Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Women in economics: Elinor Ostrom's work and its lasting impact on fishing communities in the Gulf of California

Researcher Erin Hengel's recent paper "Publishing while female" (2017) was chronicled in a brief article in the Economist last week profiling the differences in readability standards posed to publications authored by male versus female academics in economics. I don't do a thorough review of that piece here, but Hengel's results indicate that: (i) female-authored articles are better written in terms of readability than similar papers by men, controlling for year, journal, editor, topic, institution, and English language ability; (ii) the gap widens during peer review; (iii) female economists' readability improves over the course of their careers whereas male economists' does not presumably due to the higher standards they face. These findings, if true, add to an existing body of evidence that suggests that female academics are held to higher standards than their male counterparts and often receive less credit than their male counterparts for their accomplishments.

Yet, despite the biases that persist, progress is being made in that we have the data to identify and analyze them now more than ever. The New York Times reported on a panel at the American Economic Association's annual meeting of the minds held this week which presented the research of several academics on systemic gender bias within the field.

My reading on the gender bias in economics led me to write on the first and to-date only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, Dr. Elinor Ostrom, and on the contributions that she made to the fields of economics and governance through her writings on collective action. While the lack of female prize winners reflects a gender bias in economics in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s more so than biases that exist today (the prize rewards contributions that were made more than several decades ago) it is still striking that economics only has one winner where other fields do better on this dimension.

Existence of collective action outside of the public and private sectors

The prevailing notion of collective action during Ostrom's time was posited by Mancur Olson (1965) in the Logic of Collective ActionTo provide a brief summary of Olson's thesis: 

  • Olson posited that individuals in groups would choose to free-ride to reap the communal benefits from public goods without incurring any individual costs to procure or maintain said goods. After all, public goods are non-excludable and individuals would obtain the benefits whether or not they incurred the costs (so long as others paid the price). 
  • He argued that individuals would not act collectively in their common interest unless selective incentives were provided or force used to induce them to participate. 
  • Furthermore, large groups faced greater costs of collective action than smaller ones: not only larger selective incentive costs but larger monitoring costs, and the total benefits from participation would be spread more thinly across the members of the group. Which leads to, as he put it, "surprising tendency for the exploitation of the great by the small" (smaller groups with more concentrated incentives are more effective at organizing than larger ones). 
Ostrom's work was designed to bridge the gap between the predictions made in the theory of collective action and the empirical evidence that often evidenced widespread, voluntary cooperative behavior. She theorized the existence of norm-using players in addition to the rational egoist actors traditionally employed in game theory: the norm-using players value social norms including reciprocity, fairness, and being trustworthy. Certain norm-using players are willing to initiate cooperate action when they believe others will reciprocate and will continue to do so as long as a significant number of others reciprocate; others are willing to punish free-riders either verbally or through sanctions. The existence of these actors, and equally or even more importantly, the existence of strong social norms within a community, makes voluntary collective action feasible in a way that Olson did not theorize. 

She posited that cooperative behavior especially where communication is involved "can work as well or nearly as well as externally imposed set of rules and monitoring and sanctioning in order to generate cooperative behavior" and furthermore claimed it is more effective in settings where external authorities impose rules but can only achieve weak monitoring or sanctioning (Ostrom, 2000). She proposed eight design principles critical to the survival of voluntary cooperative behavior, including local rules that restrict the amount, timing, and technology of harvesting the resource in question and access to rapid and low-cost methods to resolve conflict among users.

Local resource governance

Ostrom's work was directly relevant to the governance of common-pool resources, or "natural or humanly created systems that generate a finite flow of benefits where it is costly to exclude beneficiaries and one person's consumption detracts from the amount of benefits available to others" (Ostrom, 2000). Common-pool resources are distinct from public goods: in the case of public goods one person's consumption does not subtract from the pool of resources available to others but in the case of common-pool resources it does. Examples of common-pool resources are fisheries, irrigation systems, and water. 

Indeed the implications of her work are even more relevant today, as these and other environmental resources continue to be depleted at high rates and long-term benefits of sustainable use of said resources are foregone in favor of short-term gains. Not to mention her theoretical and empirical evidence for the viable existence of self-organized resource regimes, distinct from any government or private entities, is hopeful especially in environments where there is a lack of political will, public sector leadership, or public sector capability in the realm of environmental conservation. 

As stated by Tim Forsyth (2012) in a piece on Ostrom's impact: "[F]or many environmental analysts, the findings of Ostrom's research offered the prospect of a solution to long-standing fears of Malthusian collapse or ecological ruin resulting from unregulated economic exploitation... And secondly, in a period when individualistic economic thinking was popular, Ostrom offered a vision of cooperative behaviour that did not rely upon reverting to a centralized state. Indeed, for donors and NGOs, Ostrom's design principles offered a model of decentralization and local resource governance that could be replicated in multiple field settings, and which used empowering local and incentive-based governance mechanisms."

