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Women in Economics: Praew Grittayaphong, Julie Bennett and Maggie Isaacson

This 28-minute podcast was released Aug. 18, 2021.

St. Louis Fed research associates Praew Grittayaphong, Julie Bennett and Maggie Isaacson

“Economics, certainly, is about the data and the numbers side of things. But it’s also about the stories and the people that are behind those numbers and how we tell those stories,” says Julie Bennett, research associate at the St. Louis Fed. She joins fellow research associates Praew Grittayaphong and Maggie Isaacson, as they discuss research and working in economics with Maria Hasenstab, media relations coordinator at the St. Louis Fed.



Transcript:

Maria Hasenstab: 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 speaking with three research associates who work at the St. Louis Fed. I’m joined by Julie Bennett, Maggie Isaacson and Praew Grittayaphong. Thank you for joining me today.

Julie Bennett: Glad to be here.

Praew Grittayaphong: Thank you for having us.

Hasenstab: I’d like to learn a little bit more about each one of you. So, let’s start with you Julie, where did you go to school? How did you decide to study economics and what kind of RA work are you doing here at the St. Louis Fed?

Bennett: I attended Davidson College, which was a small liberal arts school in North Carolina. When I started undergrad, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to major in but I thought that I might be interested in business, but once I started taking economics courses, I realized that I was much less interested in the business side of things, like revenues, costs, profits and what I was really fascinated by was how economic analysis and research can be used to answer questions in a variety of different fields. Whether it’s education or the environment or income inequality or healthcare and how economic research can be used to answer questions that are important to individuals, to communities, to entire countries. I was really drawn towards economic research and that’s what drew me to want to be a research associate.

At Davidson I was able to be an economics major and an English minor which some people think is kind of a funny combination, but I think they actually go really well together because I think economics, certainly, is about the data and the numbers side of things. But I think it’s also about the stories and the people that are behind those numbers and how we tell those stories in order to answer those questions that are really important to people and the workings of our world.

Here at the bank, I get to work with two economists, Michael Owyang and YiLi Chien and I get to assist them with their various research endeavors. A really cool thing about being a research associate is that you get to do a whole wide variety of things, whether that’s helping to write a blog post that’ll be on the St. Louis Fed website or getting to gather and clean data or help with economic analysis or estimation in a larger academic research paper. So, at the bank I’ve been able to work in projects involving Bayesian statistics and econometrics. One project that I spent a lot of time on since working at the Fed is looking at the relationship between gasoline prices and oil prices in the United States. And so, looking at how when we see oil prices rise or fall, what happens with gasoline prices? Do they rise or fall and how fast or slow do they do that and how that varies across the United States?

Hasenstab: Maggie, what about you? Where did you go to school and how did you decide to study economics?

Maggie Isaacson: I attended the University of Virginia out in Charlottesville when I started, I thought that I wanted to be an engineer because I really liked math in high school, and it was very easy to see the connection between doing math and doing engineering. It only took about four days’ worth of engineering classes for me to realize that was not necessarily for me. Luckily enough I was also taking an introductory economics class at the same time and so, on my fifth day of college I looked around and I said, “I think this is what I want to do.” So, I jumped headfirst, sort of, into this new field that I didn’t know that much about. But over the next couple of years of school I took more classes and I realized that economics took a very measured, very analytical approach to some of the most important issues that people are dealing with right now. And I think that if you’re going to be able to solve complex problems that impact people in communities, like Julie was saying, then you have to be able to sort of break it down into more fundamental pieces and look at the way that one thing affects another and economics really does that. So, I ended up becoming a research associate because I want to be able to go on and eventually get a PhD maybe and then a research associateship is a great way to do that.

So, here at the bank I work with two economists and I work with Hannah Rubinton and Max Dvorkin and they focus on areas of employment, especially the way that industry and occupation impact employment as well as economic geography. Which is a way of studying how the aspects of a place impact the way things like wages and employment behave in a certain area. So, we spend a lot of time looking at local labor markets and sort of the way that they behave versus others.

Hasenstab: Thanks for sharing that. Praew, what about you?

Grittayaphong: I went to Vassar College, which is a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. My decision to study economics was actually inspired by my family and the environment that I grew up in. I was born during a big financial crisis in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, where I’m from. And growing up I always heard people around me talk about the crisis using terminologies that I never truly understood before and that really made me curious to learn more about them. Because of that, in my junior year of high school, when I had to pick a social science course or study for two years, I decided to give it a chance and pick economics. I remember learning about decision making or the concept of marginal cost and marginal benefits or what do firms and people do to maximize their utility? After I learned those concepts, I was really fascinated by the fact that I was able to apply these intro to economics concepts to the events in the real world almost right away. So, in a way economics really helped me understand the world better or at least help me view the world from a different perspective.

