This 23-minute podcast was released March 27, 2019.
Amanda Bayer is hopeful and optimistic about increasing diversity in the field of economics: “There is enough action coming from enough quarters that we have the potential to change the culture of our profession.”
Bayer, a professor of economics at Swarthmore College who is currently serving as a visiting senior adviser at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, has studied diversity, inclusion and innovation in economics. She says attention to this matter at the Fed is understandable “because it’s the policymaking bodies that have direct impact on the lives of individuals, and they understand their mission is to serve the public and they want to do that as well as possible.”
Bayer talks with Katrina Stierholz, St. Louis Fed vice president and director of library and research information services, about her research on how to get a more diverse set of students into economics classrooms. She also discussed her work with David Wilcox, former director of the research and statistics division of the Federal Reserve System Board of Governors. Wilcox was also interviewed for the Women in Economics podcast series.
Katrina Stierholz: Hello, I’m Katrina Stierholz and you’re listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the St. Louis Fed’s Timely Topics audio channel. Today, I’m speaking with Amanda Bayer. Amanda is a professor of economics at Swarthmore College. Hi, Amanda. Thank you for joining me today.
Amanda Bayer: Hi. Thank you for having me here.
Stierholz: It’s our pleasure entirely. Tell me a little bit about yourself. What drew you to the field of economics?
Bayer: I do have a funny story about my first almost-encounter with economics. In the summer before I started college, I wrote out a list of courses to take in my first semester after looking at the registration materials from my college. I showed my list of courses to my dad, who immediately said, “Oh, don’t take economics. I want you to like college.” And I followed his advice. I took econ off my list. I registered for a different social science class. And as you can surmise, I eventually did find economics. I took my first course in my spring semester of sophomore year. I had a fantastic professor, Bob Williams, who showed how very relevant and useful economics is to real-life problems and I was hooked. I do think my own story illustrates a phenomenon that happens in households around the country. I think the public perception of what economics is and who might find it interesting is far off from the reality.
Stierholz: Okay. So I noticed you worked as an RA, a research analyst, at the Board of Governors. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?
Bayer: Of course that was another critical moment in my career. I wasn’t a student who knew I was going into econ, obviously. I didn’t know I was going to go into academia or research. But I got this first job out of college and was surrounded by PhD economists. And they were so enthusiastic about what they did that they encouraged me to pursue that same path, and eventually then I did. I learned a lot in my first job and I think a lot of my students also learn a lot outside the classroom in the labor market and in the working world. And so I think I was lucky that I didn’t have a preset plan, actually. That I could explore and let my interests be revealed to me and let the possibilities be revealed to me overtime.
Stierholz: So did you have a mentor at the Board of Governors or role models?
Bayer: Not exactly. I had great colleagues, but I wouldn’t say any of them were mentors. And I think in some ways my path, my progression would have been smoother had I had someone who felt a responsibility for guiding me or informing me along the way. So I try to give to others what I didn’t have myself.
Stierholz: You then went back and got your PhD in econ, and started teaching at Swarthmore College. Tell us a little bit about kind of what brought the role of diversity into focus for you once you got there.
Bayer: Sure. Well, so at Swarthmore, I teach a wide variety of classes. Intro, micro and macro, and so I get to introduce students to the field. But I was brought in to teach advanced microeconomic theory, including game theory. Another class that I taught right from the very beginning of my time at Swarthmore was race, ethnicity and gender in economics. And it’s through that experience, really, that diversity became a research focus of mine. I would sit in class with these amazing students that had so many questions and so many insights. And I realized that the existing body of knowledge within economics was not sufficient to explain the phenomena that we all observed. So I would look outside of econ literature—sociology, psychology, the STEM fields—to understand more of the role of difference and inclusion in the economy, in society and in our discipline. And so it was through those efforts and my own attempts to build models based in the methods of economics to explain to my students what we thought was going on that I realized that there was a way I could contribute to the discipline of economics by formalizing some of these ideas and producing some research on the topics.
Stierholz: Since you’ve started, there has really been a ground swell of interest, research and, I think, energy to address this issue. Could you talk a little bit about that and what you see going on?
Bayer: It’s amazing what’s going on. There’s a lot of attention being given to these issues from various points within the profession now, including at the highest levels and the leadership of the AEA, the American Economic Association, but also coming from the Federal Reserve System. And so that is just amazingly pleasing and it causes me a lot of hope and optimism. It’s rather incredible that the imbalances in our profession flew under the radar for so long and escaped our collective attention for so long. And obviously there were individuals working on these issues 10, 20, 60 years ago. There are giants on whose shoulders we now stand as we try to pass the tipping point in our profession. And I think we have the potential to do so now. There is enough action coming from enough quarters that we have the potential to change the culture of our profession.
