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Women in Economics: Fenaba Addo

Fenaba Addo speaks with Maria Hasenstab of the St. Louis Fed in this Women in Economics interview, part of our Timely Topics podcast.

This 18-minute podcast was released July 19, 2018.

“There are a growing number of communities within economics for young women who may feel isolated or questioning whether or not this is a path that they want to pursue,” says Fenaba Addo, at right in the photo above. Addo, an assistant professor of consumer science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a visiting scholar at the St. Louis Fed’s Center for Household Financial Stability.

She talks with Maria Hasenstab, senior media relations specialist at the St. Louis Fed, about finding her voice as the only black woman in most of her economics courses on her way to her bachelor’s and graduate degrees. “Finding your tribe or finding your people is key to staying and for longevity in this field,” she says.

Listen to more Women in Economics podcasts, part of the St. Louis Fed’s Timely Topics audio channel.

Transcript:

Maria Hasenstab: Hello. 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 speaking with Fenaba Addo, assistant professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a visiting scholar with the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Thank you for joining us.

Fenaba Addo: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

MH: Tell me about your work at the university and the Center for Household Financial Stability. How does it relate to your studies in economics?

FA: My research as well as what I teach at the university draws upon economic theories from family economics, economics of the household, economic tomography and population economics. So, I’m really interested in unpacking the demographics and social and economic inequalities that we see that are persistent both across, and generationally as well as across the life course. And to do that I draw, as I said, draw upon theories from these different subdisciplines within economics as well as some theories from sociology and social psychology when needed. So, I consider myself a disciplinary researcher. But I was trained as an economist. And largely draw upon theories from those subdisciplines in order to answer the questions that I’m interested in.

MH: You have a special interest in economically vulnerable populations. Tell me what that means and how you came to specialize in that area.

FA: Sure. So, economically vulnerable populations are populations for whom they are either one income shock or health shock away from poverty or financial strain or insecurity or instability. As I said, I look at populations such as communities of color you know, historically just have been at the lower ends of both the income and wealth distributions in America. Young adults who are, you know, entering college have to invest and take on lots of student loan debts. But then also, may not have, or have had very limited access to credit markets. And then have to take on a whole lot of debt in order to pursue their, their education. Or, are entering a labor market and receiving very low or entry level wages. 

And older women who, maybe, on the cusp of retirement and for whatever, life circumstances, may have had children or may have had some marital disruptions, are much more likely to enter into older ages in poverty or, with a higher probability. So, these are people for whom they could be one paycheck away or one, as I said, health shock away from experiencing extreme bouts of economic insecurity. These are also populations for whom I will say are what I focus on because we can… If we see persistent economic vulnerabilities and we can target policy interventions at these families and then their households. So, moving beyond the research, what are the implications and possible policy solutions that we can draw upon in order to reach these populations.

MH: You studied economics at Duke.

FA: I did. [laughs]

MH: How did you choose that major? What attracted you to that field?

FA: I think it’s actually, probably, a pretty common story. So, I went to Duke University with the intent of getting, studying business and working for a couple of years and then going back to school and getting my MBA. That was the plan. And, and the summer before I started freshman year, I got the catalog and flipped through the course catalog and saw that they did not have a pre-business major. So, I was looking to see what was the closest major to studying business at Duke University. So, Duke University is a liberal arts university and they stress liberal arts curriculum. And so, economics was the closest major to having, you know, that incorporated these types of business courses. And so, I started college with no prior knowledge of economics, the economics field or what it entailed. And, showed up my freshman year, first class, Into to Microeconomics, completely, unknow—I did not know what economics was. I will also say that I was not familiar with graduate school or had not, I did not know what it entailed to become a professor, or what it, what that was like. I majored in economics, having, you know, with the idea and, that I was going to continue on into the business world until my senior year, freshman year I—excuse me.

My senior year I took a course on racial and economic inequality with Professor William Darity, Jr. And he was impressed by the questions that I was asking in class. And I wasn’t quite aware of, that the way that he approached the course and the subject matters that we’d studied were subjects that would actually be included under the umbrella of economics. That piqued my interest. So, it took four years for me to start, to seeing a more, the wider breadth of the topics range in which economics actually covers. And I became really interested in it. I didn’t transition immediately into, into grad school. I did work for four years before going back to grad school. But that exposure in my senior year piqued my interest in trying to learn a little bit more about what graduate school was, what the life of a professor was beyond the classroom and how I could possibly pursue that path.

