This 23-minute podcast was released Aug. 21, 2019.
“In order to understand the portraits that we’re providing to the American people, we need to understand the viewpoints of the American people. And that means a diverse view of the American people,” says Lucia Foster, chief economist at the U.S. Census Bureau and chief of the Center for Economic Studies. She talks with Katrina Stierholz, St. Louis Fed vice president and director of library and research information services, about why she was drawn to the field of economics and how a 5K race inspired her.
Katrina Stierholz: Hello. I’m Katrina Stierholz, and you’re listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the Saint Louis Fed’s Timely Topics audio channel. Today, I’m speaking with Lucia Foster. Lucia is the chief economist at the U.S. Census Bureau and the chief of the Center for Economic Studies. Welcome, Lucia. Thank you for joining me today.
Lucia Foster: Thank you very much for having me. I’m looking forward to talking to you.
Stierholz: So could you tell us a little bit about what drew you to the field of economics?
Foster: Sure. So I was very fortunate that the high school that I went to had a really good social sciences program, so I was able to take, in one year, a sociology class, a psychology class, and an economics class. I was drawn to the social sciences because I was very interested in complex behaviors, understanding the mechanisms behind complex behaviors of people, and also the ability to potentially help people using the information that I got from the class.
I was especially drawn to economics because of the high school teacher that I had for that class was a woman who was really good at showing us the real-world applications for economics. So one of the assignments that we had every week was to go through news magazines or newspapers and look for articles that we found were interesting and then write up a short essay about how economics played a part in that real-world example. And so I think from that I found it very inspiring to think about not only was I—what I was learning from the class but then applying it to real-world situations and then to thinking about how people could use that to help policies to help people.
What kind of kept me in economics was also sort of the inspiration from my dad. I’m one of many children, but my dad always took us very seriously and talked to us about things like we were adults, about real-world things like, “Why do you think this is happening?” You know, “Here’s what’s going on today in the outside world. What do you think is the reason for that that’s going on?” And took sort of our input as kids very seriously. He was in the business world—would talk to me about business and things like that.
And then also he’s a very creative person and likes to build things, paint, things like that. And I also very highly value creativity, and I would say one thing that I think people find surprising about economics when I talk about it is how much creativity there is involved in it.
So I think from the high school teacher I liked the science part of it and the helping people but from my dad a little bit more about the creativity. You’re producing something that no one’s ever seen before, and you’re helping people understand the world in a way that they never have before. So that’s what drew me to economics.
Stierholz: That’s cool. So tell us a little bit about your experience at Georgetown because you majored in economics there.
Foster: Sure. So when I entered Georgetown University as a freshman, I actually already knew I wanted to be an economics major, which was a little bit unusual. So that was helpful in some ways because I could tailor what I wanted to take for classes a little bit more towards the field that I anticipated being in. I was at Georgetown a long time ago. I graduated in ’83, and so at the time, I don’t think there were many female economics professors. I do remember at least one female economics professor.
When I took honors macro, I was the only woman in the class. Now it was a pretty small class, but that was a very strange experience, right? Any other class I took at Georgetown I don’t think I was ever the only woman in the class. That was hard because you never saw other people that were like you.
I hope that it’s different for people these days when they go into a class. Any of the other classes that I took in other fields at Georgetown, there was always a lot of women, and I would say that some of the most dynamic professors that I had at Georgetown were women, but they weren’t necessarily in economics. So Georgetown had a requirement that you take theology classes, and one of the best theology classes I took was this woman Jouette Bassler, who was just a dynamic presence and just pushed us all very hard and was a really good role model for what it means to be a successful, intelligent, ambitious woman.
Stierholz: Mm-hmm. So after Georgetown you went to the Congressional Budget Office.
Stierholz: What was your experience like there?
Foster: So I went to the Congressional Budget Office, and I have to say that it was fantastic. It’s hard to imagine a better place to go right out from college. I graduated in 1983, which was a really tough labor market year. And I was very fortunate that one of my professors at Georgetown—Daniel Westbrook was an econometrics professor of mine—took an interest in making sure that I was able to find a job after college and, you know, would ask me about it repeatedly and actually was the one who pointed me to this opening at Congressional Budget Office. So, you know, I have to say that I’m very grateful to him for actually taking that extra interest in me.
