Women in Economics: Hannah Rubinton
This 21-minute podcast was published Dec. 15, 2021.
“I actually decided to study economics before I even got to undergrad,” says Hannah Rubinton, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. She talks with Laura Girresch, manager of media relations, about her research on business dynamism and what it was like to have children during her Ph.D. studies at Princeton University.
Laura Girresch: Hello. I’m Laura Girresch, and you’re listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today, I’m speaking with Hannah Rubinton, an economist at the St. Louis Fed. Thanks for joining us today, Hannah.
Hannah Rubinton: Thanks for having me.
Girresch: So you joined the St. Louis Fed as an economist just last year, so I’m interested in hearing more about the work you’re doing and your role at the St. Louis Fed.
Rubinton: Yeah. So I started a year ago or so, and I just love it so far. It’s a mix of a continuation of what I did in my graduate studies, so academic research and policy work and also education outreach work. So the policy work is still very sort of research-oriented. It’s writing about various topics in economics with more of a focus on current events or written for a broader audience than academic work. And I also get to do some education outreach like giving a talk to APECON professors, which was really fun, and to high school history teachers. And the academic work is kind of a continuation of my grad school work, so trying to publish my dissertation in economic journals and working on new projects as research questions come up.
Girresch: So your research interests include macroeconomics, economic geography, and you’ve done some interesting research about business dynamism and city size. Could you tell me what’s your read of those research topics?
Rubinton: So I started working on business dynamism when I was an RA at the New York Fed. And so, by business dynamism, we mean the rates at which firms enter the market, the rates at which they exit, that rates that workers move between firms, the rate they transition into unemployment or employment. And I started researching this with an economist at the New York Fed while I was there, and he had several papers on this topic. And I thought it was really interesting because, fundamentally, it’s an indicator of productivity growth and how well we’re reallocating resources from less productive firms to more productive firms.
And then, when I was at Princeton as a grad student, an economist came to present her paper, Elisa Giannone, and her paper, she showed that since 1980 in the United States, places have begun to diverge, particularly for high-skilled workers. So up until that point, it had been the case that poor places in the United States were catching up to richer places, so we saw convergence across these places. And then after 1980, we started to see divergence. And she gave this talk. It was around the time of the 2016 election, and there was a lot of discussion on the news of geographic polarization and how that was influencing our politics, and so I started to think about this geographic divergence question and thought it was really interesting.
And so because dynamism is sort of a reflective of productivity growth, I sort of set out to see if there was a connection between the two, between business dynamism and divergence. And that’s how I started looking at these changing trends. So what I find is that in 1980, big and small cities were really similar in their patterns of business dynamism, and then, today, that’s changed, so big cities are much more dynamic than smaller cities. And I wanted to know how this is potentially influencing productivity growth and why this is happening.
Girresch: So you studied economics and mathematics at McGill University, and then you went on to get your PhD in econ from Princeton University. So how did you come to study economics?
Rubinton: So I actually decided to study economics before I even got to undergrad. I really liked math in high school, and then I also really liked my class in AP political science, and so I just thought econ would be a nice combination of the two. Then the other thing you need to know is that I’m really stubborn, so I just stuck with it. And even when in undergrad, sometimes, I thought economics was a little unsatisfying. The models are very simple. You’re abstracting for a lot. You’re missing important dimensions of inequality and heterogeneity or the differences amongst people. And there’s a reason for this. It’s because it’s really simple, and you need to sort of distill it down in a way that you can teach to a broad population. But even when I was frustrated, I think I saw that economics was this great tool for trying to understand the world, and I really wanted to understand, so I just kept going. And I’m stubborn, so I stuck with it, and that’s how you end up in a PhD program.
Girresch: Did you think about changing from economics at some point?
Rubinton: Yes, many times. Yeah. I thought about going into math or engineering. Yeah, I just, whenever I thought about that, it was sort of missing the sort of political science, social science dimension of what do we actually care about? And it’s people and economic growth and poverty and the unemployment and these things that really affect people’s lives and wellbeing.
