Women in Economics: Betsey Stevenson

December 09, 2020

This 39-minute podcast was released Dec. 9, 2020.

Betsey Stevenson, University of Michigan

“I didn’t see #MeToo coming, but it came, and it’s taking a while still to come for economics, but it is,” says Betsey Stevenson, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan’s Ford School. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, media relations coordinator at the St. Louis Fed, about challenges she has faced as a woman in the field, her research on women’s labor market experiences and how her teaching style has changed in 2020. She also discusses the importance in presenting gender-balanced scenarios in her economics textbooks.



Maria Hasenstab: Hello. I’m Maria Hasenstab, and you’re listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today, I’m joined by Betsey Stevenson, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan’s Ford School. Betsey, thank you so much for joining me today.

Betsey Stevenson: Oh, it’s a pleasure to talk with you, Maria.

Hasenstab: I’d like to kick off this conversation by asking you about your education. You earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and mathematics from Wellesley College and a master’s and a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University. How did you choose to study economics?

Stevenson: Well, I have to admit that when I went to college, I did not think I was going to study economics. I went to college to study physics and math and engineering, and while I really believe anybody can be taught to think like an economist, what I learned in my first economics class was that I had been thinking like an economist my whole life. It felt, going into that economics classroom, like I understood the world, and this was a framework and an approach that just fit how I thought about things and how I made decisions. And so, like an economist, when I thought about whether I should take that next physics class or take another econ class, I thought about the marginal benefits and the marginal costs of each class, and it was clear that economics came up the winner.

So that’s how I ended up majoring in economics in college. And then when I finished college, I went and worked at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington D.C., where I was a research assistant working on international development. And I felt like economics was a toolkit that could be used to really help people live better lives, and so that was why I decided to go and get further training in economics and to pursue a Ph.D. because I thought, with that Ph.D. in economics, I could better understand people, the way they made decisions, and the best way they could be helped by government.

A funny story on that, which is I only later, when I really studied public finance, learned just how much I thought like an economist. But when I was 16 years old and I got my first paycheck, and I saw Social Security taxes taken out, I complained about this to my parents. And my parents said, “Well, Social Security is a really important program. It’ll provide for you in retirement.” And I said, “I know that. It’s just that this is clearly not going to be one of my highest earnings years, and therefore, it’s not going to contribute to my Social Security benefits, so it’s a pure tax on young people like me.” [Laughing]

Hasenstab: That was forward thinking. Absolutely.

Stevenson: So I did not realize that was economics. That was just, to me, the rational way to think through that problem.

Hasenstab: That’s a great example of thinking like an economist.

Betsey, now I’d like to talk to you about your work experience. You have many high profile positions, too many to list all here, but I wanted to highlight a few. In addition to serving as a professor at the University of Michigan, you are a faculty research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a visiting associate professor of economics at the University of Sydney, and a fellow of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research. And previously, you’ve served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, where you advised President Obama. You’ve also served as the chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor. And since this is a podcast from the St. Louis Fed, I’d love to mention that in addition to serving as a RA at the Board of Governors, you’ve also served as a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Banks of San Francisco and Philadelphia. With so many different prestigious positions, is there a common thread or theme that connects so many of these roles, or are they all unique, offering you new opportunities to flex different economic and professional muscles?

Stevenson: So if I take a look at everything I do in economics, I think there is a common thread which is that I really believe in communicating economic ideas to a wider audience: to the general public, so that they can understand what economists are finding and learning, to policymakers, so they can implement the findings from economic research. As a researcher, my research has always been very policy-relevant, but I think it’s really important that economists don’t just stop with publishing their research in economic journals, which are where other economists go to read about research findings, but that they work to get those ideas out into the public so that they can be used to improve people’s lives.

And so that, for me, has meant serving in government positions. It’s meant communicating with people who serve in government positions, so visiting positions at the Fed have improved communications there, as well as allowing the collaboration and discussion with people who are really doing, obviously, very policy-relevant research. My positions in government have been about trying to use the ideas of economics to make good policy choices for the American public. Some of the other positions that I’ve held, however, are about making sure that I stay engaged with a wide range of research. If the idea is to communicate research to a wider audience, you also have to know not just your own research, but be aware of the research that other economists are doing.

