The Canadian Economics Association meetings take the same format every year: sessions start at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning and end at noon on Sunday. The Innis Lecture is Friday evening and the Purvis lunch is Saturday afternoon.
From time to time a bold and innovative President-elect will try a new experiment, like I think it was Curtis Eaton who introduced State of the Art Lectures. And my recollection is that Lars Osberg, who put the Canadian Women Economists Network (CWEN) lunch on the program.
At the time, there was no major event on Friday at lunch time - the slot was reserved for various Association committees. CWEN had been formed a few years earlier, but there was no time on the program for CWEN to meet. People got together over breakfast, but attendance was limited.
Lars's vision was of a major event with a high profile female speaker. I guess the idea was to inspire young women with a vision of what was and is possible, to showcase the work done by female economists, and provide a time for women to network with, and mentor, each other.
To a large event, that vision has succeeded. The annual lunch has given CWEN a semi-official status within the Canadian Economics Association. Serious scholars, like Nicole Fortin and Shelley Phipps, have been presidents of the network, and the CWEN lunch has featured some excellent speakers. But, for the most part, men don't go.
Sure, there are always some men at the lunch - men on the association executive, people who signed up for the CWEN lunch without knowing what CWEN stood for, luminaries who have been comp-ed with a free ticket, men who want to promote women's status in the economics profession, and some who just want to hear the speaker.
Yet every year one sees men walking towards the entrance to the CWEN lunch venue, realizing what they've got themselves into, and then turning around and walking in the other direction. The CWEN lunch is not a female-only event. But one could argue that the name, and the overwhelmingly female crowd, create a "chilly climate" where men do not feel welcome.
The CWEN lunch induces a de facto trade-off between two networking opportunities: networking with the boys, and networking with the girls. Which opportunity is more valuable depends both upon individual factors, such as the the stage of one's career, and one's field, and aggregate factors, such as the number of potentially valuable contacts in each network.
Here's a hypothesis: the networking value of events like the CWEN lunch is an increasing, and then decreasing, value of the number of women in the profession.
Trivially, if there are only a handful of women the profession, there is no value in having female-oriented networking events. There are not enough other women to make the networking opportunities worthwhile, and everyone knows everyone else anyways. At the other end of the spectrum, once a profession becomes female-dominated, every event becomes a female networking event, and there is no need for special events for women. Between these two extremes, female-oriented networking events have value as a way for people to get to know each other, and to make connections.
Yet networking in a female-oriented event has an opportunity cost: it has a cost for the participants, who forgo the opportunity to network with most of their male colleagues, and it has a cost for those who feel uncomfortable at such an event, so miss out on the opportunity to network with (possibly powerful, possibly influential) female academics. I have shown the costs as increasing in the percentage of women in the profession.
My theory is that it is, on balance, easier for people to network with others of the same gender. A hypothesis: when there are more women in the profession, it can be - paradoxically - harder for any one woman to break into male-dominated networks. People will say "we need a woman for XYZ" - and sometimes XYZ leads to networking opportunities. WIth more women in the profession, every one woman is less likely to get such invitations. Another factor is sheer visibility: with more junior female scholars, any one woman can just blend in with the crowd. Finally, when there are few women in a profession, women are forced to try to break into male-dominated networks, because those are the only networks available - and sometimes having no alternatives make something easier to do.
If I had my way, I would transform the CWEN lunch into something that was more gender neutral, and more inclusive, but still had a focus on mentoring junior scholars, and promoting gender equality within the economics profession. But I don't know how to make a mentoring event work, and suspect it would require a greater investment of time and effort that I'm willing to give. Also, program chairs have been reluctant to touch the CWEN lunch - ironically one of the few groups that schedules an event in direct conflict with the CWEN lunch is the left-leaning Progressive Economists Forum. I'm not sure that an event focussed on mentoring or equality more generally would be so untouchable.
Note: Out of curiosity, I put together a list of all of the CEA "conference highlights" speakers for the past 10 years. It's here: Download CEA_conference_highlights_to_2014