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Women in Economics: Ana Maria Santacreu

This 23-minute podcast was released April 15, 2020. (Editor’s note: This episode was recorded in December 2019.)

Senior Economist Ana Maria Santacreu (right) is interviewed by Media Relations Coordinator Maria Hasenstab.

“I think it’s important for kids, young kids in general, to study economics because economics is in our everyday life. Every decision that we take is influenced by economics,” says Ana Maria Santacreu, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, media relations coordinator at the St. Louis Fed, about her research in international trade and economic growth, her background studying economics in Europe and the United States, and how she teaches her daughter about economics.



Transcript:

Maria Hasenstab: I’m Maria Hasenstab, and you’re listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the St. Louis Fed. Today, I’m here with Ana Maria Santacreu, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Ana Maria, thank you for being here today.

Ana Maria Santacreu: Thanks for having me.

Hasenstab: How did you choose economics? You grew up in Spain. Did that play a role in your decision to study economics?

Santacreu: So economics was not my first choice when I went to university. I had taken a lot of technical courses during high school, so I decided to study engineering. And, also, like during my second year of high school, I had done an internship in Ford, the motor manufacturing company in Valencia, and I was fascinated by the work that the engineers were doing there, so I decided to study engineering. Then I realized very quickly that that’s not what I wanted to do. The courses were a little bit too abstract for me, and it was not what I was expecting. So, while I was supposed to be studying physics or mathematics, I was instead reading a lot of economic books that we had at my place. My parents had studied economics as their second degree, so my house was full of economic books, and I was fascinated by what I was reading there. I was very interested knowing how a company is organized, how a country works, how consumers take decisions and their constraints, how firms take investment decisions, why countries trade with each other, and I decided at the end of my first year engineering to transfer to economics. And I loved it, and I’ve been doing that since then.

Hasenstab: That’s really interesting. Were you required to take economics in high school?

Santacreu: No. Actually, my first contact with economics in the classroom was when I started my undergrad degree in economics.

Hasenstab: And so you studied economics at the Universitat de València in Spain?

Santacreu: Yes.

Hasenstab: And then you went on to get your master’s at the London School of Economics and your Ph.D. at New York University. So you came over to the States?

Santacreu: Yes.

Hasenstab: What was it like being a woman in those programs? Were there any striking differences between studying economics in Spain and then London and then the United States?

Santacreu: Yeah, the three programs were very different for many reasons. The program in Valencia gave me all the basics in economics that I needed. It gave me the tools to understand what are the questions that economies care about. It was not a very technical program. And all the fellow students in the first year, 60% were women, so I was actually in the majority there. It was a great program. I really enjoyed it. Towards the end of the program, I did an internship over the summer with a professor. We were researching what would be the consequences of the expansion of the European Union for Spain. At that point, the European Union was expanding to poorer countries, so we were looking at what would be the consequences for Spain and also for Valencia, and that was my first contact with research. So we were basically collecting data. We were analyzing the data, and in the end, we had an article, and I was part of the article. So my professor suggested that I could consider the possibility of going abroad to a more advanced program, and that’s how I thought of going on to do a master’s in economics abroad. And, for me, that was like a great idea because I had never had any exposure to live outside of Spain by myself and to study something more advanced.

So I had this idea of I’m going to do a master’s program, and then I’m going to come back to Spain, and I’m going to find a job, and I’m going to have better job opportunities. So after I graduated from Valencia, I spent a year preparing to apply to do this program abroad, and I was admitted into the LSE. And that experience was great. It was mindblowing for me because it was the first time that I was living by myself in a different country, and I was exposed to this very diverse ethnical group that I hadn’t been exposed to while I was studying in Valencia. So, suddenly, I was in a classroom with Asian people, people from Latin America, Australia, and some Americans. And it was great to have their perspective with economics, to learn about their experiences, to know how they approach economic questions in a different way because they have had a very different experience. There were more men in that program than women, but I never felt that I was in a minority. I never felt different. The program was very collegial. We had a great study group of men and women of very different nationalities. And I liked it so much that, in the middle of the program, I decided to apply to do a Ph.D. So that idea of going back to Spain and find a job, I completely abandoned it.