I also found it really interesting how economic decisions made by one group of people also have an impact on others who weren’t even involved in the decision-making process itself. And I think the ability to understand the mechanism or to study the affects of these decisions can be really helpful and if we use them correctly then it can potentially bring a lot of positive changes to the society and that’s what basically drew me into economics and led me to work as an RA. So, similar to Julie and Maggie, my role here is to help my two economists, Subhayu Bandyopadhyay and Paulina Restrepo-Echavarria with their research. The projects that I’m currently working on are related to international macro-economics and immigration. And one project that I recently worked on was to study the impact of Covid-19 on emerging markets in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Hasenstab: Praew, I wanted to follow-up, when did you come to the United States from Thailand?

Grittayaphong: So, I moved here for college and that was about five years ago.

Hasenstab: Can you tell me a little bit about the experience of moving from Thailand to the United States and starting college here?

Grittayaphong: Yeah, so it was very challenging for me at first because when I first got here to the US for college it was actually also my first time to ever be in the country. And my family was only able to stay with me for about a week and there was just not enough time for me to adjust to the new culture, new people, to the new language. I remember being pretty scared at the beginning but luckily, the people I met through school, they were really helpful, they were really encouraging and really helped me adjust to the new environment here.

Hasenstab: I’m glad you found that tribe, some friends at school to help you with that adjustment.

So, Julie, in this series, we’ve asked how women were represented as students in college. So, how were women represented in the economics program at Davidson?

Bennett: During my time at Davidson, I would estimate that the econ department, leaned a little bit male, particularly in a lot of the introductory classes, like Econ 101, Intermediate Micro and Macro. I’d say it was probably about 60% male and 40% female. The faculty during my time at Davidson, the economics department was predominately male. In any given year there was probably one or two female professors. And the entire department, all the faculty, was very supportive and welcoming of all students regardless of gender. But I think that the classroom culture of economics tends to favor males typically economics courses are lecture based, particularly the introductory courses and not as much discussion based. And when a professor asks a question there’s typically a right or wrong answer. And in my experience, males are more likely to speak up in a classroom setting like that. Whereas females, if they’re not sure of the answer, may be more reserved about answering. So then, if you have more male voices in the classroom, that reinforces that it’s kind of more of a male dominated space.

I think it definitely depended though on the class that you were in what the gender breakdown looked like. So, in classes like Economics of Education, that was more female heavy in the classroom. Meanwhile, I took a Sports Economics class in which I was the only female student in the classroom. There were only five students, it was a very small class however, it did make me feel like I stuck out a little bit.

Hasenstab: So, how did you handle that? Being the only female student in the Econ of Sports class?

Bennett: It was definitely a unique experience. I really loved the class; it was a great professor and my classmates were great as well. But taking a course like Sports Economics when the stereotype is definitely that, males know more about sports, females know less about sports. As the only female in the classroom, I came into it feeling like I had something to prove. I felt like I had to be on my A-game every class whether it be about the sports side of things, just knowing the ins and outs, the rules of different sports or how leagues are structured or what teams are the wealthiest teams or the best teams or the most popular teams. But then also, on the economics and statistics side of things, of feeling like what I might lack in sports knowledge I would need to make up for on the academic side of things.

I do remember making sure to scan sports current events every morning on my phone. To make sure that I was up to date with things so that, I would be able to keep pace with my male peers. I really enjoyed the class but I think it was a really stressful experience at times of feeling like I had to do extra work to be able to feel like I belonged in that class.

Hasenstab: Thanks for sharing that, Julie. I know a lot of college campuses now have formed Women in Economics clubs. Julie you said there was a club at Davidson called ShEcon, is that correct?

Bennett: That is correct, yes.

Hasenstab: And tell me just briefly, what did you guys do as part of ShEcon?

Bennett: ShEcon was a group connecting upperclassmen, female economics majors with underclassmen, female economics majors or underclassmen women who were maybe thinking about majoring in economics. It was really laid-back meetings of people meeting for coffee or pizza and just chatting about their experiences in the economics department. As an underclassman I thought it was vastly helpful to be able to meet the upperclassmen female econ majors and hear about their experiences and what classes were their favorite? What jobs or internships were they applying for?

And then, as an upperclassman, it was really wonderful to be able to come full circle on that and be able to share my experiences with underclassmen women And also, put forward the idea that economics isn’t this super scary major or profession that’s very cutthroat or just about stocks and bonds and finance. Economics can also be the study of behavioral economics or income and equality. Or how do we conserve natural resources? And so, I think being able to share that with the incoming generation of new Davidson econ majors was really exciting.

Hasenstab: That sounds fun. Praew, what about at Vassar, was there a Women in Economics club or anything similar?

