For years, the norm at the American Economic Association’s annual conference — the largest professional gathering in the American economics field — was to conduct interviews in hotel rooms. The practice came under fire after a memo written last year revealed the scope and effects of the practice, particularly how it affects women and survivors of sexual assault. The AEA announced it will change its policy for the 2020 conference in order to cut down on the number of hotel room interviews. Kathryn Holston, a Ph.D. student in economics at Harvard, co-authored the original memo that brought the practice to light. She spoke with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal following the AEA’s policy announcement. The following is a transcript of their interview.
Kai Ryssdal: First things first, I suppose. I need the primer on what this annual meeting of the American Economic Association actually is, right?
Kathryn Holston: So the annual meeting takes place every year in January. It is both a giant economics conference where there are seminars happening and also a very large job fair for every Ph.D. economist who’s received the Ph.D. in that year and wants to work in any type of academic job.
Ryssdal: So you kind of have to be there, right?
Ryssdal: OK. How, then, did it come to pass that you found out about this interview process? Because you’re not yet in that process, right, as a third year?
Holston: That’s right. I’m a few years from that process. I actually found out about it when I was about to enter grad school. And I found out because an older female economist remarked that I typically wore skirts to work, and that I would need to wear a pantsuit in my interview. So I asked why that would be the case. And she said, “It’s because you might be sitting on the bed.” And I said, “Why would I be sitting on the bed in my job interview?” In which case, she explained, you know that this process happens. There’s so many interviews happening at once, and so many of them can take place in hotel bedrooms, in which case, there’s obviously an odd seating arrangement that doesn’t quite look like an office.
Ryssdal: Does it not seem insane to you that this happens?
Holston: Yeah, so it did immediately seem insane to me. And I started talking to other grad students, other economists, people who had been through the process to kind of find out why this was and if I was the only person who thought it was really weird. And it turns out, there were other people who thought it was a problem. But also, it’s just been done this way for a very long time.
Ryssdal: Yeah, we should say, in writing about this, The Wall Street Journal pointed out that [former Federal Reserve Chair] Ben Bernanke, he remembers sitting on beds in hotel rooms. So it’s been a while. Mr. Bernanke is no spring chicken. Are you gratified by the change in tone and approach by the AEA?
Holston: I’m very happy to see the change. And I’ll just say it actually came much faster than I expected. When I started kind of working on this, my original goal was to just have any type of change by the time I, myself, was on the job market, a little selfishly. And at the time, that was five to six years out. And it’s only been, I guess, about a year since we started talking about this.
Ryssdal: Economics, we should say — and this came out sort of last year after this conference — economics is challenged in a lot of ways in terms of diversity, and gender equality, and all those kinds of things.
Holston: That’s right. And it’s actually surprising to a lot of people that the percentage of women in economics as full professors, as Ph.D. students, a lot of those statistics, it’s worse than many of the of the natural sciences, computer science. And also, we haven’t seen a good amount of increase over the past few decades.
Ryssdal: What’s your area of study?
Holston: I study macroeconomics and finance, and I’m interested in inequality.
Ryssdal: Are you looking for a job in academia, or what are you going to do?
Holston: Yeah, I’ll be interviewing for academic jobs, going through this process in about two to three years.