So I got admitted into NYU, and I went to study economics, my Ph.D., in NYU. That experience was, again, it was great. It was a very international classroom, and out of 19 people in the program, we were 5 women. So that was the first time that I saw that. As you go to study more advanced programs that are more technical—the program, the Ph.D. program in NYU was very technical—you tend to have less women. But, again, I never felt like I was in a minority. The program was very collegial. I had a great study group again during the day.

If there’s something that I think I was missing out, as a woman, was in some social interactions that the guys were having outside of the classroom. So they would have poker nights, or they would go to play soccer, and after soccer, they will go to drink beers together. And there were a lot of ideas exchanged in those social interactions. I could see that there would be a lot of co-authorships that were formed in those interactions, and just because I was a woman and there was not a critical mass of female economists that could go and do the same with them, I thought I was missing out on that. I wasn’t feeling like I could just go with the guys and have a beer. Probably, if we had been more women doing that, I would have joined, right? And I would have benefitted from those interactions.

Hasenstab: But you noticed that, while you were in the Ph.D. program, you felt, if I had been playing in that soccer match and went to go get a beer afterwards, perhaps I would have been involved in some co-authorship opportunities; that you felt like, as a woman, you weren’t involved in those kind of extracurricular activities.

Santacreu: Yeah. Exactly. And not because I wasn’t welcome, but because I wasn’t feeling like doing it by myself as the only woman in that group. And, again, if there had been more women, we would have joined them. And that’s when I started feeling that maybe I was missing out on something.

Hasenstab: Why do you think it’s important that more women and underrepresented minorities pursue careers in the field of economics?

Santacreu: I think it’s important because of diversity, because people have different experiences, and they bring their experiences in the decision making. And economics is underrepresented by women. It’s not the same problem in every field of economics. There are, more women studying empirical economics or gender issues. There are many less women studying subjects like macroeconomics, and it’s really like an open question. Why is it that we don’t see more women in macroeconomics? Is it because they just have like different interests, and they care about different questions? Or is it because macroeconomics is already a field dominated by men, and it’s difficult for women to go into this field because they feel they don’t have the personality to succeed in that field? And, if it’s the second part, then I think we have to promote having more women in economics because women have had—and other minorities also—women have had different experiences than men, and they have a different way of approaching problems than men. And in macroeconomics, we take policy decisions that are relevant for many groups of the society, so you want to have these groups being represented in the decision making.

And it’s not only about women. It’s also about having people from different nationalities taking decisions. So, for example, if we’re making decisions about economics policies in different countries, you want to have people from different countries taking those decisions because they just bring on the table very different experiences and very different ways of thinking about decisions and of thinking of economics. And I think that as we have more and more women in economics, then it’s like the entry barriers go down because now women see that they don’t have to have a different personality to succeed. There’s a lot of talented women out there that would be really good economists, and maybe they don’t feel they can be in those environments because they don’t have the personality to succeed in those environments. So, as we bring more and more women, the dynamics change, the way decisions are made change, and women feel more comfortable to speak up and to make decisions.

Hasenstab: That’s a really good point. I wanted to ask you about your work experience in economics. You’ve done research on international trade, macroeconomics, economic growth, and international finance. And, recently, here at the St. Louis Fed, you’ve looked specifically at innovation and technology internationally, and specifically in China. Tell me how you chose those topics. And what are some of the findings that might be interesting for our listeners?

Santacreu: Yeah. So my main idea of research is in international trade and, in particular, an intersection between international trade and economic growth. And I’ve been interested in those topics since I was in my undergrad. More recently, I’ve been working on a paper on how changes in trade policy have an effect on the incentives of firms of doing innovations and creating new technologies. And once we take into account that these technologies can diffuse to other countries through technology diffusion, trade policy and changes in trade policy may have very important impacts on economics growth and on economic welfare. And what I’ve been doing very recently is I’ve been using the framework that I developed in that paper to study policy questions that are relevant today. So, for example, I’ve written several pieces here at the St. Louis Fed on the U.S.-China trade war from the perspective of intellectual property. So one of the questions that I was interested in is in understanding a little bit more these accusations that China was misappropriating intellectual property from the United States, and the way I was approaching the question is I was looking at some data on royalty payments across countries. And I was looking at how countries that don’t have good intellectual property right protections may be missing out opportunities because there’s less technology transferred towards these countries, and that’s affecting their potentials to grow and to become innovative leaders.

