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What We've Learned from the AEA Controversy

January 31, 2019 01:13 PM

by Tara Sheehan, APPAM Executive Director

Academic conferences almost never make the news, even when important research or work is being presented. Recently one of the biggest did make the news, though--for all the wrong reasons. 

The American Economic Association’s annual conference is a behemoth in the econ world. It’s the meeting where a lot of APPAM members got their first job, presented a paper or never miss for recruiting purposes.  It attracts 13,000+ attendees annually and boasts several hundred sessions. The AEA is 130 years old and is the biggest and most powerful association in the economics field, hands down.

Their 2019 meeting in early January in Atlanta garnered national attention because of the way the leadership handled the actions and behavior of one of their members which exposed a long and sordid history of discrimination, harassment and bullying of women in the field of economics. If you missed the coverage, you can find it here. It was also discussed on Twitter at length.

Roland Fryer, a prominent economist at Harvard, who had just been elected to the AEA Executive Committee, was being accused of sexual harassment. While the allegations had been public for some time, the AEA said they didn’t know about them at the time and would wait until Harvard completed a full investigation before taking action. Eventually, Fryer resigned from the AEA Executive Committee.

I don’t envy the AEA’s position. It’s easy to say, after the fact, what could/should have been done. I like to think APPAM would never be a community that would make women—or anyone—feel unwelcome or bullied. But I do know that sometimes there is a disconnect between elected leadership, staff and the field at large.  It’s impossible for elected leaders to know everything that’s going on in a field or community, especially one as large as the economics field. Creating different positions within a board (young professionals, students, etc.) can help with some of the disconnect but it can’t totally eradicate it. And the largest consistent player in creating rules, procedures for conduct, and polices are staff—who are generally not part of the field. It’s easy to see how this happened and there are countless ways to ensure it doesn’t happen again.  

AEA created a code of conduct in early 2018. What it didn’t address was how to apply that code to its leaders, what would happen if the code was violated or what the reporting process for violation was.  It’s easy to think that something like a code of conduct for leadership, members or a general meeting isn’t necessary.  But it is. And watching this all unfold in the NY Times and on Twitter made me painfully aware that APPAM doesn’t have any codes of conduct for anything related to our elected leadership or our meeting attendees. We have since assembled a Codes of Conduct and Standards committee that will ensure that we have such codes of conduct and standards in place by our 2019 Fall Conference in Denver.

I have definitely heard some troubling stories from APPAM members about interviewing for jobs in hotel rooms, perched on beds and other strange customs but the stories some women told on Twitter about discrimination and harassment in the field made me sad.  And downright angry. I would never want any of our members to feel like the APPAM community, and the larger public policy community, didn’t value them or their contributions and if they felt unsafe or victimized, I hope they would come forward. By having a clearly defined process for coming forward with codes of conduct, we can guarantee that. 


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