Fishing cooperatives in Baja California (2017)

An interesting and hopeful feature article was published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine detailing successful cooperatives operating in Baja California's fishing villages and strongly reminding me of Ostrom's design principles. Several communities featured in the article decided to organize collectively to maintain their resources and engage in sustainable fishing at a time when overfishing threatened the collapse of fisheries in the region. In Punta Abreojos, where the primary resources are lobster and abalone, the cooperative is financially stable enough to offer pensions to retired fishermen and scholarships to students within the community.

The author points to five rules that form the basis of successful and "sustainable community-supported ocean management" that resound strongly of Ostrom's design principles. In addition to having: (i) a fairly isolated site (indicating clear boundaries and understanding of who is using the site and who is not), (ii) strong visionary community leaders (Ostrom's "conditional cooperators" who were needed to initiate and maintain the cooperative), and (iii) trust-building exercises within the community, e.g. soccer games set up by local NGOs (to strengthen the social norms and the number of people who abide by them), he also pointed to (iv) having resource of high-value and (v) a way that fisherman could support themselves while the resources recover.

In each of the successful cooperatives featured, fishermen forewent fishing during part of the season in order to allow the resources to replenish: in Punta Abreojos, rather than beginning the fishing season in January (month in which fishing season commences according to government regulations), the community imposes a four-month ban and only starts the season in April; in Laguna San Ignacio, the community both restricts the number of tourist boats in the ocean and bans fishing in the lagoon during whale-watching season to sustain the area as a peaceful location for gray whales to spend time with their young. In this way these communities avoid the rational actor equilibrium of free-for-all fishing or tourism that is not optimal in the long-run.

Ostrom as the first and to-date only female Nobel Prize winner in Economics

Today, novel sources of evidence are increasingly able to document the existing biases in the field of economics. Those biases were all the more evident and widespread when Ostrom first took up an academic position at the University of Indiana in the mid-1960s. 

Forsyth (2012) wrote of Ostrom's experience: "According to one later interview, 'there was no encouragement to think about anything other than teaching in high school or being pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen' (Zehr and Carson, 2009 in Ostrom, 2012:26). She often remarked that she was hired partly because she was willing to teach a class on American government at the unpopular hour of 7:30 am (Woo, 2012). The department did not even have female bathrooms at the time, requiring women to use the men' room and to put a sign on the door when they were inside (Solutions, 2010)."

These experiences certainly remind female economists today of the challenges faced by those that came before us, the progress that has been made in the past six decades, and that progress which is still yet to come. In part due to the recognition that she received by the Nobel committee, Ostrom's work has had lasting effects on environmental conservation and development policy. 

  1. Ostrom, E. (2000). Collective action and the evolution of social norms. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 
  2. Olson, M. (1965). The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 
  3. Forsyth, T., & Johnson, C. (2014). Elinor Ostrom's legacy: governing the commons, and the rational choice controversy. Development and Change. 
  4. Hengel, E. (2017). Publishing while female. 


  1. Totally agree re: data. Having data to illustrate something that women of Ostrom’s time have, I’m sure, always known - that there is large gender gap in economic academia - is key to closing the gap in our generation.

    Things I find ironic in light of the economics gender gap:

    1) more American women go to college these days than men:
    2) economics is among the most popular of American college majors (in 2016, #1 was business in which economics is a required course series, and #3 was social sciences in which economics is included):

    What are your thoughts on that?

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for your comment. Very good points on women in universities.

      My thoughts on that are that, while more women go to universities (1) it is not necessarily the case that they are majoring in economics, or (2) if they are, they may not be pursuing careers in academia which is what the NYTimes article ( is generally referencing.

      On (1) one of the blogs that I read has an interesting post of the breakdown of AP Economics test takers by gender: He mentions that the pipeline may be shrinking even beginning in high school (not even college or graduate school), given the number of girls vs. boys that take AP Economics and comparing that to the fact that more girls on the whole take AP exams than boys. Thinking about this along with a chart found in the NYTimes article that indicates how few women are mentioned in introductory economics textbooks (not just as academics but as business leaders or policymakers) makes me think that it's not just about going to college but what women study when they are there. The discussion on women in economics at that stage I think is similar to the discussion on women in STEM fields.

      The shrinking pipeline graphic in the NYTimes article was interesting for PhD and beyond (33% PhD students are women but only 13% of tenured full professors) but I think what we're talking about here applies more broadly to the economics field outside of academia and why the pipeline of PhD students is small to begin with (33% women).

  2. It seems to be the case that as societies become more egalitarian, men and women's differing preferences are maximized. This could explain the continued underrepresentation of women in STEM and economics in the US and why the outcome is even more apparent in Scandinavia