Women in Economics: Lisa Cook

February 20, 2019

This 26-minute podcast was released Feb. 20, 2019.

Lisa Cook

Lisa Cook, associate professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University.

“People had a hard time taking me seriously, because I'm sure they didn't know any African-Americans who were economists,” says Lisa Cook, associate professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, senior media relations specialist at the St. Louis Fed, about discovering economics while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Cook also discusses how she overcame biases she faced as a woman and as an African-American, and her research showing GDP could be higher if more women and African-Americans were involved at the beginning of the innovative process.

Cook is also prolific on Twitter and uses social media as a way to connect professionally and to mentor students. “The Twitter community for economics is just phenomenal—or Econ Twitter, as we call it,” she says. “I got the idea for the latest textbook for a class that way, and I learn about people's research as it is happening... There are just really rich, informative conversations there and that's why I like it.”


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 Lisa Cook, associate professor of Economics and International Relations at Michigan State University. Hello, Lisa.

Lisa Cook: Hi, Maria.

Hasenstab: Thanks for joining me today.

Cook: It's my pleasure.

Hasenstab: Why did you choose economics? How did you choose economics?

Cook: So this is a really interesting story. So I went to the University of Dakar after I finished Oxford to figure out whether I wanted to do a Ph.D. in philosophy. And I needed to actually go to Africa and live in Africa, find out whether there were philosophers who would be able to advise me if I got into a good program. So I wanted to get into a good Ph.D. program. There was no one that focused on African philosophy, so I actually had to do some leg work in Senegal where a lot of work on African philosophy had been done.

So I lived there. It was the first time I lived in Africa for an extended period of time. And I paid $10 for one Bic pen that is typically that we would pay ten for a dollar for. Right? Everything was coming at me in such a way, a pegged exchange rate, the franc CFA to the franc that was in existence then, now back to the euro. This economy was so out of whack. The incentives were misaligned. Everything was happening. And then it led me to ask questions about how countries develop and whether there really is convergence between countries. Do developing countries ever catch up?

So I had all of these questions going in my head. I had been a physics and philosophy major undergraduate, and I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. I was just supposed to be preparing for a Ph.D. in philosophy. And by the end of it, I was just so confused so I wound up climbing Kilimanjaro…

Hasenstab: Wow…

Cook: at the end and I just stumbled upon this hiking partner who was hiking by himself. He was a Cambridge trained economist, and basically for the five hours it took to climb to the first hut, he was convincing me that what I needed to do was a Ph.D. in economics. If I had this training in physics and this training in philosophy, and the questions that I had, and want to put them together in a certain way, then economics was probably what I wanted to do. 

And then he just went straight into, “Well, my son just graduated from the Ag Econ Program.” I think it was at the University of Minnesota. “And he has a good feel for what it is to do a Ph.D. in economics in the U.S. He knows the U.S. market, I know the British market. You're going to need to take these courses.”—and it was just completely unfiltered. And the nice thing about it was he didn't say, “You're probably so incredibly behind in math,” or, “You're probably so incredibly behind in other subjects and economics.” He was just like, “You can pick that up. That just requires some discipline in catching up,” but otherwise he made no judgment about whether a black person or a woman would be able to do this. And I think that was absolutely essential. Absolutely essential, because for five hours he was coaching me on what they did, what topics economists studied. I didn't know one growing up. Certainly I had professors who were economists in undergraduate, but this was a real pivot and it just brought some clarity to the kinds of questions I was interested in and the kinds of methods that were used to answer these questions. So that was the first step.

Big shout out to (William) “Sandy” Darity (Jr.) whom I contacted as soon as I got back to the U.S., because he did a version of the same thing. Suggested that I apply for the AEA summer program and also was giving me ideas about what I could study as an economist. So all of this was extremely, extremely useful. So I'm here because of these interventions that were just random.

Hasenstab: Wow. Intervention is such a great way to describe it. You already had a dual bachelor's degree from Cambridge, and as you were going on an excursion to climb a mountain a new face, a stranger, introduced the topic of economics to you.

Hasenstab: That's an amazing story.

Cook: And the other thing, climbing to the first hut is the easiest one. And I thought that I was just going there to grab some ice cream, look at Kilimanjaro, find some great book, a tabletop book that was beautiful about Kilimanjaro, and then go back home after like four hours. And then I found out the only options are to climb the mountain or not. So I had to climb at least to the first hut. And this is where I had this extended conversation with this economist and it was just fabulous and completely transformative.

Hasenstab: Yeah, it sounds like a great experience. You're currently the director of the American Economic Association Summer Training Program. Can you tell me more about that?