Girresch: Yeah. Absolutely.
Rubinton: So I think I just kept wanting to understand those things. They’re very abstract things. I don’t know that I understand them now, but we try our best, and so I stuck with it.
Girresch: And here you are. We’re glad you made it through.
Rubinton: Yes. Me too.
Girresch: So, at Princeton, were there many women in your program?
Rubinton: I don’t know how you define many. So in a cohort of about 27 or 28, there were around 7 of us, so about 25% of us were women. I think a decent number for a top econ PhD program. I’d also point out that when I got there, the faculty in macro and trade was entirely male. There was not a single female economist in those sub-fields. They added a junior female macroeconomist my third year, so, yeah, it was pretty male I guess I would say.
Girresch: Well, so since this is the Women in Economics Podcast Series, what was your experience like as a woman studying that subject in what I imagine had to be a super competitive program, male dominated. What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
Rubinton: So I do think that there was a very competitive feeling to it at times. I don’t know if that was specific to my cohort. Obviously, there’s a wide range of experiences people have in PhD programs, and I definitely felt a need to prove myself. when I look back on it, I’m sure that I missed out on many opportunities to learn because I felt the need to sort of always be proving myself. And so that’s something I regret, but I think it’s definitely a consequence of that type of environment. And I think another thing that you need to understand about PhDs and so let me not let this discourage any young female student who’s thinking about going to get one but let me just say what I think is true about them.
So I think what you need to understand is that it can be a very uncomfortable experience at times. So you’re trying to do something new. You’re trying to answer a new question or answer an old question in a new way. You’re trying to push the research frontier forward. And no matter what you do, you’re going to be questioned about it -- especially in economics where there’s no perfect model and very reasonable people can disagree about the best ways to do things, everyone’s going to say to you, “Why did you do it like that? Why didn’t you do it this way? Why did you make this choice? Why didn’t you do something completely different?”
And so it’s important to remember that this questioning is really good because it’s going to help you to improve, but it’s also really hard to endure that for a long period of time while you’re feeling very uncertain. So I think that for everybody who goes through PhD you’re going to end up in sort of a crisis of confidence at some point. And my hypothesis is that this is going to affect women more than it affects men. So this is not something I can prove, but it’s just a conjecture. But that’s a challenge that everyone will face, but, particularly, might fall on women a little harder.
Rubinton: So I guess I can also mention just another challenge that is very specific to women is that during my PhD, I had kids, so I had one during my third year and another...
Rubinton: Well, I was pregnant during my final year. So that’s very much a dimension...
Girresch: Oh my goodness.
Rubinton: …that I think even—I had male classmates who had kids, I will say, but it’s a completely different experience, I think, if you’re a woman. And so I think I had a lot more obligations outside the PhD program than most of my classmates did and at times, this was a blessing, and, at times, it was definitely a challenge.
Rubinton: But, of course, very rewarding.
Girresch: So what was that like having small kids in a competitive PhD program?
Rubinton: At times, it was really hard, particularly when I had a deadline. I used to drive my husband crazy because we would often walk together to go pick up our daughter, Ruth, from daycare, and he would text me, and he would say, “Are you leaving?” And I’d say, “Five more minutes,” and I’d get distracted, and then I would be late. And he would get so frustrated with me and I think the thing is when you’re working on some of these models and stuff, I can get so obsessed. You’re working on some math or some code, and you have a bug, and you’re just like, “I need to figure this out. I need to figure this out.” And you don’t want to walk away from it.
But I can’t tell you the number of times where I’ve been forced to walk away from it because I had a kid, and then I figured out the problem immediately the next morning. And sometimes, walking away from it is the best thing you can do, so I really feel like, at times, it was actually something helpful to have kids. And I think it keeps your perspective much healthier. A lot of people, when they’re in grad school, are very ambitious. And I think that’s good, but there’s certainly a place for other things in life than ambition. So I prioritize different things, and you’re still able to do it, and it’s okay.
