A woman economist? You have got to be kidding!

I was once told by my grandmother that I don’t look as intelligent as I am.

I didn’t know how to react to the comment, but as the years have flown, this has come to explain a lot in my life.

I love numbers. In an ideal world, I would have probably been studying mathematics and philosophy. I have come close enough to the ideal. With some odd noise that events in life have thrown in, I decided to work in social sciences. More precisely, in economics.

When I decided to study economics, I thought it put together a few things I loved and cared about. I could understand human life through numbers, not like those biologists but more in the sense that you could throw in some bombs and see how humans react (this is in sarcastic reference to controlled trials of development policies that has surfaced as a form of mass produced academic work in the field; for example, you choose a set of people in a village and give them $10 and see how their consumption changes compared to another group that is not being subjected to this sudden chance to additional money). As my boyfriend jokes about it, we are a generation of 9/11 so this odd fascination continues. And since peace is a far away dream for now, I will have enough to work on.

I landed in my first class in economics, with professors that were male and the noise in the classroom that was male and I felt that I needed to be weak because I was not a male. I didn’t talk about code-writing or the amazing article published in Financial Times. I didn’t even care about it. I was fresh in Paris from a crazy year in Beirut and an oddly-timed stay in Cairo and I would have been more interested in talking to you about how stupid Beirut Souks is.

Coding is an important part of economics. And so are the fancy models that I took my happy slow time to understand. I can handle them but I must say that I am not a fan of them. I believe that they are a starting point to an economic analysis, but it can never be a good body to it. Economic models don’t explain an economic phenomenon, rather they try to imitate a simplified version of the reality.

But I have a funny face. It is all brown and colourful and if with this face I were to tell you that yes I can play around with Stata (a quantitative software) and surely there must be something I could contribute to this grand field of economics, you will not take me seriously. Even in my head, I cannot take myself seriously. I am almost used to being seen as a joke. And I think that there is something wrong here. And I think that here is a point that would explain why women self-select themselves out of the field of economics.

I spent the second year of my masters in pre-PhD track being awkward in a mostly male class. I went around having coffees with academics who advised me to move into anthropology, sociology, political sciences, anything but economics. We were told that finding a job in Development Economics was like catching a white rabbit. It sounded scary but I still don’t understand what it is supposed to mean. So I spent my time convincing myself with my funny looking face to stop thinking of putting Lebanon or Syria or Egypt into my economic models. The data was little and bad they said. I can ascertain that this is true about the Middle East, but how long are we going to keep excusing ourselves from it?

I had my periods of happiness I must admit, where I toiled with data and came up with my own models to understand odd economic behavior. I loved it. But most of my time during my study was about self-shaming. I later sold myself wrong to a job in a fancy international organization where I was hired for the sole purpose of unpacking for them the complex brownness of myself. India is so big that everyone seems to be baffled by it, especially in the academic world. So I was there to be exotic, especially with my big nose-ring. At some point though, you get tired of being exotic and so you stop playing exotic and then your job takes a downturn and voila.

Since it’s the Nobel prize season, I will end on a noble note. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel has been awarded 47 times to 76 Laureates between 1969 and 2015 and only once has it been awarded to a woman.

Update: I continue to meet with researchers in my field of study for coffees. When I tell them that I am quite decent in econometrics, they usually look at my face as if I was cracking a stupid joke.


About Shreya Parikh

I am Shreya. Project Rethought is my attempt to rethink my own observations as a brown woman of Indian origin. I currently live in Paris where I teach at Sciences Po Paris and Parsons Paris-The New School.
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