So organizations like the NBER, the National Bureau of Economic Research, is a place where really amazing scholars across many different fields of economics publish their latest research through working papers, and it gives a chance to engage with other researchers, learn about what they’re doing, provide feedback on their work, and then, of course, get feedback from them on my work and have that collaborative process. So those kinds of affiliations or visiting other universities, they’re really about trying to be better as a scholar as well as learn more about what other scholars are doing.

Hasenstab: I’m glad that you mentioned your research because I wanted to ask you about—your research, as a labor economist explores women’s labor market experiences and the economic forces shaping today’s modern family in addition to how those two things influence each other. Since this podcast series is Women in Economics, tell me what you’ve learned in your research that you would especially highlight to young women considering studying economics and those who are new to the field, as well as any advice you might have for that audience.

Stevenson: Well, let me start with my research and my research interests. So I have always been interested in how the decisions that we make about work influence the decisions we make at home or with our families and how the decisions we make with our families and at home influence our decisions about work. Economists typically talk about the tradeoff between work and leisure, and I think we do that because two-dimensional space is a lot easier than three-dimensional space, but what people are really thinking about is work for pay, work at home, leisure. And they have to make choices about how they’re going to allocate their time across those three things. Obviously, therefore, our decisions about what career to have, how much time to put into it, how much energy to put into it is really intimately linked with our decisions about how many kids to have, whether to use childcare, whether to send your kids to school, or try to homeschool them yourself. I mean, all these decisions are going to be interrelated, and that’s something I’ve always been very interested in.

And then on top of that, as a society, we make choices that will therefore impact people’s individual decisions. So do we have readily-available childcare? Do we have public schooling? Do we have the right to take time off when our family needs us? Do we have the right to take paid leave or unpaid leave to care for our kids or another family member? All of those types of policy decisions will end up going into an individual person’s decision about how they’re going to spend their time in terms of their work life, in terms of their family life. And policies that politicians might think are designed to increase women’s labor force participation could end up impacting their fertility, and policies designed to impact women’s fertility can end up impacting their labor force participation. For example, making a high-quality childcare easily and cheaply available to families could end up changing both how much women work, encouraging them to work more, and encouraging them to have more children because they can afford them.

So policy, the choices government makes, I think, ends up shaping the decisions that we make as individuals. So, now, let’s take this to women studying economics. I think the question, when you’re studying economics, first of all, is what are you hoping to do with your economics degree? And I hope that many people listening to this Women in Economics podcast series are not just Ph.D. students but are undergraduates, and if you’re an undergraduate considering majoring in economics or already majoring in economics, the most important thing to realize is that most people who major in economics don’t go on to become economists, and that’s OK. Economics is a really good major to train you, to help you to be really good at a large number of different professional options. So I think that that can be really hard for students to fully grapple with, particularly female students. So what am I going to do with my economics degree? And the answer is anything.

There’s so many things that you can do. You can go and work in social justice movements. But being trained to think like an economist, you’ll better understand the decisions and choices people are making. It’ll help you to be better able to design policies that will accomplish your goals. You could go on to become a teacher, and your training in economics will give you a rigorous way of thinking, again, understanding how people make decisions so that you can be a more effective teacher. It’s important to realize that you can do lots of different things with economics. For women who are going and considering doing a Ph.D. in economics, I think the biggest challenge that really continues to remain is that becoming, say, an economics professor is a long path, and that path coincides with women’s most fertile years.

And so you often will face choices about whether to start a family in the middle of a Ph.D. program, to start a family as an assistant professor, and those are really difficult choices because if you decide to put off starting a family, you run the risk of not being able to have a family, and if you decide to go ahead and pursue having kids, the research does show that actually, regardless of what profession you’re in, the younger you are when you have kids, the more likely your career is to plateau at a lower level. And I think that is, to me, one of the most frustrating facts that we’ve seen in the data and one of the things that I think we can change through policy and through social attitudes. And it’s one of the things I’m really committed to trying to see change because nobody should be put on a lower career trajectory for the rest of their lives because they chose to have a child, say, in their early 30s or late 20s. And we can’t continue to have women react to the motherhood penalty by having their children later and later and later. The age of first birth for professional women is already over age 34. That I think shows the difficult position a lot of women find themselves in.