Girresch: Yeah. That’s great life advice, actually.
Rubinton: I don’t know who I am to give anybody life advice, but that’s…
Girresch: Anybody considering studying economics, potentially, in that situation, that’s great advice. So as a relatively new PhD, how do you think your experience compares to women who maybe came before you in previous decades?
Rubinton: I do think things have improved. I think that there’s more of an awareness of the issues that face women and an effort to improve the mentorship, and we do have a lot of great examples of amazing senior female economists. Even though I didn’t have any at Princeton in my fields, they were out there doing great work, and so I had that example. That being said, the numbers sort of don’t reflect that, right? The share of women in economics has sort of stagnated in a lot of places, and I don’t really know why that is. One thing that’s for sure different is, you know, I was listening to one of your podcasts recently with Brigitte Madrian, and she was talking about how when she was an assistant professor—not even a grad student but an assistant professor at the University of Chicago—there was no maternity leave policy. And, I mean, that’s baffling, right? To think, today, that in a professional field, there’d be no maternity leave policy?
And so, a few years ago, when I was a grad student, I did have a maternity leave policy, and so I guess she and others like her prompted some change there, and so I think my experience was much easier, I’m sure, than hers. There was also another woman in my program, a year ahead of me, who had kids, so it wasn’t typical I would say, but it wasn’t unheard of, and so it felt okay. And, really, her example was I think really beneficial to me in making it feel like what I was doing was okay. And no one said anything to me about it, so I think it would’ve been expected to maybe hear some snide comments about having a baby during your PhD. Some people might have thought that was a dumb decision, but no one said anything, which I think is as much as I can ask for.
Girresch: The last thing you need when you’re, you know, trying to push yourself through and maintain that stubbornness and stay in the program is anybody to make you doubt personal decisions like that.
Rubinton: Exactly. Yeah.
Girresch: Did you have mentors along the way who, you know, kept you going through some of the personal challenges and also just the academic rigor and those times you questioned whether you should stick with economics?
Rubinton: Yes, definitely. I had mentors going back to undergrad. I worked for an amazing female economist, Jenny Hunt, and she was very encouraging always and would give me lots of advice. And I had great mentors when I was an RA at the New York Fed, Ben Pugsley in particular, who was an economist I worked for and became a coauthor and a friend, and he always very encouraging. And then when I was in grad school, I had great advisors who were very generous with their time. My committee chair in particular, Richard Rogerson, was just the most amazing advisor you could ever hope for and just very supportive of me and my work and, I would say, my family life. So I think I got very lucky in that, though I would also mention, you know, that, when I was an undergrad, I didn’t set out to do a PhD in economics.
Rubinton: I just kept going with the opportunities that were put in front of me, so these mentors are very important in that sense. If it weren’t for Jenny Hunt, I would not have gotten an RA-ship at the New York Fed, and if I hadn’t of gotten an RA-ship at the New York Fed, I would not have gone to grad school. And if I hadn’t of been an RA at the New York Fed, then I wouldn’t have had Ben and Mark and Argia pushing me to go to grad school from there. So I didn’t just set out to do a PhD. I just sort of followed this path which, you know, at every step of the way just took the next opportunity that I thought would be interesting. And I think also that’s a great way to do grad school because there’s so many opportunities that are open to you after you graduate. It would be a very stressful grad school career to sit there and think, “I’m only going to be happy if I’m a professor at Harvard or Princeton,” right? When, in reality, there’s so many different things you can do afterwards, and so as long as you can be happy with any of them, you’re in a great place.
Girresch: Yeah. It blows me away just how much you can do with a degree in economics.
Rubinton: Yeah, and it’s changing so much. You find economists now in Silicon Valley and finance and government policy, journalism, everywhere.
Girresch: Why do you think it’s important for more women and underrepresented minorities to enter the field of economics, and what do you think needs to happen to do so?