Grittayaphong: At Vassar we didn’t have a club with a really cool name like what Davidson has. But once every semester the econ department would host a Q&A session with all the female professors to provide opportunity for students to ask questions. I attended several of those sessions throughout my time at Vassar. It was really inspiring to hear stories from female professors about what it was like as a woman in economics back then compared to what it is like now.

Hasenstab: That sounds really cool. So, right now about half of the RA’s at the St. Louis Fed are women, how does that feel to you Maggie?

Isaacson: I think it felt really nice So, I along with Praew started work here at the Federal Reserve in the middle of the Covid pandemic and in the middle of work from home. And that means that I already felt pretty isolated from the rest of the people who worked at the bank because I’ve never met everybody. But the amount of women in the RA group made me feel like, “Okay, that’s one area where I don’t have to feel like I’m the only one.” There were four other women who came in as RA’s at the same time as I did. Which is really lovely and helped sort of smooth the path from virtually getting to know people to feeling much more like a part of a group and part of a team.

Hasenstab: Oh, I liked that, when you said it helped smooth the path. Julie, as a woman in the field of economics, why do you think it’s important for more women and underrepresented minorities to study economics and then advance their careers in the field?

Bennett: Yeah, I think it’s important for a ton of reasons. So, the first is that economics and kind of economics adjacent fields have so much influence on the world, I think, whether it’s making economic policy decisions or business decisions or even just deciding what questions or topics are going to be pursued for economic research. I think people of different genders and to that end, people of different races or ethnicities or sexual orientations, socio-economic backgrounds, everyone, if you have a different identity, comes to the table with different thoughts and opinions on making those policies or what questions you’re going to research. And I think to be able to make sure that the discussions around these policies are nuanced and challenging and that like we’re really pushing new ideas and thoughts. It’s important for people from diverse backgrounds to be a part of those discussions and have a seat at the table.

And then, the second reason for me as a young woman in the field right now, it’s incredibly meaningful to see women in high positions in the economics field. Whether that’s, a professor at the front of the classroom or a CEO at a company. And to be able to see someone who looks like you or who you can identify with and to think like, “Oh, I could see myself there one day too.” Either that subconscious or even conscious factor or seeing someone in a profession and thinking, “I could do that too”, that’s been important for me as a young woman in economics and I think that it’s important as young women that we continue our careers in economics if that’s what we feel called towards, we might be examples for the next generation of incoming young women.

Hasenstab: Thank you. Praew, you already talked about some of the challenges that you faced coming to the United States as a college freshman. But can you talk to me about any other challenges you may have faced as a woman in economics and if so, how you overcome them?

Grittayaphong: Yeah, thankfully my experience as a woman in economics has been very positive. With that being said, there were definitely times back in college, mostly during group discussions when I felt like a male student would tend to listen to another male student more. And as a female international student that really pushed me to work harder to prove myself, to make sure that what I have to say was valuable enough for them to listen to me. And to make them realize it is important to not only listen to those who look or are similar to them but also to listen to different voices, to listen to others who look and are different from them. I don’t mind working harder, putting more efforts to prove myself, I also think no one should have to do that in order to get their voices heard. And I think the bottom line of all of this is I always try to view the challenges I face as a learning opportunity and use those challenges to motivate myself to grow personally and professionally in this field of economics.

Hasenstab: Well, that is really inspiring if you’re looking at, some challenges as opportunities to grow, so that’s a great attitude. Now I’d like to ask each one of you about mentors. Maggie, let’s start with you, do you have any strong mentoring experiences that played a role in your education and as your career is developing?

Isaacson: Absolutely. I started my college career; I didn’t have any idea of how to sort of get where I wanted to go. And it was through the help of a couple of mentors that I really was able to get to where I am today and I’m so grateful to them. So, a person who was a graduate student at the University of Virginia when I started, he has since graduated with his PhD, Dr. Dan Savel is somebody who when I was in my second year of college sort of reached out and said, “Hey, if you want to be able to go to graduate school, if you want to be able to do economic research, if you want to be a serious economist, here are the things that you are going to need to do.”

He then introduced me to Professor Charlie Holt at the University of Virginia. Charlie Holt has been just an absolute dream to work with, he let me work in his economics lab, I got to have firsthand research experience. He helped me figure out what classes to take and between the two of them I was able to build a path through the econ department that was not only manageable from an academic point of view and manageable from just a structural point of view. So, I understood how the things that I might not absolutely enjoy doing, taking that advanced econometric class, for example, was going to help me get from where I was to where I wanted to be. Those two people really pushed me to do better and pushed me to think a little bit bigger and to think a little further ahead. And with their help, I was able to come work at the Federal Reserve, which has been absolutely excellent and I’ve been able to learn so much more than I would have been able to left to my own devices. So, I’m really grateful to both of them for their help and all the mentorship that they’ve given me.

