Women in Economics: David Wilcox

March 27, 2019

This 36-minute podcast was released March 27, 2019.

David Wilcox | Women in Economics Podcasts | St. Louis Fed

“Economics is relevant and it's important, and it's much too important to be left to one segment of the population. And historically, the segment has been white privileged males,” says David Wilcox, then-director of the research and statistics division of the Federal Reserve System Board of Governors. He talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the St. Louis Fed, about his research on the unequal distribution of economic education, the need to change economics classrooms and how it is the responsibility of every member of the economics profession to work toward diversifying the field.

Wilcox and Amanda Bayer co-authored the 2017 paper: “The Unequal Distribution of Economic Education: A Report on the Race, Ethnicity, and Gender of Economics Majors at US Colleges and Universities.” Bayer was also interviewed for the Women in Economics podcast series.

This podcast was recorded prior to Wilcox’s retirement from the Federal Reserve Board at the end of 2018.


Mary Suiter: I'm Mary Suiter 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 David Wilcox, director of research and statistics division of the Federal Reserve System Board of Governors. David, thanks for being with me this morning.

David Wilcox: Mary, thank you so much for having me be part of the podcast series.

Suiter: Yes, you're our first man we've interviewed for this series, so we're really excited about that. I thought I'd start by asking you what drew you to the field of economics.

Wilcox: Well, initially, I think there was the simple fact that it was something I discovered that I could do. I didn't do spectacularly well in my introductory class, but well enough to continue. And a class or two in, it became apparent to me that I had the tools to do it, so that was good. The lack of discouragement was one sort of starting point. Another that sticks very prominently in my mind was I did have some absolutely fantastic professors, and I want to underscore that, because I think it really demonstrates the importance that mentors can play in the formation of a person's professional life. Both the intermediate macro professor that I had and the intermediate micro professor really stand out in my mind as people that I found inspiring, that made it clear that they were passionate about the field of economics, that economics was relevant to every student that walked in the door of their classroom, and that they were interested in passing on their passion. If you didn't emerge from their classroom with a passion for economics, they took it as sort of a problem with them and they wanted to understand how that could possibly be.

I'm particularly fond of telling a story about the macro professor, somebody who's name was Carl Van Duyne. It was really Carl who introduced me into the idea that macroeconomics and monetary policy might be something of tremendous interest. I remember clear as a bell the day that Carl walked into the classroom at Williams College, sat on the front of the desk and conveyed with a focus that I can't begin to relay to you, but a sense of excitement and joy about the fact that a brand new textbook had just come on the market, was just now available for use in the classroom had arrived in the college bookstore only a few days or a week earlier. It was by two professors that I had never heard of before as somebody who was a complete newcomer to the field of economics. They were Rudiger Dornbusch and Stanley Fischer. Little did I know that four or five years later, instead of being in the western corner of Massachusetts, I would be far east in Massachusetts studying for my Ph.D. at MIT, and my thesis adviser would become Stanley Fischer, and I would have a couple of classes from Rudi Dornbusch as well. So on that day, Carl, unbeknownst to me, introduced me to a couple of figures who were going to loom very large in my professional formation.

The other professor was somebody named Bob Williams. Bob, too, was inspirational in his own way. A tremendous gifted lecturer. Later on left and went to the Congressional Budget Office and spent the bulk of his career in public service at the Congressional Budget Office, and that, too, in its own way, was part of forming the pathway that I was later to pursue.

Suiter: I agree with you about having instructors who have passion for the content. That's so important if we want to recruit young people into the field of economics. So your undergraduate degree, math from Williams College, were there many women in your classes at the time? And did you notice any difference in the way they were treated at the time?

Wilcox: You know, I don't remember differences in the treatment of women at the time. And I think in a mark of how the world has evolved, I cannot say that that was because there were no differences in treatment. It's entirely plausible to me that I was oblivious to any differences of treatment that occurred. Williams, at that time, had really quite a small math department. There were lots of introductory classes for calculus and statistics, some of the basic courses in mathematics. And so of course there were many women in those classes, because they needed those as prerequisites for other fields of study. By the time it came to declaring a major in mathematics, there were literally only a handful of people. And my recollection is that the bulk of all of those were men. It's a little risky to draw a conclusion on a sample of five or eight students, because one could say that there were many fewer men as well as many fewer women in the mathematics department at that time.

I will say, though, that Williams was no bastion of representation of women or under-represented minorities, and so I assume that it must have been the case that I was schooled in two departments that were heavily over represented by both men and by whites as opposed to women or under-represented minorities.

