about the person and made a clear plan before I did the interviewing. I never sent in questions beforehand as Olson and Emami decided to do. Maybe it does not make a big difference but my idea was that the flow of the conversation has to motivate the interviewee to say what he (yes, I had no women among my interviewees) otherwise may not have said. Olson and Emami hoped to prepare their interviewees with their questions. Maybe so, but the disadvantage of their method is that the program becomes too explicit and predictable this way. You get a feel that the three of them have to work through a preset number of questions. As a reader you become conscious of that. Maybe that is also the reason that some of the questions appear to interrupt the flow. When I want to know why Helbrun thinks that women economists are not very creative in their work, the next question in the program comes. I preferred to follow the train of thought of the other and tried to adjust, holding my planned questions for a better moment later on. Another difference is that Olson and Emami elected in many cases an informal setting like dinner, and used sometimes more than one session for one conversation. I always chose for a single session and tried to concentrate the conversation in such a manner that a minimum of editing was needed. I wanted to reproduce the conversation more or less as it took place. Contrary to the experience of Olson and Emami I found the interviewing never relaxing and pleasant. I was almost always exhausted afterwards, so intense had been my concentration on the process. I also usually felt empty as I had set aside my own ideas and thoughts eager as I was to find out about what the other was thinking. Then again, Olson and Emami had the pleasure talking with people they admire, or at least sympathize with. I talked with new classical and new Keynesian economists whose ideas and lives I was not about to follow. Whatever, I would have opted for some more editing to render the questioning less interruptive and to make the conversations flow more.

As said, the conversations make good stories regardless of the outcomes. Even so, the conversations confirm some of your expectations and may alter others. Not unexpected is the variety of family backgrounds. Many of these women do not come from intellectual families. Barbara Bergman talks even about a family member who never learned to write and read (but became successful in business anyway). Some form of discrimination seems to have been part of the experience of each and every one of them. Although this does not come as a surprise considering they all started their professional careers in the fifties their accounts are startling anyway. Imagine to be told that you cannot be hired because you are a woman, or that tenure is out of reach because you may drop out pregnant and all. Some of them indicate that they did not think of discrimination at the time—it was normal after all in their time.

Remarkable is that most of these women developed their careers in the margins of the academic profession or, as Alice Rivlin, in administrative and policy positions. Alice Rivlin is possibly the most established economist among the interviewees—she is the only elected president of the American Economic Association among them—yet she never had a real academic position. One of the problems may be the lack of a developed network in the world of economists. As the authors point out, my interviewees were virtually all very well plugged in whereas theirs had to manage without mentors and support system when they set up their careers. All the time they had to struggle to fit in, to make the right connections. As may be expected, other women economists are mentioned most often as facilitators and supporters.

As to the direction in which the discipline is going, they are virtually without exception critical. The picture is actually becoming quite bleak in these accounts. All of these women confess that they were drawn to economics because of social and policy issues, and they find that the discipline is turning away from such issues as the preoccupation appears to be now with formal and theoretical concerns. Too many of them would not recommend economics to young women with similar interests as themselves. Economics is becoming rapidly irrelevant in their view, and threatens to lose the socially orientated students. They issue quite a warning, you would say. But just like in the beginning of their career, the establishment is unlikely to pay their point of view much attention.

Feminism is one of the themes of the conversations. Some of these women are outspoken in their feminist views, others, like Rivlin and Ingrid Rima , do not consider feminism or feminist economics of much relevance for them and their careers. They suggest that feminist economists who want to be taken serious do better taking on "normal" economic issues, leaving typically feminist issues like the economics of care and pay inequality to others. They want women economists to become just economists. Most disagree with this position and insist on doing research in areas that affect women most.

A refreshing feature of these conversations is the way they integrate personal and professional lives. Family life matters to economists, too. hese women struggled with broken marriages, the combination of work and care; they generally paid the price for having children and had to cope with limited provisions in childcare. Helburn even decided to dedicate her research to the issue (in collaboration with Bergman). I was inspired to read about her struggle and ultimate success in communal living and about the spirituality of Myra Strober. You do not get such candidness, or for that matter, such varied experiences when talking with established men economists. Barbara Bergman is abrupt and blunt as always, Anne Mayhew tells in a sober way a rich and heart warming story. I do not know all these women personally, yet the conversations make me feel that I know them now.