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Thursday, March 25, 2021

It’s a good time to be a woman in economics

By Larry Bean and Darcy Rollins Saas

5 Min Read

When Joanna Stavins was working toward her Ph.D. in the early 1990s, her advisors were all men, and she recalls the school’s economics faculty including very few, if any, women. After earning her degree, Stavins worked for an economic consulting firm where she was the only female senior-level employee with a doctorate in economics, and all the other economics Ph.D.s were men. Then she joined the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, in 1995. The head of her group in the Research Department, the director of Research, and the president of the Bank were all women.

“It was a revelation in this male-dominated field—which economics certainly was at the time and, I think, still is—that in the Federal Reserve System I was guided and mentored by smart and impressive women up and down the line,” said Stavins, now a senior economist and policy advisor in Research.

For an economics-related institution, business or department to have women in high-ranking positions was anomalous then, and as Stavins suggests, it’s still uncommon today. In academia at least, the gender gap in economics may be as wide as it was three decades ago, and research finds gender bias throughout the field. Studies indicate bias in hiring and promoting in higher education and elsewhere, journal-article acceptance rates, and, most recently, the number and types of questions posed to female versus male presenters at seminars.

“Economics is definitely not for the faint of heart,” said Mary Burke, a senior economist and policy advisor with the New England Public Policy Center in the Boston Fed’s Research Department. “It’s challenging, and there are known issues in the field. Rigorous research has identified patterns of discrimination against women in terms of their advancement in the profession. It’s definitely there, but I wouldn’t want young women who are excited about a career in economics to be discouraged or put off by those findings, because there are many supportive environments.”

With Women’s History Month as a backdrop, Stavins, Burke and fellow Boston Fed Research Department economists Christina WangMaría Luengo-PradoJenny Tang, and Vaishali Garga discussed their profession’s gender issues and offered advice to women considering a career in economics.

“Ultimately, the solution to there being too few women in the field is to add more women.”

Vaishali Garga (economist): My career in economics is just starting, so I’m in more of a position to seek advice than to give advice. But my 2 cents to women who are aspiring to be economists is to not be discouraged by seeing that the main text books are written by men or that men hold most positions of power in the field, because the realization of this long history of gender bias in economics has finally dawned, and now there are numerous committees, numerous conferences, scholarship opportunities, and hiring efforts that are directed toward promoting the interests of women in the field. Ultimately, the solution to there being too few women in the field is to add more women.

Jenny Tang (senior economist): I’m encouraged by all the women in my cohort in the field, by the fact that we’re all going through the same challenges together and supporting each other in various ways. Many female economists are now putting together events to highlight the work of women in the field and to give each other feedback. For example, one of my coauthors and I started an informal online workshop where we did invite some men to join, but we consciously invited a lot of our female colleagues. It’s a venue for us to present preliminary work in an informal setting and help each other out by giving feedback. There are still not enough women in the field, but there are enough now to have these kinds of networking groups and events, and that’s really helpful.

Christina Wang (senior economist and policy advisor): I think the trend in terms of women’s participation in economics research is good. Nevertheless, we could argue it’s not enough, and we want to do our part to further encourage it. For those of us who are already in the field, we want to think about how to get the message out to female students early on, possibly as early as middle school or high school, that economics is exciting—we study interesting questions, and we have approaches to critical thinking that have wider applications even beyond economics. This way, they will be motivated to acquire the quantitative skills needed to prepare them well for economics research. I think we are doing this through our outreach talks and programs like the College Fed Challenge. We can put on our creative thinking caps to come up with more things to try.

“Topics that used to be minimized are getting the respect they deserve.”

Garga: It is well known that the gender bias problem of economics is aggravated within certain subfields, including macro/monetary economics. It is inspiring to see women who have made a mark in this field, especially the more senior ones, who climbed the ladders when the bias was more severe and not even acknowledged. More generally, it is very motivating to see that women in all subfields are pushing the frontiers of research along with bringing a unique perspective to the research agenda. I am also often inspired by the life stories of women economists as much as their research.

María Luengo-Prado (senior economist and policy advisor): I read a lot of work by women, because one of the things that you see when reading their papers is that they may tackle problems a little differently from men. I like the diverse perspectives that different people bring. When different people write about the same topic, you see different versions of the story.

Burke: In the past five to 10 years, topics that used to be really marginalized, topics that were sometimes seen as “women's topics,” have come much more into the mainstream and gained greater respect, especially within the field of labor economics. There's been a lot of research on gender norms, such as about who does what in the household and how that affects labor market outcomes. Topics that used to be minimized are getting the respect they deserve. Despite the research about discrimination against women in economics, I think it’s a good time to be a woman in economics. Obviously, women don't have to study only “women's issues,” but women shouldn’t be afraid to do so, because a lot of female economists have made great contributions by being willing to look at those issues that were sometimes trivialized.

“If there’s an issue you really care about, you view economics as a tool to address it.”

Wang: Economics is a pretty big tent. There are a lot of questions you can approach using the methodology we use in economics. So, it’s a good component of a general education. The approach or methodology that we use could be useful in multiple professions outside of economics. Even if you decide not to major in economics, it would be a good thing to take some economics classes.

Stavins: I think what should inspire someone to get into the field of economics—if not a particular person—is a specific question or issue, an issue that you consider really important and you care about personally, because if you care about it, that’s going to make you a better researcher. It could be the environment. It could be racial inequality. It could be gender inequality. Whatever it may be, you’re inspired by the topic. If there’s an issue you really care about, you view economics as a tool to address it.

“Develop a thick skin, because the profession is about critical thinking.”

Burke: Don’t apologize for who you are and for the research you're doing. If it’s good research, it’s going to speak for itself. But develop a thick skin, because the profession is about critical thinking. It’s about tearing down an argument, and that actually can be viewed in a good light. We make sure that we're vetting your research and that your work is ready when you send it to a journal. The seminar environment has been criticized, but it can be very beneficial to get a lot of questions and have a lot of people critiquing your work. You want to see this as a way to improve your work, to give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re trying to help improve your research, and use the questions and comments for that purpose as opposed to feeling defeated by them.

Tang: Always seek feedback. Economics leans heavily on ideas, and you have to convince people of the validity of your ideas. For that to happen, you have to be constantly talking to people, getting feedback on your work and exchanging ideas. Research shows that a lot of women tend to spend a lot of time perfecting their projects and papers and spend a lot of time writing and rewriting them before sending them out to journals—far more time than men do—and this can slow down the research process. So, I would say don't be afraid to show people what you have and get feedback on it even if it’s not perfect.

Luengo-Prado: You have to find your own path. It is very important to work on things that really are important to you and interest you, because this is really a long-run game. This is a marathon; it’s not a sprint, so you really have to work in a way that works for you. It’s important to take risks and speak up and believe that you have an opinion that counts and matters and not be afraid to express it.