Cook: Sure. The AEA summer program is a 40-year-old program and it is responsible for the upper limit one estimate is about 20 percent of underrepresented minorities who have Ph.D.'s in economics. It encourages and prepares students to do Ph.D.'s in economics. Broadening the pipeline is one way to try to address the problem of diversity. It's an eight week program. I did it when it was at Stanford. It's been at Temple, it's been at UC Santa Barbara, it's been at Yale and Northwestern, it was at the University of New Mexico before it came to MSU in 2016. So it's been on our campus for three years and it will be there for at least two more years.

Hasenstab: You just mentioned addressing diversity in the field. Why is it important to have women and underrepresented minorities in the field of economics?

Cook: So I think the most succinct answer that I can give comes from not me, but from Janet Yellen. It is her view that the lack of diversity contributed significantly to the financial and economic crisis. With people who thought the same way, were trained by the same people, trained by the same institutions, a lot of the questions that should have been posed were not being posed. So she gathered a lot of that information through her time at the San Francisco Fed, for example, and I suspect that's why she was the most accurate Fed official on the financial crisis as it was happening. So I think she embodied that in that she really tried to get those kinds of data that we wouldn't come by or that we weren't set up to, the Federal Reserve System, wasn't set up to have.

So I think that more information is better, and the more diverse people you can have who come to the economy in different ways, interact with the economy in different ways, the better off we'll all be.

Hasenstab: You were a presenter at the St. Louis Fed's Professor's Conference.

Cook: Yes.

Hasenstab: And I saw you give a really great presentation based on your research Idea Gap in Pink and Black. And part of what you touched upon was called “Missing Einsteins and Katherines.” Can you talk to me a little bit about that research?

Cook: So there has been a lot of discussion about the missing inventors in the economy. So the title has been, “The Missing Einsteins” and that appeared in the New York Times. It's Raj Chetty’s work, Raj Chetty and coauthor's work. And they talk about the inventors that are missing because they don't have exposure to an inventor, for example, when they're growing up, when they're young. And I have added onto that the missing Katherines, and this is from Katherine Johnson of Hidden Figures, because it's not just the missing men and missing famous inventors. It's the missing everyday inventors, routine inventors, and those who are women and those who are African American.

So one thing that I show is that GDP could be higher if more women and African Americans were included at the beginning of the innovative process. So that's in getting STEM degrees. So just to recap the stages that I mentioned in the talk, the first stage is getting training, doing a STEM degree, and economics isn't included in that. And then the second one is practicing inventions, say, on a patent team or in a lab. And then the third one is commercialization, and that's when you have firms that are commercializing the invention or IPOs. That's where the entrepreneurial part of it happens and commercialization of it happens.

And what I was saying was that there's a gap between women and minorities and other inventors at every stage or other people in that group at every stage. And it has implications for income disparity and it has implications for wealth disparity, especially the last one in terms of commercialization because firms are created, they become trillion dollar firms like Amazon and Apple. And then they have implications for the economy. So we're missing out on more economic growth, on higher living standards if we're not incorporating more diverse people in this process.

Hasenstab: That sounds like really important research. Let's go back to your background. We've already talked about how you had a really interesting path to find economics. So what happened after that hike back down the mountain? You ended up getting your Ph.D. at Berkeley?

Cook: That’s right.

Hasenstab: And then you ended up at Michigan State University.

Cook: I'd like to back up a little bit just because I think there's an impression that everybody starts with having taken differential equations in high school, having tons of math classes and tons of economics classes before applying for a Ph.D. program. Well, that wasn't me. Certainly, as a physics and philosophy major, I had some of the prerequisites, but I didn't have a lot of others, so I had to go back after I climbed down Kilimanjaro, I had to go back and take quite a few math courses. And luckily, I had an introduction to linear algebra, for example, in high school, just because I had some phenomenal math teachers. I know that's somewhat unusual. And I just sort of picked up where I left off and I just started taking these courses. And I took them at the college in my hometown, the college campus that I grew up in.

Hasenstab: And where was that?

Cook: It is Georgia College and State University. And that's in Milledgeville, Georgia. And then I went to Georgia Tech, I took courses at the University of Maryland. I then did the AEA summer program. So I was picking things up all along the way. I mean, it feels like I've been to every college or university in this country just to get these prerequisites, but I knew that it would be a much more difficult time if I didn't have them. And there was no resistance to having them. It's just that my plans changed and I had a good idea of how I needed to close the gap between being not so prepared and being prepared.

Hasenstab: Well, I think that's a really important lesson that you just touched upon, because a lot of people, may be trepidacious about economics thinking it is a math heavy field. If they don't have that experience, is it something they could excel at? So that's really interesting to hear that you took a break from some of these advanced math courses, but you were able to dive back in and learn more about that. That's really inspiring.