So just to give you an example, imagine that an American company comes up with a new technology to produce a good, and they want to access the Chinese market. One way in which they can access the Chinese market is they can license the technology to a Chinese firm that is going to start producing a good with that technology and is going to commercialize the good in China, and, in exchange for the right to use the technology, is going to pay a royalty to the United States. If intellectual property rights in China are not strong enough, the American company is not going to have any incentive to transfer the technology to China for fear that they steal the technology or that they don’t pay the royalties that they have to pay. So, if that happens, China is going to be missing out on the opportunity to use technologies that have been developed somewhere else, learn from those technologies, and then start inventing themselves and growing. And my research is really looking at what could be the losses that China would be facing if they don’t improve their intellectual property rights. So what I find fascinating about the research that I’m doing right now is that I can combine things that I’m interested in from an economic point of view with policy questions that are relevant today.

Hasenstab: You taught economics at INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. How did your work there differ from your work here?

Santacreu: Actually, it was very similar in the sense that I was doing academic research there as well. I guess the main difference was that I was teaching MBA students in INSEAD, whereas here, I’m not teaching. I’m writing policy articles. The topics are very similar. In INSEAD I was teaching about current events that were happening in economics. Here I’m writing about current events that are happening in economics. So I guess that was the main difference. INSEAD was a great experience because it gave me, again, like this international experience. I was working in France for a few years, but I was teaching both in France and Singapore, so I got the Asian experience as well. And the last year before I came here, I spent the whole year teaching and doing research in Singapore. And I had some projects associated also to the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

Hasenstab: And what challenges have you faced as a woman in economics, and how have you overcome them?

Santacreu: So I guess the main challenge I faced was when I graduated from the Ph.D. program, and I went to INSEAD to teach MBAs. The first year was rough, and I don’t know if it’s because I was a woman or because I was very inexperienced. I was teaching the macroeconomics. I think the students had the perception that I was very young, that I didn’t have a lot of experience. It was very difficult to transition from thinking in a very technical way about what economics is and then translating that knowledge that I had to things that were more practical, and that’s what the MBA students cared about. So, at the beginning, I thought it was because I was a woman teaching macroeconomics. And I had the perception that the students wanted to see like this very strong man, very assertive, very confident, that had experience in central banking or had like more practical experience. And I didn’t have that, and it was clear that I didn’t have that. So, luckily, I had two really good mentors that year. They were two professors who were teaching the same course in INSEAD, two star teachers in the course.

Hasenstab: What were their names?

Santacreu: It was Antonio Fatás and Ilian Mihov, and I’m still in contact with them. I have some projects with them, so they were great. They, basically, during my second year in INSEAD, they were sitting in all my classes, and what they were doing is they were paying attention at what the students were asking and how I was reacting to their questions and how I was answering their questions. And something that was very interesting for me was that the way I was approaching their questions was thinking that they knew more than what I knew, and they were challenging me in the classroom when they were not doing that. Maybe in some situations they were doing it, but, in general, they were not doing that.

So they went through, you know, all the questions that they were asking me and how I was answering the questions, and, in the end, I learned that, well, maybe it’s not because I’m a woman. Maybe it’s because of the way I’m responding to the questions, and maybe I’m responding to those questions in that way because I’m a woman or because I wasn’t very confident. So I really learned to be more assertive in the class, to be more confident, and to know that I was the expert on the topic. I knew the answer to the questions, and that was very useful for me, and I just had to be myself. It’s not that I had to be a man to succeed in the classroom, or I had to be overconfident, or I had to be very aggressive. I’m not super aggressive. I’m not a man. I just had to be more confident and to be a little more assertive in the way I was answering the questions, and that was really useful for me.

Hasenstab: The skill to be more assertive and confident, that’s a great life skill that can carry over whether you’re leading a classroom or doing your independent research or leading your family.

Santacreu: It is. And I think that that time in INSEAD helped me to be more confident not only in the classroom, but when I’m giving seminars, when I’m answering questions in seminars, and what was very important for me was being myself, not trying to be someone different. And I think that’s like a mistake that many people make today. They think that they have to be different. You hear things like, “Now, you have to be more aggressive.” Well, I am not an aggressive person, and I don’t have an aggressive personality. If I try to be more aggressive, it’s just going to backfire. Or things like, “You cannot be too nice because you are perceived like you’re soft.” Well, just find your personality, right? Be yourself. I think that’s the most important thing.