Hasenstab: Those are all really important points to highlight, so thank you for sharing that. I loved when you said that economics can help you prepare for a wide range of career choices, not just becoming an economist. And then, of course, definitely, nobody should be put on a lower career path because of their choice to have children, so really important work that you’re doing there. So thanks for talking about that.

Betsey, I’ve read a lot about you and your partner, Justin Wolfers. You both have impressive economic careers and have joined forces and been called an economic power couple. You’ve done research together and other projects including a popular podcast series called Think Like an Economist.

One of the projects that you’ve partnered with Justin together on involves writing three introductory economics textbooks: Principles of Economics, Principles of Macroeconomics, and Principles of Microeconomics, which were published in late 2019. These books are specifically more gender-balanced than other economics textbooks, the scenarios presented in them. That seems like a really noble endeavor, a smart way to create a textbook. Talk to me about creating these textbooks and the importance of presenting more gender-balanced economic scenarios.

Stevenson: Well, let me say, first of all, that writing a textbook is a lot of work because the thing that you keep asking yourself is, if I put another hour into trying to make this concept a little bit clearer, a little bit simpler, a little bit easier to digest, can I possibly save 500,000 students 5 minutes each? And if you can, then I should definitely put another hour in, right? So if I want to think about the benefits, the hope is that if a lot of people use your book, then the benefits of making it just a little bit better can be quite great, and you should just keep trying to make it clearer and better. So how do you think about making it clearer and better? Well, one thing I learned was that if you look at research on how children learn, that one reason that wealthier kids tend to have greater reading comprehension when they’re younger is because they bring what they already know into the reading. We all bring what we already know into the reading. Your background experiences is the scaffolding with which you try to understand the world around you.

So when a child reads a story about something that’s familiar to them—let’s say that the kid is reading a story about going to the beach. If they’ve never been to the beach, it’s a harder story for them to comprehend because they’re not bringing any of their background to it. If they’ve grown up at the beach, it’s a much easier story because they’ve got a lot of their own background so that they can focus on what’s really unique about the story. So now let’s apply this to economics textbooks. If we want books to be easy to understand by a wide, diverse range of people, we have to make sure that a wide, diverse range of people have scaffolding that they can use to understand the examples. So people often talk about examples as if it’s like the decoration on the top of the cake, maybe even less important than the frosting. It’s nice to have some good examples. It actually turns out it’s really crucial for learning because the more you have diverse examples, the more people can bring their own background into the reading and use it as a scaffolding on which to build their knowledge. That means that the examples need to have diverse people doing diverse things. You’re not going to have every student see themselves in every example, but you need every student to see themselves on the pages of the book somewhere.

I think the bestselling book of all time is How to Win Friends and Influence People, and one of the things he says in that book is if you look at a group photo that you are in, who’s the first person you look for? You look for yourself; everybody does it. Even if you think of yourself as not being very ego-driven, everyone’s looking at themselves. What do I look like in this photo? Well, when people pick up a textbook, they aren’t maybe explicitly looking for themselves, but implicitly, they’re looking for themselves and their lives and what they relate to. So the more you give people something where they recognize themselves, where their background allows them to build a scaffolding for deeper understanding, the more you’re going to connect with and the easier it’s going to be for people to learn. So diversity in textbooks is not a nice to have. It’s actually completely essential if we’re going to reach diverse students.

Hasenstab: I liked what you said that everyone is looking for yourself whether in a photo or in a textbook, whether you realize it or not. This podcast series aims to highlight the careers and studies of women and underrepresented minorities in the field of economics. Why do you think it’s important that more women and minorities work in the field?

Stevenson: There was a study that looked at how women think about economics and then how they think about policy issues. And what they found was that there isn’t really a gender difference in how we see economic tools, but how we apply those tools and the conclusions we draw about things like redistribution, the environment, children, investing in children, there are gender differences. And so if you don’t have diverse voices in economics, then you’re not going to get diverse voices in policy circles that actually reflect economic thinking, which I think is really important. If economics is going to be useful to the world, then we need to have diverse perspectives in economics. I also think economists will learn more and we will learn faster with diverse voices.