Stierholz: So you mentioned the imbalances, but could you tell why it matters that there’s a better balance of women and minorities in economics?
Bayer: Sure. Well, there is a lot of research now showing that diverse groups are more successful at solving complex problems, and that’s true in a variety of settings, whether we’re talking about jury deliberations, or corporate leadership, or student groups, or even within economics itself. And so if we want solutions to these hard problems that we face, and if we want innovation within our discipline, we need to draw from a broader range of the population where peoples’ different lived experiences can inform the questions we ask and the answers we construct.
Stierholz: So you have done research in diversity in economics classrooms specifically and in the field. Can you tell us a little more about your research?
Bayer: Well, one recent project centers on a paper that David Wilcox and I wrote on The Unequal Distribution of Economic Education (PDF), which shows that at colleges and universities across the country, economics departments are educating disproportionately few women and members of historically under-represented racial and ethnic minority groups. And these imbalances are a concern. Certainly, students themselves benefit from learning economics. It supports their professional, personal and civic lives. But it’s also a concern for all of society because, ultimately, we’re just not getting a representative slice of the population constructing economic knowledge and advising policymakers. So to advance a national conversation about who is being trained in economics, David and I took the findings of the paper and – with a team at the New York Fed – constructed an interactive website where anyone could explore our dataset, compare the performance of various colleges and universities and create scorecards to print and share. You can find the online resources simply by searching for, “Who is being trained in economics?” And, again, it’s hosted on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s website.
In another study, colleagues and I, so Syon Bhanot and Fernando Lozano, used an alliance of liberal arts college economists to inquire whether presenting the diversity of people and issues that economics involves would draw a more diverse set of students into our classrooms. And so we conducted a large field experiment in which we sent a randomly selected subsample of incoming college students e-mails—just two e-mails in the summer before they started college. And these two e-mails presented some information, which is available on the AEA website, about the diversity of topics that economists investigate such as the effects of charter schools, or answering the question as to why women doctors get fewer C-sections. And we know as insiders that economists study a lot of really interesting questions, including the maybe more commonly understood questions of international trade and financial markets. But the room that economics allows for these unique and individual investigations is not always well communicated or understood by incoming college students.
So we sent these e-mails out and we found that women and underrepresented minority students were more likely to complete an econ course in their first semester of college as a result of this very light outreach. Just presenting a bit of information to counter stereotypes about what economists do was enough to draw in a more diverse set of students into our classes. And I think the larger lesson to be drawn from this experiment is that we economists have certain habits, and it’s in part those habits that are affecting who is drawn into our classrooms. And if we modify our habits, we’ll modify the people studying economics. We’ll modify the group of people studying economics.
Stierholz: So I know that you are currently a visiting senior adviser at the Board of Governors. Can you tell us a little bit about that role? What do you do?
Bayer: Sure. So, the Board of Governors approached me to say, “Can you come share with us some of your research and help us to rethink some of our own procedures, some of our own habits to make us more diverse, inclusive and innovative?” And so I work with economists at the Federal Reserve Board to do just that.
We use research evidence and my own tendency to think outside the box to evaluate and question every aspect of the functioning of the economics divisions, whether it is how they recruit for new hires, or how they conduct meetings, or how they ask research questions. And so there are so many individuals at all levels of that organization who are committed to being more diverse, inclusive and innovative. And that is beautiful to see and is also somewhat understandable, because it’s the policymaking bodies that have direct impact on the lives of individuals, and they understand their mission is to serve the public and they want to do that as well as possible. Academics are somewhat removed. Their actions, how they do research, how they teach doesn’t have such an immediate impact on the human condition. And so there’s perhaps historically less of a sense of urgency amongst academics. So the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Reserve System has been a real leader in helping the economics profession think about how it could be better at including more distinct voices and produce better economic knowledge and policy advice.
Stierholz: Do you have specific practices that you recommend that organizations implement or do that help diversity?
Bayer: Sure. Let’s see. So there’s a documented phenomenon of unconscious bias that we all as humans and members of societies that hold stereotypes display. And so many of our evaluations or our judgments can be clouded or influenced by these social stereotypes and other cognitive biases that we hold as humans. So one technique is to pre-specify evaluation criteria. Almost like a rubric where we acknowledge the various qualities, for instance, that we want a new colleague to hold, and we set up an evaluation system so that we can gather evidence on whether any particular candidate displays these qualities and to what degree. Then we can make better judgments about the value or potential of any given candidate. So we make less biased decisions in the end if we make decisions based on evidence and pre-established evaluation criteria.
Another method or system that helps organizations function more effectively is to make sure that every voice is heard. And so even within a meeting, whether it’s large or small, there are certain best practices that the meeting leader can employ, and in fact, all meeting participants can employ to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute their insights and feel safe in doing so. It may be something as simple as a checklist that a meeting organizer could use to ensure that these best practices are followed and all views are elicited.
