Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion at J-PAL

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A group of J-PAL's worldwide staff pose on a stairwell on MIT's campus.
J-PAL's worldwide management team convened on MIT's campus in 2019.
Amanda Kohn | J-PAL

Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) of our research network, staff, and leadership has been a key priority for J-PAL for many years. It is a goal that we believe very strongly in, as we recognize the biases that exist in our work and the value that a diverse group of people can bring to an organization like ours that is dedicated to improving the lives of people around the world.

During the past year we have had many more conversations at J-PAL at all levels about what we may be doing well, where we are failing, and what more we need to do. Based on these reflections, we will continue our ongoing DEI work and launch new efforts aimed at challenging systemic biases and increasing diversity in our research network, in our hiring processes, and in our workplace. 

We’re also trying to do what we can to help make the economics profession in general more attractive and accessible to a broad range of people, including high school students in the U.S. from backgrounds typically underrepresented in economics and university students and professionals in low- and middle-income countries worldwide. 

Building a more representative research network

Researchers from diverse backgrounds, including women, people of color, and people from low- and middle-income countries, are underrepresented in the field of economics and face numerous barriers to their growth. At J-PAL’s annual board meetings, a lot of our discussions focus on the pressing need to do what we can to break down these barriers and bring in more researchers from underrepresented backgrounds to our research network.

Our 500+ researchers from around the world are united by deep interest and strong technical skills in conducting rigorous impact evaluations, specifically randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Like many other types of research, RCTs often require deep familiarity with certain econometrics skills, access to funding to launch and sustain large field projects, and access to essential research infrastructure, like survey firms to collect data and research assistants to help analyze that data.

What can we as J-PAL do to help early- and mid-career researchers, who may not be based at large institutions with significant resources, gain experience conducting RCTs? Our new Regional Scholars Programs, launched in 2020 in Africa as part of J-PAL’s Digital Finance and Identification Initiative and recently expanded to South Asia, was created to help researchers break down some of these practical barriers to conducting RCTs. The program is designed to provide PhD economists in Africa and South Asia with research funding, training resources, mentorship from a J-PAL affiliate, and access to our regional offices’ research infrastructure.

Other J-PAL regional offices similarly prioritize collaboration with locally-based researchers. In Southeast Asia, for example, J-PAL researchers have partnered with more than 30 Indonesian academics on randomized evaluations in Indonesia, several of whom have subsequently launched their own randomized evaluations and continue to collaborate with J-PAL. 

These and related initiatives can be expanded to other geographies to reach more early-career economists, and we are actively seeking funding partners to join us in this effort; if you’re interested in learning more, please contact us.

Expanding the pipeline to a career in economics 

The Regional Scholars Program is limited to researchers who already hold PhDs. How can we attract candidates with underrepresented backgrounds to a career in economics and development in the first place? 

The joint J-PAL/MITx MicroMasters in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP), our new MIT Master’s in DEDP, and our many online courses are designed to level the playing field and give people from all backgrounds exposure to the concepts involved in RCT research. (Learn more about how we’re working to improve inclusion in our DEDP programs.)

The J-PAL Southeast Asia team has established a strong research and policy pipeline in Indonesia to help build a culture of rigorous evaluation. To fill entry-level research, policy, and training positions, J-PAL SEA seeks out recent Indonesian graduates who have the interest and potential to do further work in economics and public policy. Staff participate in training and receive active mentorship during their tenure, including guidance in applying to graduate school. Eleven Indonesian J-PAL SEA alums have gone on or completed master’s programs in economics or public policy since the office was created in 2013, and a further ten Indonesian J-PAL alums are enrolled in or have completed PhD programs.

At J-PAL North America, the Economics Transformation Project is aiming to launch collaborations with high schools, colleges and universities, college access nonprofits, and other organizations to run workshops, create mentorship programming, and provide networking opportunities to broaden participation and support the work and well-being of underrepresented voices in the field. 

We are continually seeking out more opportunities to advance these efforts. We recently launched a partnership with the Research in Color Foundation, led by Chinemelu Okafor and Rahma Ahmed, to host Research in Color fellows at our Global office at MIT as part of our paid internship program. We plan to have J-PAL/RiC undergraduate and graduate fellows work on technical research design and data analysis for RCT projects, as well as policy synthesis and outreach—positioning them well for a future career in economics and, we hope, at J-PAL. Stay tuned for more details on how to participate. 

Promoting inclusive and equitable hiring practices

We’ve also revised our hiring processes for full-time staff in recent years to prevent explicit and implicit bias from influencing hiring decisions. Rigorous evidence on the impact of removing names from resumes to reduce bias is mixed, but we conduct blind grading of candidates’ data analysis and writing exercises—typically the first step for candidates in our hiring process. 

We are creating resources to help job-seekers navigate their job search, including hosting virtual public recruitment webinars to demystify the application process, detailing responses to frequently asked questions, and sharing advice for landing a research assistant role—often the entry point to a graduate degree and career in the field of economics.  

In addition, we have conducted trainings for our staff and management on implicit biases and other good practices to promote DEI. Our staff-led worldwide Gender Working Group also develops and leads regular workshops that focus on building staff capacity and skills in gender analysis and gender sensitive communication, strengthening the gender lens in our research, and affirming our commitment to gender equality in the workplace. I’m proud that all of our seven regional offices are led by women, and six of these regional Executive Directors are from those respective regions. 

Many of our regional offices have undertaken context-specific efforts to increase DEI in the workplace. In 2019, for example, J-PAL North America was accepted into EngageDEI, a two-and-a-half year program supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help organizations build capacity in their DEI work. Through this program, J-PAL North America staff have worked with consultants to survey the office’s current practices; incorporate a DEI lens in their recruitment, performance management and workplace inclusion efforts; and participate in convenings to learn best practices from other organizations involved in this effort. They are sharing these learnings with other J-PAL offices as well. 

Looking ahead

We have a lot more to do across all the above dimensions. By no means do we have all the answers to the challenges we face in increasing DEI in our network. And we certainly don’t have an exact roadmap to get us to where we need to be—we may even make some wrong turns along the way. But we will be very open and transparent in sharing our efforts, and the challenges that we face.

Toward this end all of J-PAL’s offices worldwide and the Executive Committee of our Board worked to put together a DEI vision statement that we have posted online. By being very open to others’ experiences and new ideas—both internal and external—we hope to advance this work at J-PAL and in the broader field of economics. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is extraordinarily fundamental to the work that we do, and we will continue to push ourselves—and others—to do more, learn from each other, and do much better. We welcome your feedback at [email protected]

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