Hasenstab: Well, great. Julie, what about you? Do you have a mentor?

Bennett: Yeah. So, in my undergraduate career I had two really wonderful mentors, Dr. David Martin and Dr. Mark Foley. They were my economics major advisor and thesis advisor respectively. They were really great mentors in the sense that, well number one, they were really great professors and I really enjoyed taking their classes. They really opened my eyes to the fact that economics is a field in which you can ask and at least try to answer exceptionally interesting questions. And they were very patient with me when I would pester them during their office hours with many questions about the intricacies of different papers we were reading. Or you know, if I was having data issues with an independent project and things like that.

But I think what was most meaningful to me about them being mentors was that I think they recognized my potential and aptitude for economic research before I think I realized that that was something that I was good at and could have a career in. Which I’m incredibly grateful to them for recognizing me as a student with potential for economic research and for encouraging me to take more advanced economics courses and for encouraging me to pursue independent research projects to really prepare me for this career.

One moment in particular that was very formative for me and very grateful towards my mentor, so I was taking an econometrics course with Dr. Mark Foley—and econometrics is a notoriously difficult course in an economics major, I think, regardless of what school you’re at. So, we were getting our first exams back and I had done quite well on the exam and on my paper my professor wrote, “Well, done. Have you thought about PhD in economics? Come chat with me after class.” And quite honestly, I hadn’t thought about a PhD in economics, that had never occurred to me that that is something I could do or maybe even wanted to do. And from talking with him I realized, “Wow, that’s absolutely something I want to do.”

Hasenstab: Wow, I do love to hear stories like that as we’ve done interviews through this series about how just one word or one note from a teacher can really have such a profound affect on a student. Praew, how about you, have you had any mentors?

Grittayaphong: Absolutely, like Maggie and Julie I have met a number of people who are very influential to me. One is Professor Geoffrey Jehle who was my major advisor back at Vassar. He is someone who has been very supportive of my decision to pursue a PhD in economics. From the moment during sophomore year when I told him it was something I was considering. I remember during that conversation he made me truly believe that pursuing a career in economics or getting a PhD as a woman is something that’s possible. And at that moment it was very reassuring to hear from someone in the field that my plan is not just something realistic but it’s actually something that people do and people can be successful in it. I’ve actually stayed in contact with him and even now, I know that he’s someone I can always reach out to for advice.

Another professor who’s not only a mentor but also a great role model to me is Professor Sarah Pearlman, who I believe is the only tenured female professor in the econ department. She was my econometrics professor and thesis advisor who played a key role in helping me develop my research skills. Also, as a female economic student, coming to the econ department and seeing her among her male colleagues was very empowering and often served as a reminder to me that if I work hard enough then it is possible to have a successful career as a woman, even in a male dominated field. And I think this really echoed back to what Julie said, of one of the important things of why there should be more diversity in economics or any other fields.

Hasenstab: I have loved hearing so much more about each one of you and your path as women in the field of economics. As we wrap up, I want to ask, what’s next for each one of you? Praew, what are your plans and goals for the future?

Grittayaphong: I hope to pursue a PhD in economics or public policy. I think one of the wonderful things about working as an RA at the Fed is that it allows me to explore different areas in economics research to see what I like and what I don’t like. And hopefully by the time that I feel like I’m ready to move on with the next chapter of my life I’ll know what I want to do for sure.

Hasenstab: I’m glad that this time here at the Fed is proving to be educational and a way to help you carve out what you want to work on in the future. Maggie, what about you?

Isaacson: As of right now I do want to get a PhD in economics. When I started at the Fed, I was using this as a test run on how I feel about economic research and sort of the process of doing research. Do I find that to be fun and engaging and interesting enough to spend the rest of my life working on it? And as of right now, I’m really enjoying work. But I’m also hoping to use that PhD to be able to teach. I really enjoyed being a teaching assistant during my time at UVA and I would love to be able to do that again and shape my own course. But you need a PhD and some serious research skills to be able to do that.

Hasenstab: Well, that sounds really great. And Julie, what about you? What’s next?

Bennett: I’m also looking at pursuing a PhD in economics or perhaps public policy. I’m not quite sure, as of this moment, what I’d like to do with that PhD afterwards. I know that I really love to learn and that I really love to engage in research that looks at meaningful questions. And so, that’s the plan, the hope, the goal, the dream.

Hasenstab: That sounds great. Once again, Praew, Maggie and Julie, thank you again so much for your time, it’s been such a pleasure to hear your story.

Isaacson: Of course.

Bennett: This has been great, thanks for having us.

Grittayaphong: Thank you.

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 or Stitcher. Or ask your Amazon device, “Alexa, play Women in Economics from Tune In.” Thank you.