Women in Economics: Barb Flowers
This 20-minute podcast was released April 24, 2019.
“Economics is a good field of study for learning about how to manage your life,” says Barbara Flowers, economic education coordinator at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, senior media relations specialist at the St. Louis Fed, about her experience as a nontraditional student. She also discusses creating resources for Girl Scouts to earn economics and personal finance badges, and explains why she is passionate about creating economics curriculum for minority students.
Maria Hasenstab: I’m Maria Hasenstab, and you’re listening to “Women in Economics,” a podcast series from the St. Louis Fed's Timely Topics audio channel. Today I’m here with Barb Flowers, a coordinator on the Economic Education team here at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Barb, thanks for being here today.
Barb Flowers: My pleasure.
Hasenstab: Barb, tell me a little bit about what you do here at the St. Louis Fed?
Flowers: I do a lot of different things. I do some writing. We write curriculum, K-16. It might be a written lesson. It might be a series of written lessons. Could be online programs, videos, podcasts. And we do outreach, so we train teachers. I have three programs multiple day programs. One for AP teachers, one for people who just want to learn a lot more about Federal Reserve resources from all the Federal Reserve banks that produce resources.
And one for elementary teachers that don’t feel comfortable with their grade level expectations of them for teaching economics. And so they‘ll do two days with them. It’s called, Take the "Eek" Out of Economics, which I think is cute And we get a lot of response from elementary teachers. Last year, we had about 60.
Hasenstab: So tell me how you ended up working in the field of economic education.
Flowers: Well that was actually pretty accidental. I was going through my economics degree, my undergraduate degree. And I finished up, and I was at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). I was going to actually take a job as the supervisor of the writing lab at UMSL because I had been working there all along while I was a student. I enjoyed that work, and they offered it to me. And I was not quite sure what I intended to do with my economics degree. And I thought, well, I’ll just take that and see where that leads me. And before I was ever actually placed in that job, I got a call from the chairman of the economics department and said that someone had quit in the Center for (Entrepreneurship and) Economic Education, and they wanted to interview me. And I got the job right away, and started working in economic education never, ever having thought that I’d end up in education in any sense of the word, or any form—quite a surprise. And it turned out that I enjoyed it.
I liked the creativity of it, so I just stayed with it and just have enjoyed every aspect of it, because we get to do so many things. And meet so many different people, and I think anybody that has studied economics wants everyone to know how important that subject matter is for their life and their understanding of what’s going on in the world. And I actually get to do that. I get to tell people how important it is and try to convince them, and try to see if we can affect behavior. And so, it’s been a wonderful experience.
Hasenstab: Well tell me a little bit more about what attracted you to economics? How did you choose that as a field of study?
Flowers: I had heard it was an interesting subject. That’s all I knew about it. And I had heard that from my father who took it in college. So that’s what I knew of the subject. And I was 28 years old. And I was babysitting other peoples’ kids. And I knew that was not going to be the path for me. I wanted more, but I had never really enjoyed school. So I decided to go back, and I needed to find a course on a convenient night in a convenient location. And Wednesday nights turned out to be good.
And they were teaching macroeconomics at the local high school for the community college. And I went to take it. And I came out of that class thinking this is it. This explains everything. I will never do anything but economics. And the next semester, I took micro and then I had to wait until I got through community college for about six years before I could actually continue my path in economics. But I was not going to be stopped and went to UMSL and started right in after those six years of getting all of the general education courses out of the way, and continued on.
Hasenstab: At 28 when you started taking community college classes, you were already a nontraditional student. Was that your first college experience?
Flowers: It was. It was. I didn’t enjoy school, and I didn’t really see college as a path for me. Maybe I discovered that I was finally more mature, or maybe I just discovered that I found an interesting topic, or something I could really cling to. I’m not sure which it was, but found college to be exciting, and interesting. And I just never wanted to stop, so I just kept going for a long time.
Hasenstab: Well that’s a great story, and you said that something clicked when you were in that macro class. That it made the rest of the world make sense to you. Was that part of the instructor, or you think it was purely the topic?
Flowers: It was both. I had a wonderful instructor, but macroeconomics explains how the world works. If it had been micro, I might have had a different outcome, but when you’re in macroeconomics and they talk about how unemployment happens, and business cycles, and maybe the unemployment happens as a result of that. But then maybe the unemployment happens because you don’t have the right skills, because certain industries close, and new technologies come along.
And that’s just one example. There’s so many examples of how the world works, and it’s particularly interesting, because you can make it work for you when you understand this. And if you don’t understand it, you can fall victim to different economic downs. And you don’t know how to respond, and maybe terrible things happen to you because of it. And so, I want everyone to understand how they can make the economy work for them.
Hasenstab: You said you were babysitting other kids when you went back to school. Did you have your own kids? Do you think that life experience also affected what you were learning in the classroom, what you were taking away from it?