MH: That professor you mentioned, it sounds like he inspired you. Would you consider him a mentor?

FA: Oh, absolutely. He continues to be a mentor in my life. So, he’s, was the first of several mentors that I’ve had. But as I said, he inspires me because he, not only has encouraged me to continue on you know, go to grad school and become a professor. But, so many other black economists, young black economists that I have known and met have actually pursued this similar path because of him. So, he has reached back to help and encourage other students who are interested in studying economics to pursue this if this is so their choosing. And it’s really quite inspiring because if not for him and having the conversations that I had and him not recognizing that my excitement or interest in the class, in the classroom and in, in the coursework was something that, you know, that I could pursue as a career, I would not be sitting here today. Or I would not be doing what I’m doing today.

MH: It takes a good professor to reach out to a student like that and say I hear an interest when you ask those questions.

FA: Yes, absolutely. And that’s, you know, I’m not sure if I’m there yet, as far as, as, the students that I have taught so far. But, you know, it’s an amazing experience and the ability to be able to, to, to share that or have that similar experience some day will be quite fulfilling, I, I hope. And, and I hope that students will be as approachable, you know, to come and talk to me if, if they are interested in pursuing a similar path.

MH: Has your experience or interest in economics been shaped by your gender?

FA: So, my experience in both, undergraduate and graduate school, being a woman, is that women are disproportionately underrepresented in economics courses. And this was, as I said, this was the same in undergrad and graduate school. That is just the reality of, currently, in the spaces that I went to. So, I went to Duke University as an undergrad as you mentioned earlier. And I went to Cornell for graduate work.

MH: Was there a difference between under grad and graduate classes?

FA: It was about the same. It was, it was about the same, I would say... But, definitely, we were, we were most, always, almost always in the, in the minority. And then being a black woman, then, you know, that’s… I was usually the only black woman in those courses. So, I think that’s just the reality right now for, you know, I see the numbers growing. So, I did a, program in between going to undergraduate and graduate school called the American Economic Association Summer Program, which was targeted for underrepresented minorities in economics. So, to kind of expose you to what graduate school would be like if this is something that you want to pursue. And in that program, I did it for two years. The first year, it was similar. There was this underrepresentation of women. 

But in the second year there’s been more women. And I think actually it’s been increasing. Or, I should say, it has flipped. The representation of women who are going through this program in pursuing economics graduate work. So, you know, but that’s a select population. Women are growing in numbers amongst the underrepresented populations. But I think as a whole we still remain vastly underrepresented. I know that when I was in undergrad I had one female professor. I had two female economics professors in graduate school.

MH: Did you reach out to them? Did you feel a connection to them?

FA: So, one of them was actually on my, on my graduate committee, on my, dissertation committee. And she is an amazing scholar. And she is one of the top labor economists in this country. Her name is Francine Blau. And then the other professor, she, you know, she taught Family Economics. And I actually teach Family Economics right now at University of Wisconsin. And so, her course was pivotal in what I chose to focus in on both as teaching and then with some of my research. So, it’s pretty interesting. I think, as, you know, to be a little cliché, representation matters because I think their interest and their, just their presence is inspiring to, to see and, and to keep you motivated both in and outside of the classroom.

MH: Tell me about some of the struggles you’ve faced throughout your academic and professional career.

FA: Something that I’ve struggled with is finding a voice that I’m comfortable with, that is appropriately assertive while putting forth my ideas but also aligns with my temperament and personality, and that also stays true to who I am. As I said, I struggle a bit with trying to be more confident and often question whether the research and the ideas that I’m putting forth are making a significant contribution to the literature or field.

MH: Do you have some of those concerns? Do you feel that you’re affected by being an underrepresented portion of the field?
FA: Oh, absolutely. I think a lot of times the voice in the room tends to be the loudest and the most dominant and domineering. And those tend to be men. And especially in economics. And the theories, the books, the papers that we all read have been mostly men. And so, one way that I’ve actually been able to, I would say, circumvent or, or, or work on this is to broaden the breadth of what I’ve read and trying to look at other scholars who have maybe have been forgotten or less read. Maybe, you know, because they have been marginalized or, or just not ascribe the same type of weight because they didn’t have the cachet. And give them a voice again, both within my research and within the classroom. And so, I make an effort to do that both with women economists, they work women economists as well as underrepresented scholars, economists as well.