Suiter: I wonder, as you moved onto MIT for your graduate work, did you have more women in your classes at that time studying economics or perhaps another discipline and in class with you?

Wilcox: There again, there were very few women. I will say, by the way, that immediately in between the two episodes that you mentioned I came to the Federal Reserve Board here in Washington D.C. and worked for two years as a research assistant. My successor, the person who took my job as a research assistant was an alumna of Williams College, Amanda Bayer. My understanding is that Amanda will be participating in this podcast series and I'm very proud that Amanda is an alumna of the Williams Economics Department and has become truly recognized as a national leader in the field of diversity and inclusion in economics. And I think that's been something greatly to the credit of Williams College.

There were very few women in the economics program at MIT at the Ph.D. level. I will note with pride the two of my classmates, not the only women, but two of my classmates were Beverly Hirtle who is now the research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Trish Mosser who also had a long career in economics at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and later on an important role at the Office of Financial Research here in the treasury department in Washington D.C. Women were greatly under-represented in the Ph.D. program at MIT and remain greatly under-represented in the field broadly today. About 30 percent of degrees, both at the undergraduate level and at the Ph.D. level in economics today, are awarded to women, 70 percent to men. I was astonished to learn that a colleague of mine had visited a very prominent economics department that has 25 students enrolled at the Ph.D. level in this entering class. Of those 25, zero are women. It is just breathtaking. So this was a problem back when I was a student, it remains a severe problem today and it's one that's absolutely urgent that we continue to raise consciousness about.

Suiter: Well, I know you're very passionate about this issue and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why it's so important that we have women and under-represented minorities in the field.

Wilcox: I think the simple answer to that is that economics is relevant and it's important, and it's much too important to be left to one segment of the population. And historically, the segment has been white privileged males. Now, why is it too important? I think what we're learning over and over again with increasing urgency and salience is that one's perspective on so many different issues is importantly shaped by your life experiences, who you are, all the characteristics that you bring to your professional endeavors. And so as a result, I think it's very clear that the articles that we publish in the most prominent journals in economics, the individuals who are tenured at the most prestigious economics departments in the country, those who ascend to the highest ranks of the profession, all of those are influenced importantly by those who are the practitioners in the field today. The field truly is shaped by the identity of those who practice the field. If we change the identity and diversify the identity of those who are practicing the field, we will change the questions that people think are worthy of being researched. We will change the articles that are published, the people who are tenured. This is an arduous process, but I think it's one that's completely necessary and urgent that we be about starting yesterday.

Suiter: What brought this into focus for you? Are there experiences that you had working with men and women? Or just the obvious that there aren't that many women? But what brought it into focus for you? What made this so important for you?

Wilcox: Well, here's one thing that I think sharpens the focus on it. We've just, as you know, been through a completely wrenching experience, the financial crisis and the ensuing great recession. One thing that is completely clear is that while much of the country has experienced a substantial economic recovery, indeed many people are doing very well, that cannot be said about every segment of the population. And so there are broad pockets of the country that continue to suffer that have been left behind. Roughly speaking, the economy today is working really quite well, too extraordinarily well for the top third of the population. I would say the middle third of the population is doing okay by and large. Most individuals who want jobs have jobs. At the middle of the population, they're not experiencing large purchasing power adjusted increases in their take home pay, but they have now re-attained, many of them a measure of financial and economic security. And one sees that broadly reflected not only in hard data like the unemployment rate, but also in survey results such as those taken by the University of Michigan.

For the bottom third of the population, the economy is simply not performing well. These are individuals who, on average, have lower levels of education, do not have skills commensurate with the demands of today's workplace. On average, the fact of the matter is that African-Americans and blacks experience systematically higher rates of unemployment. The same is true for Latinos and Hispanics. Rural communities are doing much less well than urban communities on average. And so there are many, many segments of the population for whom the concept of economic recovery, much less prosperity, still remains a distant concept. We need to tap into the experiences, the knowledge, the life background of individuals who come from and have firsthand knowledge of those perspectives. That will inform the questions that we research in the future. That will inform the articles that are published in journals, and it should inform who gets tenure at the most prestigious universities. It should shape who the economics profession becomes in the future.

Suiter: So you are responsible currently for a large number of economists. I don't know how many here, and I don't know what percent of them are women. But in your efforts here, how do you mentor women? How do you ensure that their voices are heard in discussions and in the work that you do here?