Cook: Right. I did. And that's something that I try to communicate to our students and prospective students about the AEA summer program. You don't have to walk out of the womb knowing that you want to do a Ph.D. in economics.  There are many different paths and we try to expose them to many different paths. Many come to our program already having graduated from undergraduate, so they really can't rewrite their undergraduate record, but that's okay. That's okay. That's what I was doing. I was just adding courses at a number of different places, and just felt little fear, I think, as a result of talking to those two economists at the very beginning.

Hasenstab: How did you feel in those classes and then once you did start your Ph.D. program in economics as a woman? As an African American? Did you feel like a minority? Or did that not really affect you?

Cook: Well, I would say that I had to establish with everybody that I should be taken seriously. So I went to visit a number of econ programs. I'm not going to say which ones. But often this wouldn't come from the senior professors, but it would come from the graduate students. They'd open a book, “If you don't know how to do this difficult problem, then you shouldn't even think about economics.” So I got much more resistance from the grad students than I got from any of the professors, any of the faculty members, and I thought it was really interesting. And I say the graduate students, they were all men. I found that part discouraging, but in the math classes, I had to establish that I was a serious contender for an A. Let's be clear about why I'm here. I'm here to learn, but I'm also here to make sure that I master this subject. And I found that that wasn't the typical way that either women were perceived or the way they proceeded at, say, the University of Maryland or at Georgia Tech, and they weren't being taken that seriously, so I would go and I'd sit down with a tutor or in TA office hours and go through a problem set, go through an exam. And it was almost as if I was taxing them. I was doing what I was supposed to do in office hours, but I think that they probably hadn't seen anybody so focused on what needed to be done and what I needed to learn that I actually needed to master the material, and I wasn't just concerned about the exams, wasn't just concerned about the problem sets. I was concerned about learning this at a deep level.

So I think that was the thing that was a bit of a barrier. That people had a hard time taking me seriously, because I'm sure they didn't know any African Americans who were economists. They didn't know that economics at the graduate level took so much math. And I think they also didn't know many African American professors, period, at Georgia Tech especially.

Hasenstab: So it sounds like you had a path to show that you were serious and this is why you were here. What did you learn from that process and putting yourself out there?

Cook: No, that's a good question. I think that had I been younger and possibly less confident, I would not have insisted that the tutors or TA's respond to me in a certain way. And I think their view was, “You're not going to get an A anyway, so why are you sitting here trying to get an A? Or why are you trying to get better than an A? Why are you trying to master the material?” So I think that they made me even more determined to accomplish what I was there to accomplish, but I think that a lot of people are deterred by that behavior. And I think that was, again, because I'm an African American woman. I don't know if they were emphasizing the African American part or the woman part, but they weren't used to seeing people like me. There weren't people like me in my classes. There weren't people like me in study hall. So I think that in their experience, they had not had to take seriously or just didn't take seriously the people of color and the women who sat before them.

Hasenstab: That's really inspiring that you drew upon your own self-confidence and propelled yourself to that next level.

Cook: And I'm glad to have been at places that allowed me to have that confidence or have those conversations that allowed me to have that confidence. I didn't know what I was doing with respect to preparing for a Ph.D. in economics. I didn't know what it was. I didn't know what subjects they really studied and problems they really addressed.

Hasenstab: So talk to me a little bit more about that. How did you discover that? And how did that affect the rest of  your education and your career?

Cook: Well, I discovered it first through the conversation on Kilimanjaro and had no idea that there were these fields of agricultural economics and the kinds of important questions they were addressing. So that was the first way. And then sort of through the economics of crime and I was working with Sandy Darity and Sam Myers on this research project at the University of Maryland. And it was on the economics of crime. And I had no idea that economists had anything to say about crime. And in fact, the lens was drug markets in Virginia and in Maryland. Sort of drug markets in the D.C. area. And I just found it fascinating. I had never been introduced to those really important problems that economics and economists could solve. So it was more than IS-LM (investment saving – liquidity preference money supply), which still bores me to tears. And I teach macro, and it bores me to tears.

So I think just having a target for what your skills are going to be useful for in terms of research, not just in terms of a career, I think it's incredibly important. I was an intern at Salomon Brothers, and I was also trying to figure out how Ph.D. is important in that context. And that was interesting, but that informed how I wanted to be able to manage financial crises, for example, and how I wanted to teach macro. So these are all useful experiences, but I think that one, of being exposed to the research that people were actually doing was phenomenal and important.

Hasenstab: So it was the research that really caught your attention and drew you in and helped you pursue those goals?

Cook: Right.

Hasenstab:  I know that you are prolific on Twitter. Do you enjoy it? Or is it something that you realize can be valuable when dealing with your students and colleagues?

Cook: I think it's both. And I think that it is partly intentional in that the Twitter community for economics is just phenomenal, or Econ Twitter as we call it, is just phenomenal. I got the idea for the latest textbook for a class that way, and I learn about people's research as it is happening. So they are sometimes putting working papers on Twitter before they put them on their website so they appear on their school's websites. There are just really rich, informative conversations there and that's why I like it.