For so long, economists have really struggled to understand race. They just really struggle with it, and I think the reason is there just aren’t enough economists who are people of color, who can speak to these issues, who can write the research, who can provide a different perspective. So I do think that it has caused economics to fumble in some places, that we are not a very diverse field.

So I guess, to put it together, there’s two reasons why we need diversity. One is so we improve as a field: we do better economics, better research, and understand the world better. And the second reason we need diversity is so that we can have more influence in the world by bringing diverse perspectives into policy-making circles, into the public sphere, so that we can ensure that a rich and diverse version of economics is brought into the public domain. And if we don’t bring a diverse perspective, we’re going to become less relevant.

Hasenstab: Betsey, we’re recording this podcast near the end of 2020. It’s been a unique and challenging year in light of the COVID-19 health pandemic and social unrest. How has your work and your career changed this year, and do you see any long-term changes as a result of this time?

Stevenson: Oof. Well, I have to say that, yeah, it’s November. We’re approaching the end, and there’s still parts of me, when I wake up in the morning, where I think it must still be March because it felt like the whole year just—we’ve just been waiting, waiting for something different to happen. And we will move beyond that. Maybe you have already, Maria. It’s just been, as you said, it’s been a really, really hard year, and it’s been hard in so many different ways. So, for me, personally, I try to always remember my privilege. My privilege is that I still have my job, that my kids are doing great with home schooling. Their sort of hard skills are doing really well. I think like a lot of kids in the country, they’re stressed and anxious, and I think we’re going to have work to do to help all sorts of kids recover, some in terms of social-emotional aspects, some in terms of math skills or reading skills, the sort of hard education skills. And I think when the kids go back in the classroom, we’re going to see behavioral issues and challenges for teachers at a time when we’re running out of funding. So I have a lot of concerns about where we’re going socially.

What I learned is that this pandemic has had really unique perspectives for women, and so I ended up not doing the work I thought I was going to do this year, and I’ve done a couple of very different things as a result. I’ve been focusing a lot on what’s happening in the labor market, the fact that women are dropping out. We’ve never seen a recession in which women have been hurt as much as they have been in this particular recession. They’ve been hurt in three ways. They were the first to be laid off, so they were laid off in higher numbers. Their kids have stayed home, and while this should hurt parents, and so men as well as women, we have seen women bear the disproportionate burden of this. And the third way is that women are our state and local government employees, disproportionately. There are more women who work in state and local government employees than there are men who do that. So they’ve been dealing with the response, and then they’re also dealing with the threat of layoffs because state and local governments are facing budget crises that are potentially leading to layoffs.

So I’ve been focusing my energy on that. I’ve been teaching virtually. It’s made me really think hard about how to teach, how to reach students, how to be empathetic. I’ve always wanted to push students as hard as I can because I feel like they deserve to be pushed, but at the same time, this year, they also really need to be supported, and they need understanding, and there’s so much stress that there’s not room for my class to be a stressful experience. And so that has changed teaching. And you might think, “Well, maybe your class should never be a stressful experience,” but both sticks and carrots motivate people in life. And in a normal year, you can use the threat of “the final is going to be really hard” to try to motivate people, and I just don’t think you can in this year.

So it’s had to change how I think about teaching, and we’ll see how much of that ends up sticking. I’m sure there’s certain things that I’ll change forever: the way I teach in modules, the way that I try to break things up. The type of empathy and ways I reach out to students I think will change, and then my use of podcasts. So I hadn’t been a really big podcast listener before, but I had two interesting and unique opportunities to do podcasting this summer. The first was working with Planet Money and doing an economics summer school, and the idea was to take old Planet Money episodes and really dig into the economics in them by having a discussion, a couple minutes at the front of the episode, then playing some of the episode, and then coming in and having that 5 to 10 minute discussion or 10 to 15 minute discussion afterwards about the real meat of the economics in the episode, and that was really fun.