Flowers: Oh, absolutely. Yes. That’s for sure. Life gets very serious obviously when you have children. And I was thinking about my ability to get them so far along in their future. I knew first of all that if I didn’t have a college education, I wasn’t going to earn enough money to really help to put them where I wanted them to be. But in addition to that, I wanted to be able to tell my kids how to maneuver in the world too. And I wanted them to have that instruction. So I mean, I could have gotten a college degree in a lot of different things.
And I might have been able to teach them about some of those things. I could have been in marketing. I could have been in biology. I might have been able to teach them those lessons, but I was glad to be able to teach them how to handle themselves. I think that they’ve learned some very valuable lessons, and actually I have a daughter that’s an entrepreneur. I have another daughter that’s a bank vice president. And my son is a graphic designer, and they all got a chance to go to school, and learn a craft.
Hasenstab: Thinking about your time at the community college, and then when you got to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was there ever a time, did you feel like a minority in the classroom? Do you feel like your gender played a role in where you were, or was it kind of evenly divided?
Flowers: Oh, no. It was nowhere near evenly divided. There were two girlfriends in undergrad. Especially if you were going for a bachelor of science, there were a few other women in the Bachelor of Arts program. But I didn’t really take a lot of the same classes as they did. And I only had those two friends. In graduate school, I didn’t have any female friends in graduate school. And not only was I different in gender, I also was different in age. So there were some male students that were probably, could have been my children.
And so that part was kind of odd too, so I really did—I guess I probably stood out in a strange way. Although, I didn’t really feel that, and I think that’s because we had a fairly significant number of female instructors. So I was used to seeing women around. The male instructors were really quite accepting. I never felt uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, a young man would try to help me a lot, and one of the problems that I had was that I was raising a family. And I was working, and I was going to school. And they were working, but they were working in the Economic Resource Center, so they were economics tutors. So it might as well have been studying a little bit more.
So they had a lot more time, and I didn’t, and so I wouldn’t say that the subject matter, that it was more difficult for me to understand it. I think it was just difficult for me, because I couldn’t devote as much time to it. I was 28 when I started. I was nearing 38 when I was going to graduate. I needed to be out and working, and so I didn’t have the luxury of taking a lot of the other courses that I really wanted to take, the more complex math courses. I’m glad for the knowledge that I did obtain in calculus, and that’s about as far as I went with calculus, and econometrics. And it has worked for me.
Hasenstab: Wow. It sounds like you really overcame some obstacles.
Flowers: Yes. Except that I didn’t realize it was an obstacle. That’s the interesting thing. They made me feel very comfortable. I never felt like I was up against anything, or that I was doing something that no one else had done, or hadn’t done for a long time. And as a matter of fact, they were real supportive. They were always willing to help me with projects, or problems, or whatever, just to help me get through. Because I think they recognized too that I had a lot on my plate.
Hasenstab: Backing up here, you mentioned you didn’t take a lot of the higher level math courses. And that’s worked out well for your career. What would you tell students who may be interested in economics, but might be trepidatious about taking some of those math courses?
Flowers: Well, it depends on what you want to do, but these days it’s a lot different now. There’s a lot more mathematics. There’s a lot more modeling. There’s a lot of statistics. Even to come to work at the Fed as an examiner, you have to have econometrics. So I would suggest just to always cover your basis. Take the differential equations, and the econometrics. Get really solid in calculus, because you never know where you’re going to end up, or how your life will lead you. And you wouldn’t want to be barred from a job, or not accepted into a position, because you didn’t have something like that.
And I would tell that to anybody in any path. And that’s what I try to tell high school kids, or even middle school kids. Take your algebra in middle school, then as you’re going through high school take as many math classes as you can possibly fit in your schedule. And don’t say, well, I’ve got my credits, and I’m just going to take off in the afternoons now. Keep taking courses. Take the difficult courses, because when you get to college, and you see a path that you’d like to take, but yet you don’t have the required background for it, you’ve lost an opportunity.
And so the more you can pile in, into your resume, the better off you will be. And so if I had it to do over again, and I had all the time in the world, and I had all the money to keep spending on courses, [laughs] I would have taken those courses. But I took as many courses as I needed to have, and the required courses to get the degree just so I could get out, because I started so late.
Hasenstab: Well, I thought that was really interesting. You just mentioned a missed opportunity for some of these students if they don’t pursue as many avenues as they can. That almost sounds like an opportunity cost. It almost sounds like an economics lesson right there in talking about a completely different subject, right?
Flowers: It is an economics lesson. Human capital development is an economics lesson in many senses. It offers you so many opportunities because depending on how widely you’ve accepted types of education, and trainings, and how many things you can kind of put together. If you’re a graphic designer, but then you’ve also learned how to do programming, then you can build websites. And I mean, so even more diverse coursework can be combined to do something that might be unique.
The human capital development is important for offering you opportunities, but it’s also important in a personal financial way, because the more you know, the more likely you will be hired. And you will have the income, and maybe the increasing income given that you have special skills that other people don’t have. It’s a supply and demand problem. And if you’ve got those skills, and there aren’t very many other people with those skills, you’re likely to have a higher wage. Money isn’t everything, but it sure does buy a lot of things, that you might have to do without if you don’t have those skills.