Wilcox: Roughly 30 percent of our staff is women. That about matches the performance of the profession as a whole. We strive to outperform the average. It remains our aspiration to have a staff that is more representative, both along gender and race and ethnicity lines than the profession average. So there's no complacency whatsoever in our efforts to achieve that.

Providing a workplace that is inclusive and that challenges every individual in the workplace to give their best, to achieve at the highest level of which they are capable. That's a day-to-day, everyday, day in and day out endeavor. It involves a lot of sort of basic nuts and bolts kinds of actions. I'll just mention a couple. In the way that conduct academic seminars, for example. Economics is rather notorious for having a combative atmosphere in the seminar room where the speaker is oftentimes challenged after only a sentence or two. And the focus of seminar attendees is not always about testing the ideas, winnowing the bad ideas from the good ones, helping improve the scholarship of the speaker. Too often, the objective seems to be one of aggrandizing the seminar attendee, demonstrating that that person is smarter than the speaker, has a better understanding, is able to poke holes, demonstrate flaws in the presentation. That's not the seminar experience that we seek to provide for our speakers here at the Board.

We've noticed to our dismay and disappointment that the individuals who are invited to give seminars are not broadly represented, so we are making an effort to be very self-aware about the representation of those who come to give seminars. It's important both because coming to give a seminar at the Federal Reserve Board is a desirable invitation, and so that in and of itself is a career enhancer for the person who is invited for the audience. It is broadly important for us in order to be able to do our job in providing economic policy advice that we hear from the broadest range of ideas that we can avail ourselves of in the economics profession. We can't afford to be influenced overly by a single segment of the population. So seminar conduct and the representation of speakers are both really important.

With regard to mentoring, what we are trying to do there, a couple of things. We're very conscious and intentional about the way that we give assignments. Oftentimes, assignments play an important developmental role because we have assignments that are progressively more responsible. And if there are inadvertent biases or patterns in how those assignments are dulled out, then that can favor the advancement of one group over another. So we've undertaken a very intentional process of identifying the relevant potential base of people who could be assigned a particular task, and then assuring, for example, if that task arises once per FOMC meeting, there are eight of those meetings. Over the course of the year, we'd like to see that those eight assignments are dispensed in a manner that seems equitable and one that we think stands up to our own inspection. So we're very careful about how assignments are administered.

A second point that has been really emphasized to us by Amanda Bayer, who's on the faculty at Swarthmore College and spends part of her time here with us working on these kinds of issues, is that one has to be very careful about mentorship programs that rely heavily on self-identification for participation in the program. Too often, a mentorship program can become inadvertently a mechanism for accidentally reinforcing existing patterns of privilege. So for example, if a mentorship program is set up so that initially those who wish to be mentored are ones who simply put their hands up and say, “I'd like to be mentored,” there's a fair amount of evidence to suggest that, guess what? It's self-confident, privileged white males who put their hands up and self-identify as being interested in being mentored. If that's the case, then the mentorship program has a deleterious effect.

So what we're trying to do is built a culture where it is part of the expectation of every individual that part of their performance evaluation relies on how do you treat your colleagues? Do you create an environment where your colleagues derive benefit from being in the same environment from you? If your colleagues went away and had a discussion with, say, their graduate school classmates, would they describe the Federal Reserve Board as a place that helps them be a better economist because they're in the same environment with their colleagues? That's what we're seeking to do. In our mentorship efforts, we're seeking to make sure that those mentorship services are broadly available. The expectation is you will be mentored by someone. We don't compel people to be mentored, but to adopt Richard Thaler's phase, “We'd like you to opt out if you don't want to do it rather than opting in.”

Suiter: It sounds as though you have with the support of Amanda and others, I'm sure, have put a lot of really thoughtful, careful plans in place to try to promote strong mentorship across the board and to really help women and others under-represented minorities to move into the field to be successful. And that's wonderful. I think there are things that happen outside of the Board of Governors and the profession that could benefit from those kinds of insights, so attending conferences, for example, presenting at a conference. You know, I've had women express the notion that they are not treated the same in a presentation or at a conference. And so how do we kind of move what you're thinking about here, and these ideas that you're having, and Amanda's ideas, how are you thinking about moving those out into the profession with you and other colleagues who are highly thought of in the profession?

Wilcox: So let me begin with an acknowledgment which I express to my colleagues everyday here at the Board. We still have a very long way to go. I'm proud of the progress that we've made during my time as director of the division of research and statistics. Make no mistake, there is zero complacency on my part that we're in a desirable or satisfactory location. There's no diminution of the sense of urgency that I have. If anything, is only an increase in the sense of urgency that I have. We are not done. We have not arrived at any kind of a destination. We still have a very long way to go.