So Congressional Budget Office—I was in the fiscal analysis division, and there were not any female economists at that time in the fiscal analysis division, but the tax analysis division and the budget analysis division were actually run by women, and when I came on to CBO, Alice Rivlin was still there, so it was headed by a woman.
But what made CBO great not only in terms of just having these women that were great role models was that one of the things that they had us do in the fiscal analysis division was that twice a year they come out with a report on how the economy’s doing that sort of underpins the budget projections that they do. And the way that they did that was at that time was each economist, Ph.D. economist, in CBO in our division would take a chapter and write a chapter. And what they had the research assistants, of which I was one—there was four of us—do is each one of us was assigned a chapter and we had to fact-check the entire chapter. So we had to read through the chapter and replicate everything, every fact that the Ph.D. economist did, and if we didn’t understand how they got to that fact, we would go talk to the Ph.D. economist.
So it started up this great conversation that was you had to do as your job so you didn’t have to feel like, “Well, I don’t know if I should approach this Ph.D. economist with my question. I feel kind of unsure about myself or it’s a stupid question.” It didn’t matter. You really had to do it, and so that started the conversation in a way that you didn’t feel uncomfortable. Even though Georgetown provided me with a really great background in terms of understanding economics and I had done some research papers on economics while at Georgetown, getting into the nitty-gritty day-to-day measurement issues that are sometimes a little bit more complicated than you realize and having these Ph.D. economists that were constantly there to have a give-and-take with you made it just an amazing experience. It was just a really great place to work.
Stierholz: It sounds like they were colleagues as much as—
Stierholz: ...bosses. I mean, when you can go into somebody’s office and talk to them like that.
Foster: They took a very strong interest, I think, in making sure that the research assistants learned from their job. It wasn’t just that you were there to get something done. It’s that they viewed themselves sort of as mentors as well. So I thought it was a great place to work.
Stierholz: After your time at the Congressional Budget Office, you moved to the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve. How was that experience?
Foster: So that was, that was a really great experience, too, and it was interesting to go from CBO to the Federal Reserve Board, where at both places—towards the end of my CBO tenure, I was working on a model of the U.S. international transactions account so with the current account, and when I went to the Fed, I was working on a similar type of thing so a much larger model. And to see kind of the differences in the cultures there about the research that went on in the two different organizations was great.
At the Fed, I would say my experience was, was like CBO but on steroids because there was that many more people at the Fed. You know, interacting with that many more people who are doing research. And I worked in the U.S. international transactions group. My boss was a woman, Ellen Meade, and I worked with a bunch of other researchers about trade.
And I think what was nice, again, was the collaborative spirit because even though you were there as a research assistant, they were expecting you to provide information to them in the way that they asked for it was very high standards, right? So you were expected to come up to the level of what they needed, and they needed things at a very high-level standard. I worked there for three or four years. It really inspired me to go back and get my Ph.D. because you could see that even though you were a research assistant and you were collaborating with them, if you wanted to get to take it to the next level, you really needed the skill set to do that.
And I think had I not gone to CBO and the Fed, I’m not sure that I would have seen myself in some sense as worthy of getting a Ph.D. having really good role models at the Fed, when the time came to think about getting a degree, a Ph.D., going further, was really important to me. My branch chief, Peter Hooper, was very supportive when I started to talk to him about I’m thinking about going back. Catherine Mann, also was a really good role model, like “Here’s what you do to go back. Here’s what it means to be a Ph.D. economist.” Sometimes you just need to see somebody else do it to understand what it means to be that person.
Stierholz: So that’s what motivated you to get your Ph.D. Why did you choose Maryland?
Foster: That’s a good question. I was living here in Washington, and I wanted to pursue, if possible, my degree in the area, but I did actually apply to many different universities. I went out there and talked to somebody about public sector economics. That’s what I was interested in, and I had great conversations with the professors there about public sector economics. When I got there I switched to different fields. I did labor and macro.
One of the best things about Maryland as a graduate school was that they engendered a spirit of cooperation and collaboration among the graduate students. And some programs, the way they’re set up, because not everybody’s going to make it through the entire program, it’s a very competitive model, and depending on your personality, that can be a great thing or it can be something daunting. For me, that would’ve been a daunting experience. The fact that Maryland had sort of this more collaborative approach to the graduate students made it a better fit for me.