Hasenstab: That’s true. I wanted to change course here and ask you, what do you think of when you hear the phrase, “women in economics?” What does that mean to you?
Flowers: Well actually, it means—interestingly, and I don’t want to stereotype, but I think it means a different path in economics, different areas of study. The women I know that are in economics are in economic education. Obviously we have women economists who are macroeconomists. But many of the women I knew were labor economists, science, scientific studies, environmental, economic education, and I think women, especially if they have children they are concerned about the environment. And it’s not to say that men aren’t. But there might be a little deeper concern. And labor economics, again, women, they still say that there is a pay differential. And I’m not going to debate that except to say that I know it has narrowed if one exists between like jobs. But women haven’t always had those kinds of opportunities, and so I think that it’s not so unusual to see women study the labor market, and human capital development. And education is another thing that is kind of geared to women. So I think that women maybe bring a different aspect of economic study to the field, and I think it’s a good thing.
Macroeconomics obviously is very important. It’s very important to the Federal Reserve, and other areas of economics, but I think that what women bring are their experiences, what they have seen around them, and those things that are important to them. And I think that that’s probably true with a lot of minorities. I remember meeting a Chinese economist that studied developing countries, and how economic systems develop in those countries. And he came from an incredibly poor area in China, and I know that his background, and his experiences led him to that particular area of study.
Hasenstab: Tell me a little bit more about some of the projects you work on here at the St. Louis Fed. I know the Economic Education Department just won an award for the resources that you had a big part in helping create — lessons and activities for Girl Scouts here in Missouri to help those scouts earn badges, and leaves connected to economic education, and personal finance. Are there any other big projects like that, that have played a major role not only in the work you’ve put in here, but kind of thinking about these are projects that you’re passionate about, or that you’ll always remember?
Flowers: I am passionate about minority children, particularly in the St. Louis area that would be mostly African American children, and their human capital development. And so when I was at the University, I worked a lot with a local Boys and Girls Club. I really was responsible for their summer education program, and we brought students from the University, and did programs during the day. And the kids enjoyed them, and learned. And it was just a wonderful experience. When I came here, at first we didn’t do that much of that sort of thing. But we have the OMWI (Office of Minority and Women Inclusion) mandate from the Dodd-Frank Act where one of the things that we want to encourage is young African American, or actually any minority into the fields of finance and economics. And we are working with a local high school to hopefully build that interest. And so I’m doing a lot of the work in that. We’ve developed a first year curriculum, just a course, intro to business. But we’ve tried to make it very interesting, and engaging, and hands on, experiential, and fun, so that kids get a taste of the various types of business areas, so marketing, and finance, and economics, and entrepreneurship, and so on. And then, they will carry that through their high school years. But the school needs a lot of other kinds of assistance, and so we’re hoping to build some interest among bank members.
And also, the community in looking at other ways that this school could be aided in math tutoring, and reading tutoring, and just general mentorship, it’s a depressing area. It’s a lot of buildings that are falling down, and then you walk by that every day on your way to school. It’s got to be a little discouraging, and so we want to bring something substantial to the school where kids see that they have a future just as much as anyone else if they put their mind to it, and obtain the education that they need.
Hasenstab: Well it’s really powerful that you’re helping to do work to show some of those students some of the opportunities that they may not have otherwise realized were there.
Flowers: Yes. Well, I hope that that’s what we’re doing and we’re working with the teachers. The teachers, we don’t work directly with the students, we work with teachers. And the teachers though are so responsive. It’s just amazing to me and they’re so excited about the curriculum, and the other things that we’re kind of bringing to them, that it’s invigorating. And they can work in that environment day after day after day, and they can see this light at the end of the tunnel. There is this path for these kids. And I think it’s not just our responsibility but our entire city’s responsibility to make sure that that happens for those kids.
Hasenstab: Barb, I’ve so enjoyed learning more about you today. Is there anything else you’d like to discuss about women in economics, anything I haven’t asked about?
Flowers: Well, just that I would encourage women, I’d encourage anyone to get into the field of economics. And not necessarily to become a Ph.D. and go teach in a university, but just, there’s a lot of ways that you can use an economics degree. Granted hiring managers don’t often know what those ways are, and so you can end up with a few people that are scratching their heads as you walk in with your economics degree. But it’s in the top three degrees of the high scoring LSAT students, for instance. It’s a decision making science. It allows you to understand cost benefit analysis, so you can go into areas of finance. You can do forecasting. Actually, I think it provides you with very, very good managerial skills. I would suggest people go into economics, not necessarily to become an economist, but to get that background. I think it can help you in many of the avenues that you might choose. Economics is a good field of study for learning about how to manage your life.
Hasenstab: Well, great. Thanks so much Barb.
Flowers: You’re welcome.