We still have much to learn from others. I would point, for example, to STEM fields where a great deal of progress has been made in improving representation by gender, by race and ethnicity. My own reading of the literature there is that a determination was made two or three decades ago that that situation in STEM needed to change. As a result, there was an intentional set of actions that were put in place, there was funding that was provided, there was institutional support for diversification in the STEM fields, and those trend lines have been moving up. In economics, I'm sad to say, there is no improvement in the trend line. Today, as I said earlier, about 30 percent of degrees are still awarded to women. Too often, I open up invitations that I receive to attend prominent conferences. I do informally a tally of, for example, the gender representation of speakers at those conferences. And I noted a week or so ago on getting one of those invitations that of the 19 authors that were represented, there was one who was female. Of the six or eight discussants of the papers, there was one who was female. So this was not a two bit conference. This was a very prominent conference.

You asked what is it that we can do to take this into the wider world. I think part of the answer is that there needs to be a broad recognition that addressing this problem in an honest and forthright way needs to be the task of every member of the profession. For too long, senior white males, like myself, believed that if there was an issue of representation of women in the economics profession, it was up to women to address that. If there was an issue with regard to the representation of blacks or African-Americans, Hispanics or Latinos in the economics profession, it was up to members of those groups to address that. Thankfully, I believe there is a widening recognition that that simply is no longer – it never was an adequate response, and is widely recognized today to be an inadequate response. It needs to be the responsibility of every member of the economics profession, and perhaps most especially, quite frankly, the responsibility of senior white males to be quite intentional about raising questions, asking why things are, not exceeding in the status quo because that's the only way that anyone has ever known it.

I think that recognition is broadening. I'm delighted that the executive committee of the American Economic Association established a new standing committee that will take responsibility for these issues. Working in collaboration with a committee on the status of minority groups and the economics profession and the committee on the status of women in the economics profession. But I think the establishment of the new standing committee is very important for what it says about the recognition by the executive committee of the American Economic Association for the responsibility that senior white males alongside of everyone else has to carry the load in this effort.

Suiter: So I want to turn this a little bit. I think that we want women to be well represented and to be treated well within the profession, but in order for that to happen, we have to get them into the profession and keep them in the profession beyond their undergraduate work, certainly. So looking at colleges and universities and your experience and your time to think about that, what can we do at the college and university level to draw young women into the field, to keep them in that introductory econ course they take that hooks them and keeps them interested in moving through the profession?

Wilcox: It is going to take nothing less than a change in mindset. I can report with hopefulness for the future, and admittedly with some parochial pride, that there are examples where progress has been made. For example, at my alma mater, Williams College there is a core of committed faculty who recognize the importance of making changes here. It will take actions that depart from the status quo. It will no longer be the case where teaching the introductory economics class in the old way, the professor going back to the professor's office, closing the door and conducting their research. That's not going to be sufficient anymore. I think there are some promising leads here in how to change pedagogy at the undergraduate level, which is an incredibly important portal into the next stage. One recognition is that textbooks, by and large, portray white males as the examples in economics. One survey demonstrated that not only are white males way disproportionately represented in the examples that are given in economics textbooks, but that predominantly or to a disproportionate degree, the women who were introduced into examples were not in decision maker status. They were oftentimes not in the role of business decision maker or policy maker. They were in the role sometimes of homemakers or other traditional roles. That needs to be changed. Predominantly and much too often, economic textbooks have been written by privileged white male and perhaps as a consequence of that, it is too often the case that efforts to make economics pedagogy relevant to students come across seeming as if it's most relevant of all to privileged white males. So that's one thing that needs to be changed.

Classroom conduct also needs to be changed. I've done a certain amount of retail level proselytizing across the country in selected undergraduate institutions, and it is discouraging to hear that professors too often exceed in the kind of atmosphere that can ensue when a large group of male students create an atmosphere that is hostile toward minorities, hostile toward women, perhaps because they sit in the back of the room and they have relatively disruptive behavior, perhaps because they dominate the classroom conversation or perhaps because of other issues. Another ingredient in the answer is to change the baseline conversation that happens at individual undergraduate institutions. My sense, my perception is that the baseline conversation begins with the status quo of the composition of the typical economics classroom. If there are 70 percent males and 30 percent females, then that becomes the starting point of the conversation. My sense is that a better starting point for the conversation would be the recognition that campus-wide, women represent approximately 54, 55, 56 percent of the population. Why is it that you're not drawing 54, 55, 56 percent women into the economics classroom? That is a change of mindset that needs to occur among economics classroom instructors, department chairs, deans, presidents, all the way up and down the line at colleges and universities across the country.