Stierholz: What challenges have you faced as a woman in economics and how have you overcome them?
Bayer: Right. So I have faced challenges. I guess some of them I’ve used to propel my own research, but in a way, I just keep plowing ahead. And I don’t dwell too much on the challenges or slights that I’ve experienced in the past. I will say that in our business of knowledge production, to me, one of the most hurtful things is not being listened to. And so if people dismiss your work without reading it or undervalue your work without giving it serious consideration, I think that’s a major problem within an academic field. And so it’s even those errors of omission, not just the errors of commission that we as a profession need to deal with. And that’s absolutely something that the AEA is attentive to. So we are setting out kind of a new set of guidelines, a new set of best practices that economists at all sorts of organizations can use to be better at their job and to help promote the generation of economic knowledge.
Stierholz: So are you part of a cadre of women economists who mentor one another or advise one another?
Bayer: Yeah. So I have been so fortunate to come across and to be able to work with an amazing group of economists. And it took me a long time to find my people. But I now go to the annual meetings and have more colleagues that I want to see there than I have time to see. I have wonderful colleagues, men and women, from my work at the Federal Reserve Board—men and women who are coauthors, who work with me on the committee on the status of minority groups in the economics profession. And I am grateful for their colleagueship and friendship and we continue to plan to do great things together.
Stierholz: Amanda, medicine and law have overtime really achieved a much more balanced representation. Is there something about economics or something economics can learn from what medicine and law have done to change the profession?
Bayer: It’s true. Economics is less diverse than many, if not most, other occupations and academic disciplines. So even the STEM fields have better racial, ethnic and gender balance than does economics. And so that leads to the question, why? And in part, it’s a lack of awareness. And CeCe (Cecilia) Rouse and I wrote a paper on this in which we tried to accomplish three things. We made the point that, hey, look at the numbers. We’re not doing too well here. Even worse than STEM, which has the reputation of being quite not diverse. Second, that it really does matter and the body of literature that we’ve referred to earlier in which diverse groups do make better choices or come up with better solutions, and that diverse economists do bring in different perspectives and insights. And then the third thing we addressed in that paper was that this is within our power to change. And it’s not a matter of women’s preferences being different or women’s aversion to math or to competition. It has to do with the culture of the profession and the habits that we all have who are already inside the profession. And so we gave some specific examples of these habits and things we could change that would have an impact. Much of that knowledge came from reading the literature in the STEM fields who had gone before us in addressing these issues explicitly and understanding that changes in how we present a field within the classroom and how we treat our colleagues is going to affect who ultimately becomes a member of our profession.
Stierholz: Economists are known for rigorous debate, for really challenging ideas, sometimes in ways that are difficult sometimes for a speaker to handle. Do you feel like that environment, and particularly in seminars, is a detriment to the profession?
Bayer: Rigorous analysis is essential, and economists need to question their own research and others’ research intensely in order to ensure the quality. But there’s a difference between questioning and inquiry and analysis, and hostility. And so the hostility or the bravado, which some people use in seminars simply to promote their own work, is not effective. It’s not inclusive, but it doesn’t even let a presenter of any gender make his or her point. So I am all for rigorous inquiry and I love it when people seriously engage with the ideas I’m presenting. I don’t mind being challenged at all. It helps improve my work. But if people are talking and not listening, if they’re talking simply to promote their own points of view, whether or not backed by research, then that’s obviously not a productive kind of conversation. And there are some seminar environments in which the audience participation is not productive. And so that’s one of the things our profession is trying to change. We still want the challenges, we just don’t want the grand standing.
Stierholz: So what would you say to women who are concerned about speaking up about gender issues in economics perhaps because they fear an effect on their career or their ability to get papers published?
Bayer: So I have had throughout my career to consider whether making any sort of public statement would help or hurt my career. And certainly within any profession, but particularly within the economics profession in past years, there’s been a kind of hierarchy and a kind of set of issues that are more acceptable and more respected than others. If we were all only to work on the same core issues with the same core methods, we wouldn’t experience innovation collectively. So it really does help a discipline for people to take chances. And personally, I enjoyed taking those chances, researching topics like diversity and inclusion that weren’t part of an economist’s domain originally, because I was committed to objectives outside the profession, and I enjoy working towards things that I value, whether or not they’re going to promote my own career. And it’s that awareness of one’s own sense of priorities and standards that can help sustain any individual through any set of challenges.
Stierholz: Amanda, thank you so much for spending time today to tell us your story and share your wisdom. To hear more Women in Economics podcasts, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That’s one word. stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. Thank you, Amanda.
Bayer: Thank you.