And I'm reaching broad audiences, so I have audiences of peers who do research similar to mine, and then I have, say, economic historians, and macroeconomists, and people who work on the economics of innovation who wouldn't necessarily be on the same platform together because they're in different subfields of economics. And then I have students, the people I mentor, students and junior faculty, ones who are involved in the AEA summer program, for example. So there are just many audiences that I am trying to interact with and that I learn from on a daily basis, and I think this is a great platform to do it on.

Now, I am aware that there are demographic differences among social media platforms. So I think it's important for our students, the ones in the AEA summer program to create peer mentoring groups, and this is one way to do that. And what we know about African Americans is that they are disproportionately represented on Twitter. One time I saw that there are about 20 percent of the people of Twitter, and we're like 12 percent of the population. So this whole phenomenon called “Black Twitter.” And it's not only that, that when we get on Twitter, we spend more time on the platform. So I think that there are different types of engagement that can be useful to the different types of people that I'm constantly talking to. And then there's always something about Prince to talk about. Always something happening. The last thing is that there's going to be a Netflix documentary, so I can't miss that. And I'm pushing other things like voting and participating in the democratic process. But, you know, those are fun things and that's a minority of what I do.

But I also want to show people that this is kind of who I am as an academic. I'm not just a researcher, I'm not just an instructor, but there are many different dimensions to economists' lives. I think people have the sense that we're super boring people, so I just want to challenge that notion.

Hasenstab: So you've mentioned the peer mentoring and you've thrown out a couple names. How does mentoring play a role in your work? Do you mentor young people? Do you make that effort to reach out to them? How has mentoring been playing a role in your current work?

Cook: So, yes. I do mentor junior faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and I am being mentored. And I have mentors who are very different kinds of people. They mostly don't look like me, and that's neither here nor there, but I can learn something from everybody. And I mentor people and young folks, so that they'll do the same. So that they're looking for different traits like how this person organizes his or her classes, how this person gets research done on a systematic basis, writing on a systematic and regular basis, for example, or how this person balances work/life balance, how this person manages that. So there are different traits that one could consider desirable and that you may want to follow in your professional life. I think the economic literature supports how important mentoring is in terms of outcomes we're looking for. Progression through the professoriate, for example, and other outcomes that are important in a career in economics.

Hasenstab: When you hear the phrase “women in economics,” what does that mean to you?

Cook: I probably think the phrase wouldn't exist if there were parity. And it is lamentable that there is not parity, and that we spend a lot of time thinking about how to close the gender gap and the racial and ethnic gap in economics. So I don't think of it as being completely negative or completely positive. I look at it as being a challenge. But one thing I certainly would like to make clear, we have to stop asking women and others who are the underrepresented people to do the work to raise representation. We can't do it alone. We absolutely can't do it alone. We're not in the places where a lot of this action happens. We're not on hiring committees, we're not chairs of departments. We're sometimes in places where we can be decisive in changing the landscape, but we often are not. So I certainly would say that the term “women in economics” makes me, on the one hand, proud because we exist and we're here. At the same time, we shouldn't be asked to sort of change the world that pertains to us and that would benefit all of society.

Hasenstab: You raised some really interesting points in that. Is there anything else you'd like to discuss today that I haven't asked about?

Cook: Well, I think that one thing we have to do as economists is to recognize our own biases. When we see a potential Ph.D. student or someone who could be a Ph.D. student, we shouldn't shut them out or reject them out of hand. I haven't seen this type of person, so I'm not going to give this person the time of day. Or I would encourage us to reach out to people. We're not used to reaching out to say, “Hey, would you like to be an RA for me?” Of course you're going to say to yourself, “Well, I want an RA with these particular skills,” but once you control for those particular skills, you probably have a lot of people you could choose from. So I think we have to not only think about the pipelines, but we have to think about the people who exist on, say, hiring committees. So you're not just making change in the pipeline. There are people who are prepared to do the work you're asking them to do as, say, professors of economics who are on your faculties now and the Federal Reserve System now. So you don't have to go looking far, and it's not just about fixing the pipeline. It is about making sure that once you get out of the pipeline, there's a meaningful opportunity at the end of it. And I think that's where we could do a lot more, and that's where we appreciate a lot more help from many people in the economics profession. And there are lots of people who are supportive of the AEA summer program, and I appreciate that. Of CSWEP of the NEA. But certainly I think there's a ways to go. And I'm encouraged by all of these efforts that I see, and I would like to be encouraging of those efforts as well.

Hasenstab: Thank you. To hear more Women in Economics podcasts, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That's one word. Stlouisfed.org/womeninecon.

Lisa, thank you so much for your time today and thank you for sharing your story.

Cook: The pleasure's been all mine.

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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