And I heard from so many people that loved learning economics that way. And Justin and I decided that we would, as a way to help students learn in this sort of crazy world where they’re spending so much time on Zoom and in front of their computer, that we would take each of our chapters from our Principles of Economics textbook, and we would make them into 15 to 20 minute episodes discussing economic concepts that they could listen to while they’re going for a walk outside, and start to dig into the material they need to learn in that chapter. So 15 minutes on demand isn’t going to make you an expert, 15 minutes on supply, but it’s enough to get you to start thinking about the issues so then you can go into your class, you can go into the textbook reading a little bit more engaged and a little bit more ready. So that understanding how to use bite-size information better has changed a lot for me.

And the other thing I learned in assigning podcasts to my students is that I could bring in more diverse voices through podcasts. Economics hasn’t been very diverse, and as a result, if I look at the stock of papers of the research out there. The students would like me to assign diverse authors. There’s not diverse authors among textbooks. Even if you look at the stock of papers, there’s not that much diversity. But if I want to see an issue, a policy issue that is relevant in 2020 being discussed, I can have my students listen to a podcast where they will interview very diverse voices. They’ll talk to African American economists. They’ll talk to female economists. And that will help my students hear that there are all sorts of people doing economics. And I think that that idea of showing diversity in economics is really important, and I really thank 2020 for helping me learn that one of the best ways to do that is through podcasts because they are so quick, and they’re so much more interested in actually bringing and highlighting those diverse voices.

Hasenstab: Well, those are some great points about podcasts. And I love that you just said, “Thank you, 2020” for helping you learn something new. That’s, that’s a great attitude.

Speaking of challenges, what challenges, Betsey, have you faced as a woman in the field of economics, and how have you overcome them?

Stevenson: So I find that a hard thing, personally, to discuss because I have, like many women in economics, faced clear discrimination and faced situations of sexual harassment. And I think that, for me, just so women know, I think the problem in economics is I still feel like I don’t want to talk about those things because I will be blamed. I will be a target. It’ll be what did I do to be treated differently? What position did I put myself in to be sexually harassed? And I know, intellectually, that it’s never my fault and that I didn’t do anything wrong, but it’s the problem in economics that we still have economists—I’ve seen an economist in the last couple years talk in public about how sexual harassment is efficient way for women to use some of their skills to get ahead. and I find that so offensive I can barely talk about it.

We have this idea, in economics, that sort of allows what other people would find very offensive thinking as our sort of free expression. The problem is that our idea of free expression also is a place that can create hostility in academic circles for women. The way that we bully each other in seminars can create hostility for everyone. I’ve seen men who find it hostile as well, but whenever you’re creating hostility, bullying, the more vulnerable members tend to find it harder. And because we are a profession that has struggled with diversity, I think the bullying culture that many departments have, that occurs in many seminars, can end up making it harder for us to diversify because it can hurt women. It can hurt people of color more.

I am a very optimistic person. I’m the person who just said, “Thank you, 2020.” I always see the glass as half full, and that is how I’ve gotten through things. But what’s really important to me is that I am really dedicated to tearing down every barrier for women younger than me that I see and that how I get through it is to know that it will be better for them and to stay focused on the fact that we are making improvements as a profession. We are making improvements as a society. I didn’t see #MeToo coming, but it came, and it’s taking a while still to come for economics, but it is. Our willingness to accept predators in economics is declining very rapidly, and I think that there are a lot of people in economics who are also committed to making things better going forward. There’s power in numbers, and I believe that if my daughter chooses to become an economist, which she swears up and down she will not, but if she were to choose to become an economist, it will be a much, much better, healthier place for her, and I really believe that. And so it’s keeping a focus on the improvements, the fact that it’s getting better, and the allies who are committed to changing economics for the better is what makes me feel hopeful as well as what lets me put behind negative experiences that I’ve had.

Hasenstab: Well, Betsey, I want to thank you so much for sharing some of those experiences. And I love that you’re looking optimistically, and I do hope by the time your daughter and my daughter are choosing careers, that economics does look much more welcoming.

Betsey, you obviously have a full resume. You’re a professor. You’re also a mother. Do you have time to mentor women in economics, and if so, how are you helping to draw more women, recruit more women into the field?