MH: Why would you encourage women and underrepresented minorities to study economics?

FA: So, I think that an individual’s life experiences often shape the questions that they ask and the research that they pursue. So, I think increasing representation increases the breadth and diversity of ideas that are within a field. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t until my senior year of college where I took a course on race and ethnicity, and the professor was an African-American male. And I know that his work, and he continues to be a mentor for me, is directly informed by his experiences living in the USA. And as I said, I took Family Economics in graduate school. The professor was a female economist. And I can’t speak directly to her motivations for teaching that particular course, but I do know that a lot of the topics that, as a woman, we researched, are directly in line with a lot of the challenges and obstacles and opportunities that a woman faces. Everything from, relationship marriage markets to fertility to childcare and child support to welfare and income and taxation policies and inter households, research allocation, which is all issues that, for a long time, women who worked in the household or they’re areas in which they had a comparative advantage, I should say.

MH: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about related to women in economics that I haven’t asked about today?

FA: I think we’ve covered quite a bit. I would say that I think that there are a growing number of communities within economics for young women who may feel isolated or questioning whether or not this is a path that they want to pursue. And I think that finding your tribe or finding your people is key to staying and for longevity in this field. For a time these particular opportunities did not exist. But I think, more now than ever we are seeing women, senior academics encouraging, mentoring, helping other women out because they know the, the road that they may have traveled was very shaky. And the need for, not only increases in the number of women to go down this path but also the road does not need to be the same for those who have followed behind them. So, I’ve been encouraged both by senior faculty and senior female economists who have reached out to me, have been encouraging, have you know, offered to mentor me as I have continued along this path. You know, I don’t want to present it as all rosy. There is a lot of times throughout this process in which I’ve had a lot of, as I said, a lot of self-doubt, questions with, about my confidence and whether or not I could actually do this or pursue this successfully. But I think finding mentors and finding support, and also I would say, leaning on or finding community amongst other young female academics who are also going through the process at the same time has been instrumental in allowing me to believe that this is something that I could do. 

I will also say, talk a little bit more about intersectionality, the fact that I am a black female economist the numbers are even smaller. But they’re in, I’ve also known quite a few black female economists who, you know, we all know each other. We talk. We encourage each other. And would hope that, if anyone is ever interested in pursuing this that they would reach out to us and, use us. We can answer questions. I’m not sure how much I can help as far as, getting you a job or wherever. But, you know, thinking about what this life entails. Because what I think what is really important is, at least from when I think back to where I sat as a freshman in an economics course and not knowing anything about economics is, once you start to learn about the subject matter, you know, it opens up so much more. You have this invaluable toolkit of skills that you can apply to just about anything. Right? You can have the economics training and not go on to become an economist. But, I think, you know, not knowing that this is something that is a valuable tool, or a valuable skill means that there are a lot of young people out there who just will never pursue it. And we have to work on the, the advertising, the marketing of, of economics a little bit more so that more, more students are encouraged to even check it out and learn more about it.

MH: So, you just mentioned not just being a woman, but being a black woman. How did that feel as a student? How does that feel as a professional?

FA: It can be quite isolating to be honest. It’s, you know, because it’s been so consistently that way throughout my coursework as I continued onto graduate school it was, it was the norm for me. But I will say it’s like, when I come to, when I come together with people at, you know, at the AEA (American Economic Association) meetings or, and I get together with people who did the summer program with me and we have this alumni network of other, as I said, black females and black male economists from around the country, it’s really nice to know that and see that. Not only because we have the shared history of what we’ve gone through together but also knowing that the struggles that we may be facing at our respective institutions, we’re not alone in feeling those ways or dealing with the same types of issues that we have. So, you know, one thing about academia in particular is that you’re usually the only one who’s… Not only are you the only, maybe I’m the only black woman who is in my department but I may be the only person who is studying what I’m studying. So, academia as a whole can be quite an isolating experience. But, I think knowing that your network, is out there and you can tap into it whenever, or if ever you need to, has made this experience a little less isolating. And I think that, I think that’s important.

MH: So, building that network can be a source of comfort or inspiration when you’re doubting yourself?

FA: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think it’s key. I think it’s critical to being able to persist and wanting to stay in academia, at the very least.

MH: Fenaba, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been great to hear your story. To hear more Women in Economics podcasts, visit StLouisFed.org/womeninecon. That’s one word. StLouisFed.org/womeninecon.