Economics Professor Robert Dimand takes the old saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” to heart.
Upon his arrival at Brock in 1987, Dimand discovered a discarded five-volume set of the American Economics Association Index of Economic Journals covering 1886 to 1929. Thumbing through the pages, he soon realized he’d uncovered a trove of potential research.
Listed among the expected male contributors were the names of several women. “I thought I was a fairly well-read historian of economic thought, but I’d never heard of these people,” he says.
“You don’t find them in the textbooks of the history of economic thought,” he says. “And yet it turns out that there are an enormous number of interesting contributions by women that haven’t been noticed.”
In part, that could be because, throughout history, women economists had to find ingenious ways around “all sorts of barriers to advancement,” he says. “Some worked in schools of social work or women’s colleges or as dean of women in a co-ed institution.”
Dimand has since made considerable contributions of his own to restore this “overlooked heritage in the history of economics,” co-editing A Biographical Dictionary of Women Economists (2000) and The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought (2003).
Most recently, he co-edited The Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought (2018) with lead editor Kirsten Madden.
Dimand doesn’t just write about women economists, he also mentors them. In the Routledge Handbook, Dimand is listed as second author on chapters by two of his former students.
Preparing students to become co-authors and collaborators requires that they learn to look at published work in a new way, he says. “The most important thing before writing is to do a lot of reading but read it with an eye to a different thing from what you’re normally reading for in courses – not to learn about the subject matter of the article but about how an article is presented.”
Having refereed over 300 journal papers, Dimand is keenly aware of the need to keep the reader engaged. “You have to imagine that there’s a reader who keeps saying ‘so what?’ Either you have an answer for that, or you shouldn’t be doing the article that way,” he says.
Lola Fowler (BA ’12, MBE ’16) wrote the initial draft of “The First 100 Years of Female Economists in Sub-Saharan Africa” as a term paper for Dimand when she was a master’s student.
When she discovered “very little literature out there by Africans speaking to the African problem and even less by females,” Dimand challenged her to write the story herself.
As the two collaborated on the book chapter, he acted “almost like a peer reviewer,” Fowler says. “He was never insistent that things had to be done his way; it was usually a suggestion.”
That’s his style, she says. “Letting the student come to their own learning but always being there to guide.”
Fowler, who now works as a business analyst for the Ministry of Transportation, says Dimand helped her “realize the connection” between the formulas and their meanings. “That made me a better TA, a better writer, and a better economist.”
Talia Yousef (BA ’16) majored in Applied Economic Analysis. Her chapter, “Women Economists of the Arab Homeland,” is based on her ECON 4F90 honours essay, which Dimand supervised.
When she first started her undergraduate degree, Yousef says felt pressured to fit into what she saw as “very much a male-centered field.” But, Dimand’s class was different.
“He is such an advocate for women in economics. He really wanted me to feel empowered as a woman in my field,” she says. “That was reflected in the way that he encouraged me to make my work good enough to succeed and the way that he put my name first on the article.”
Yousef, who recently completed an MA in political economy from Carleton University, credits Dimand’s mentorship and ongoing encouragement with her success. “I don’t think I could have had this courage if he didn’t believe in me,” she says.
According to Dimand, both chapters represent significant firsts. Some information has been published on individual female economists in the Arab Homeland, but Yousef’s is the first overview of women’s participation. Since 2012, the Association for the Advancement of African Women Economists has been dedicated to building capacity and enhancing scholarship among women in the field, but “Lola’s chapter is the first to look at the history of women’s participation in economics in sub-Saharan Africa,” he says.
Fowler presented her chapter at the American Economics Association meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Associations and was invited to speak at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s African studies colloquium in Mexico City in September.
Through the history of economics, Dimand is confident that he has found a “fairly pleasant and painless way” for people outside the field to learn something about economics.”
Dimand describes his work as playing on the two senses of the French word histoire. “It’s not just history,” he says. “They’re also just really interesting stories.”
According to Fowler, Dimand is one of the “few professors who can tell you the story behind those numbers and make it really beautiful, make it fun, make it come alive for you.”