Stevenson: So, first of all, I think that the most important thing that one can do is to promote female economists and economists of color. There’s a difference between mentorship and sponsorship that we don’t talk a lot about as economists. Sponsorship is somebody who’s really looking out for someone, making sure that they’re getting opportunities, that you’re raising their name, and so I like to think about the sponsorship model pushes people harder. So it’s not just like, “Here. Let me show you. As an example, this is what I did,” or, “You can come to talk to me,” which I think is sort of how we think of our normal mentorship models. But sponsorship is trying to be the wind at someone’s back, pushing them forward. And CSWEP runs a mentoring program, and a lot of people approach it differently, but I, as a CSWEP mentor, I really approached it with that sort of sponsorship model, checking in with my mentees. “Did you submit to this conference?” “How’s your application for tenure going?” Just trying to constantly make sure they’re aware of opportunities, writing letters for them for things like recommending them for the NBER, doing things to try to help push their career forward.

Less formally, what I try to do is be aware of the research written by female economists and by more diverse voices, economists of color, and then mentioning both the people and their research as frequently as I can. If you want to understand why diversity matters, I remember stepping down from the Obama administration. And I think I’d been out a couple months, and somebody called me up because they needed an economist to do something. Luckily, I can’t even remember what it is, so I don’t have to worry about revealing something I shouldn’t reveal. But what struck me was I sat down and I made a list of people—not trying to think about gender, not trying to think about diversity—just a list of who are the people that came to my mind that might be good for that position. And then I looked at my list, and it had six women on it and four men, and I was like, “Oh.” The people I naturally thought of were women. And the problem is that if you’d asked a guy, he probably would’ve had eight men and two women. And that’s not purposeful. Not that he doesn’t like women or that he’s sexist. Just those are his mates. Well, I’ve tried to get to know a diverse range of voices in economics. Those are my mates. And so when I’m asked to recommend somebody for something, I am pushing along a more diverse set of names.

I’m now a full professor. I’ve had time to serve in government. I feel like I’m very established. It’s really important, for me, that I give credit to and lift up women and other economists, younger economists, who are less well-known or who have less of a platform, elevating their work, elevating their thoughts, making sure that people now hear about them, and they get the next set of opportunities—not me—because it’s too easy for people to just keeping thinking of the same set of names. And so it’s up to me and other economists, other senior economists, to keep putting forward the list of the next generation of women’s names for all the different kinds of things people can do. Whether it’s serving on journals, whether it’s writing referee reports, whether it’s serving in government, somebody puts your name out there, and somebody invites you for a seminar. And you just need to be purposeful about that in terms of thinking about who are you promoting, and are you getting diverse voices out there?

Hasenstab: Betsey, we’ve talked about a wide range of things today. Is there anything else you’d like to discuss about women in economics, anything that I haven’t asked about?

Stevenson: One of the things that we often see in economics, among undergrads in particular, but I think we even see this in graduate school, is a confidence deficit. Across lots of domains, we see that men tend to be more overconfident than women, and in economics in particular, this seems to be a problem. We have women who are worried that they’re not going to do as well in the classes, that that means that they’re not good enough or that are more intimidated by their potential Ph.D. advisor or not being appropriately supported by a Ph.D. advisor.

And I think it’s important for young women to believe in themselves and to really believe that economics is for them. It is for everyone, and good economics is economics that has a diverse set of voices in it, and it can’t have a diverse set of voices in it without women, without people of color. And I think if we could find a way to make sure that women have the confidence and the assertiveness to stand up for themselves in economics and then make sure that our departments are hiring the allies that are going to be there to have their back, I think that we will go a long way in improving economics.

Hasenstab: Those are such powerful points to end on, Betsey. I want to thank you so much for your time today and for sharing your story.

Stevenson: Oh, it’s my pleasure talking with you. Thank you for inviting me.

Hasenstab: To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That’s one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You can also stream Women in Economics on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Stitcher, or ask your Amazon device, Alexa, “Play Women in Economics from TuneIn.” Thank you.

This podcast features conversations with women and underrepresented minorities who are making their marks in the field of economics. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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