Rubinton: Yeah. So there’s two reasons I think it’s actually really important. So the first reason is because we want the best talent we can have, right, in our field because our field is interesting and important, and we have all these important questions that are difficult to answer, and we want answers. And so we want the best people we can. And if you put up barriers to entering, you’re not going to get the best talent, right? And there was even a recent paper in Econometrica that talks about this more broadly for the US economy. They call it the misallocation of talent in the US, and they say that, you know, since the ’60s, that these racial and gender barriers have declined has contributed a lot to economic growth in the US.
So they give the example of doctors, right? So it used to be the case that it was pretty much all male. Today, it’s closer to like 50/50 of entering med school students. And so if 50/50 is correct because women should be in medicine and they’re talented at it, then that means that in the 1960s, when women were kept from it, we were keeping the best talent out of that field. And as economists, we’re like, how can we use our resources the best? What’s the optimal allocation? The optimal allocation includes very talented women and minorities.
And then another thing, though, that I think is super important is in economics, a really important part of the job is getting to define the question and what’s important. So when you think about monetary policy, for example, and we think about the unemployment rate, well, there’s a big racial gap in the unemployment rate, so do we think about the aggregate number, or do we think about the unemployment rate for African Americans, which is slower to recover after a recession? Whether we choose to focus on both or one is a question that we get to answer, and we get to decide whether or not that question even gets asked. And so having different voices is key to making sure that that perspective is taken into account.
What can be done about it? I don't know. So I’m optimistic that it’s getting better, that there’s more initiatives to mentor and make sure that the pipeline is more diverse, so I’m hopeful that it will continue to improve. And then I think, you know, an especially important thing is, you know, as we get more and more women and people of color in senior positions where they can mentor and help those that are coming up below them, I think that will be very important.
Girresch: Absolutely. Yeah. Thanks for you take on that, for your observations. So can you tell me about any new research you’re working on now and maybe what we’ll see from you next?
Rubinton: Yeah. So I’m still really interested in combining these macroeconomic questions with economic geography. So I’m working on two papers that are focused on college attainment or human capital accumulation, which are really important macroeconomic questions, but I’m looking at them from sort of an economic geography standpoint. So the question sort of broadly is how does where you live and where you are at, say, age 17 affect the decision to go to college? And, in particular, this might have become more important as we know that places in the United States have started to diverge.
So if you’re a 17-year-old and you live in Kentucky where the skill premium is very low, you might have a very different incentive to go to college than if you live in New York where the skill premium is very high. And so the question we’re looking at is how those differences in the local skill premium people are facing can lead to different choices for people to become college educated and what that means for the economy in terms of patterns of intergenerational mobility and efficiency and equality.
Girresch: Well, that sounds really interesting. I look forward to reading it, and maybe you can come back on our podcast series to talk about it some time.
Girresch: So do you have any parting thoughts for women considering studying economics, since you’re recently through it yourself?
Rubinton: Well, so I would certainly encourage them to study economics, and I guess my biggest piece of practical advice is to go be an RA first, especially before grad school. It’s a great job because, even if you decide that you don’t like it and you don’t want to go to grad school, you’ve learned so many skills, and you have so many different things open to you that it’s really just opening doors. So when I was an RA in my RA cohort, maybe half of the people went on to grad school in economics, but other people went to grad school in statistics, computer science. Some people became lawyers. Some people became MBAs. Some people stayed at the Fed and worked in different jobs. Some people went to go work in finance or tech.
And opportunities were open, and it felt like they were everywhere. Oh, and some people, of course, went into policy, I should mention. So I think that it’s such a good way to see if you like it and see if you like the kind of work you’re doing. And then I really think that if you like the kind of work you’re doing as an RA, you should go to grad school, and whatever job you get afterwards, whether it be in tech or in academia or in policy, you’re going to like it, so just be open to all of those opportunities.
Girresch: Oh, that’s great advice.
Girresch: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and spending the time to talk with us.
Rubinton: Great. Thanks for having me.
Girresch: To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You can also stream Women in Economics on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for joining us today.