When #MeToo hurts women’s career
In this working paper (i.e., not peer reviewed yet), Marina Gertsberg investigates research collaborations between junior female economists and their male colleagues following #MeToo and shows unintended consequences of the movement for women’s career.
What are the results?
Junior female economists started fewer new projects after #MeToo: Their number of research projects dropped by 44%. In particular, they were less likely to start projects with male co-authors, even more so if 1) they hadn’t worked with them before the movement, 2) if they were at the same university, and 3) if they were more senior.
On the other hand, no comparable drop was observed among junior male economists: They started as many collaborations as usual, and compensated for the decline of projects with junior female economists with more projects with other male economists. As such, while men’s productivity remained constant, women’s productivity declined.
What explains this decline?
Gertsberg tries to identify the mechanism explaining this decline. Her hypothesis is that, if research collaboration between men and women decreased after #MeToo, it is not because women avoided interactions with men, but rather the other way around: Men deliberately limited their interactions with female colleagues, for fear that their behavior might be misinterpreted. The researcher presents a series of fact that are consistent with this hypothesis.
First, the decline in collaborations between junior female and male economists was stronger in universities in which sexual misconducts tend to be reported and made public, and sexual misconduct policies are ambiguous (e.g., not precisely defining which actions are considered sexual misconduct). On the other hand, the effect was mitigated in universities that had non-ambiguous sexual misconduct policies (i.e., specifically prohibiting certain behaviors). This is consistent with the idea that when men believe that they are more likely to be publicly accused of engaging in inappropriate behaviors, they reduce their interactions with female colleagues.
Second, the effect of #MeToo on collaborations was more pronounced in more liberal states. The researcher argues that women with liberal values can be perceived as more likely to see and report inappropriate behaviors. In such social setting, men would thus perceive collaboration with women as riskier, and would therefore be less likely to collaborate with them. This effect, however, was again mitigated by non-ambiguous sexual misconduct policies.
How did the researcher show this?
To show a change in research collaborations due to #MeToo, the first step is to compare the collaborations of women with the collaborations of men, before and after #MeToo.
To do so, the researcher collected data on the co-authors of female faculty members on a tenure-track in 2017 (the year the #MeToo movement started) at the top 100 economics departments. She collected all their work-in-progress projects from 2015 to 2020. The final sample counted 83 female academics from 58 universities. For comparison, she then did the same for junior male academics who were working at the same departments as the junior female academics of the sample.
However, this before-after comparison is not sufficient to establish a causal impact of #MeToo. If a change is observed in the way women (vs. men) collaborate before and after #MeToo, it might also be caused by other changes happening in the same time window (2015-2020), or by natural trajectories in people’s careers.
In particular, the Covid-19 pandemic (which started in the first quarter of 2020) is very likely to have affected collaborations. It was indeed shown to have a negative effect on women’s productivity in general. For this reason, the researcher ran a bunch of robustness checks, including excluding the entire year 2020 from her sample. The results were still observed in this restricted sample.
Another concern is that the decline in collaboration with male academics would be a “natural trend”. At the beginning of their career, women might prefer working with more established members of the field (who are often men), and then switch to women-centered collaborations later. This would also produce a similar decline of collaborations with men over time, but which would have nothing to do with #MeToo.
To control for this potential effect, the researcher performed a placebo test: She ran the same analysis but on a different period, excluding #MeToo (2012 to 2017). If #MeToo has no role in the change in collaboration network observed in the main analysis, then the same change should be observed in the period before #MeToo. However, the researcher did not find a decline in collaboration with men, suggesting that the changes in collaboration and productivity observed after #MeToo are not due to general trends in the career trajectories of junior female academics.
#MeToo was a very important movement to raise awareness about sexual misconduct in society and in the workplace, and it has probably empowered women to speak up about the sexual harassment they too often face. However, it may also have negative unintended consequences for women’s career.
The present paper suggests that male economists may have become reluctant to work with their female colleagues by fear of being accused of inappropriate behaviors. This is an issue in a professional world in which men occupy most positions of power and tend to control valuable resources. If men deliberately avoid working with women, women will have a harder time climbing the professional ladder.
The results of the paper, however, suggest that these effects are not unavoidable. Indeed, the decline in collaboration was particularly strong in social settings in which men perceived a high risk of wrongful accusations. If organizations design clear, unambiguous sexual misconducts policy (outlining which behaviors are inappropriate, defining a formal process for reporting and investigating suspicions of sexual misconduct, …), then the perceived risk associated with normal, respectful interactions with female colleagues should be minimal.
Finally, male domination and tolerance for harassment are strong predictors of the occurrence of sexual harassment. It is therefore very important that organizations develop trainings and policies adapted to their culture, and tailored to the power dynamics in place.