Suiter: Certainly I agree with you on that, and I, as you know, think that how economics is taught makes a huge difference in engaging students and keeping them connected to economics. So moving away from the chalk and talk are now the overhead and lecture format. And certainly drawing more women into the classroom to begin with is really important.

So we've talked a little bit about your research with Amanda. I know you've talked a little bit about that. How did that research come about? How did you begin working with her on that research?

Wilcox: An important spur to undertaking that research was our own challenges in attracting as diverse a work force here at the Federal Reserve as what we would like to do. A particularly ripe area for our focus seemed to us to be at the level of what we call research assistants. These are individuals who come to us with an undergraduate degree, typically in economics, sometimes in mathematics, as was the case in my own situation, sometimes in computer science or other related fields. Mathematics, statistics and others. The reason why that's a particularly ripe job area for our earliest attention was because it's a high turnover area. And so the characteristics of the work force from three years ago do not need to be the characteristics of the work force today. So I was particularly interested in developing a factual basis for improving our outreach efforts. How do we identify the places that we can go to that have a successful track record in training larger than average numbers of women, in training larger than average numbers of under-represented minority groups? We wanted to be fact based in our efforts because we have limited resources and we wanted to ploy those resources in an efficient manner. And so essentially, with the goal of developing a fact base for improving our outreach efforts, Amanda and I began this effort.

One takeaway message that I come away with from that research is just how pervasive the issues of representation are across colleges and universities in the United States. To me, the single most stunning fact to come out of that research is the following. We computed rates at which students of different descriptions major in economics. So what do I mean by that? For example, if there are 100 women at a particular campus and 5 percent of those women graduate with a bachelor’s degree in economics, then we would say that, well, there's an economics majoring rate of 5 percent. So what we did at every one of the campuses that's represented in the database that is maintained by the Department of Education that describes such things, we computed economics majoring rates for lots of different groups. Here's the fact that continues to blow me away.

We looked at schools where the white male majoring rate was greater than 5 percent. We used that as sort of a rough metric of whether the economics department is a material presence in the academic life of the campus. Many, many schools have economics majoring rates greater than 5 percent. Not all do, but many do. We compared the economics majoring rate for women at those schools to the economics majoring rate for men at those schools, and we found that there is not a single school over the five-year period from 2011 to 2015 where women majored in economics at a higher rate than men did. Not one institution. Nobody slipped over the line by accident, nobody got there out of an intentional program. Not a single one. So that really persuaded Amanda and me yet again just how pervasive this issue is. One effort that is going to come out of that research paper, which is available on the Board's public website, is that we're working with colleagues at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to construct an interactive website that will allow any visitor to that website to inspect the data for themselves, search for their own institution of particular interest. Perhaps it's their alma mater, perhaps it's the institution where they serve on the faculty now, perhaps it's an institution where they might be on the Board of Visitors or otherwise influential in the life of that institution. And using the tools on the website, it's going to be wonderfully easy to generate a credible scorecard, for example, that will show the composition of the economics major by gender, by race and ethnicity. And we hope that that becomes the vehicle for a much broader set of conversations where colleagues are challenging each other’s thinking. Why are we not attracting a representative slice of the campus-wide population?”

Suiter: Great. That sounds like it would be a useful tool for people who are concerned.

Suiter: Thank you, David. I know you're retiring at the end of the year. Any hints on what you might be doing?

Wilcox: A chapter yet to be written. I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that the rocking chair does not figure prominently in my year term plans.

Suiter: That's great news. Thank you. And thank you for being with us today and talking with us on the podcast series. We appreciate it.

Wilcox: Mary, it's been a real pleasure. And I want to acknowledge and highlight the work that you and your colleagues at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis are doing in bringing economics education to a wide community and really living the conviction that economics is relevant to every individual who resides in this country. Your work I think gives great hope that we can demonstrate to every single individual that they need to be aware, they need to participate. It's much too important for them not to be part of the conversation about what economics is and what it will become in the future. So thank you for the important work that you and your colleagues are doing.

Suiter: Thanks. I appreciate that acknowledgment very much. We have a passion. We really do believe that. To hear more about Women in Economics Podcast, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That's one word. stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. 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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