Hasenstab: That’s a really great message. You have a daughter.

Santacreu: Hannah.

Hasenstab: Hannah. Why do you think it’s important for her to understand economics in the economic world that she lives in?

Santacreu: I think it’s very important for everybody to understand the economic world they live in. Hannah is going to be exposed to economics whether she wants it or not because she was born in an international family. My husband is from Argentina; he’s also an economist. I’m from Spain, and she was born here in the U.S. We talk a lot about economics at home, about the economic situation of our respective countries. We visit often. We also travel a lot for work, and she comes with us, so she’s going to be exposed to this. It’s very important for her to learn about economics just to try to understand what’s going on in countries that her family care about. But, also, at the more basic level, I think it’s important for kids, young kids in general, to study economics because economics is in our everyday life. Every decision that we take is influenced by economics.

And, also, I remember the first time I studied economics in university. They told us that economics is about allocating scarce resources in an efficient way, so we’re always making decisions. And we always face constraint when we make those decisions, and many of these constraints are common because of the economic environment. So it’s very important that they learn what’s going on, to be able to take decisions like from what to wear, what to buy, what financial decisions to take when you’re buying a house. And I think you should learn that from very early on. So, when she turned one, one of our friends gave us this book on economics for kids, which is a lot of fun. And I cannot wait for her to be of an age where she can come to the St. Louis Fed Museum and start playing with all the interactive things that we have there, which I think is a great resource to learn economics for kids.

Hasenstab: Yeah. We have some interactive exhibits, and when the kids get a little bit older, they can really enjoy those and learn some personal finance and economic lessons while having fun.

Santacreu: Yeah, that’s great.

Hasenstab: How do you mentor women in economics? Are you doing things to help draw more women into the field?

Santacreu: I think I am. So just to give you my experience here at the Fed, I’ve worked with three research assistants. The three of them have been women. Two of them went on to do Ph.D. programs in economics. I’ve been talking to them a lot about how it is to be a woman in economics in an environment where there are not a lot of men, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with them about that. I’m currently working with another research assistant who’s also a woman, which is great, and I’ve been talking a lot to her about that as well. So I try to give them my experience. I try to tell them that they should, they should be themselves when being in an environment where we have a lot of men and not so many women. And I think that, that has been useful. I really like talking to them about how it is to be a woman.

The other thing that I did is economic education here was organizing this program in Louisville where they would invite women —so, scientists, physicists, chemists, so, women that had pursued careers in technical topics, and they will also bring an economist. And we will be talking to female students in high school and talking to them about our experience just to try to draw them more into the STEM programs. And it was very interesting for me to talk to the girls about my experience but also to hear the experiences of the other women there. As you were hearing the experiences of older women, of older generations, you realize that things have changed a lot. So, now, there are more women, right? There are more women going to university. There are more women in technical programs. Even if there’s still an imbalance in the racial, things are changing, and experiences that we face today are very different than the experiences that they were facing—I don’t know—20 years ago. So that’s why I think it’s very important to keep attracting women into these programs because it just changes experience that women have when doing these type of careers.

Hasenstab: So it’ll be interesting if there’s a way to find out how many of those high school students, who you’ve been a part of that panel speaking to, how many pursued STEM or economics studies.

Santacreu: It would be great to see the statistics. Yeah. Definitely.

Hasenstab: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss about women in economics?

Santacreu: Well, it’s important that we keep talking about these issues, and we keep talking about them in a constructive way, so we think of where are the solutions that we can bring to the table just to attract more women and more minorities into economics and more technical programs. And the second thing is I think it’s important for young women, especially, to know that they can reach out to older women that have experienced how it is to be a minority in the field of their study and that they are not shy, and they just come to us, and they ask us how to do it. I think that’s very important.

Hasenstab: I think that’s really important. Ana Maria, thank you so much for sharing your story today.

Santacreu: Thank you.

Hasenstab: To hear more Women in Economics podcast episodes, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That’s one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You can also stream the Women in Economics podcast series on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Stitcher, or TuneIn. Thanks so much for listening.