In my first year, they put those of us who had a fellowship in one office. There was 10 of us in an office, and that meant that after we came back from exams or a test, there was this group of people that would be naturally in a place where you’d go back and go, “Oh, my gosh, I just got destroyed by that. I hope I’m not the only one,” you know? And other people would, “Oh, yeah, that was really tough.” Because sometimes you just need somebody else to say, “Yeah, that was really tough.” Because I think sometimes all people, and maybe women in particular, have a tendency to say when something was really tough, that’s because I wasn’t up to the level to do it. Not because it was tough in general but maybe it was something about me.
Stierholz: So after you received your Ph.D. you came to work for the Census, and you’ve stayed here.
Foster: I have.
Stierholz: So tell us about your work here.
Foster: So I’ve been here at the Census Bureau for many, many years, and I started off working on my dissertation here on adjustment costs. That has persisted throughout sort of my entire tenure here. But so I have two titles, as you mentioned at the beginning. One is chief economist for the Census Bureau, and then one is chief of the Center for Economic Studies.
So as the chief economist for the Census Bureau, I’m responsible for looking at the suite of data products that the Census Bureau produces to help people understand the U.S. economy. And then as the head of the Center for Economic Studies, I am the leader of a hundred or so researchers who are using Census Bureau microdata to help us better understand the economy by either producing new data products for the public or producing research papers that help us understand how the economy works. And I’ll explain a little bit about that because it’s a little bit complicated.
The U.S. has a very decentralized statistical system, so the Census Bureau’s one of 13 principle statistical agencies. So when I’m looking for data gaps in what the Census Bureau is producing, I’m also keeping in mind what all the other statistical agencies are doing because the other statistical agencies, like the Census Bureau, also have a mission, and we want to be respectful of their mission. So when I’m thinking about, okay, what could we produce? If there’s a gap in what the Census Bureau is producing about the economy, should we fill this gap? Is it appropriate for the Census Bureau to fill that gap? Or is that something that another agency is doing already?
So a lot of my work is being aware of what the other agencies are doing and then reaching out to other agencies. When we see a data gap that we want to fill, are they interested in collaborating with us on that?
Stierholz: That’s very interesting. So I did notice a lot of your research is around work, essentially. Does your experience as a woman inform that, or how does that affect what you’re doing?
Foster: That’s a really good question. The research that I do concerns work more from the labor demand side of things than the labor supply side of things. I’d say that’s maybe a little bit nontraditional for women because a lot of times you see a lot of the research is on the labor supply side of the world. My interest in this type of business was actually from a labor class that I took at University of Maryland that Katharine Abraham taught. And when she was talking about adjustment costs and labor demand, that’s what actually got me interested in this part of the world and thinking about businesses and how they make decisions about labor.
So in some sense, I would say it’s, it hasn’t really been informed by my experience as a woman. I would say the importance of work for all of us has sort of driven my interest in it, right? It’s really important for all of us to be able to be self-sufficient and have work that’s meaningful for all of us. And so in that sense, I’m very interested in when businesses are, creating jobs and destroying jobs, what’s going on there.
I wouldn’t say that the research questions are driven by my experience as a woman in economics. I would say the methodology that I use in answering these questions might be a little bit more collaborative, and that might be something that you might say is more of, a characteristic of women, that they like to collaborate. All the research projects that I’ve talked about are all massive collaborations with other people.
Stierholz: So you’ve been a part of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. You’ve contributed in terms of presentations and writing for the publication and helping try and attract people to federal statistical agencies and I’m sure Census too. Why do you think it is important that more women and minorities enter the field and then join the statistical agencies?
Foster: Okay. The mission of the Census Bureau is to provide more information to people concerning the economy and its population, and in order to do that in an effective manner, we need to know the entire suite of the population, right? When you’re asking a research question, you’re trying to ask a research question that is important to everyone, but you always bring to it your own perspective, and you need to be careful about that. That you’re not asking research questions that are narrowly defined by your perspective in a manner that you didn’t mean that to happen.
So I know that there’s been some really interesting work about looking at people on the central banks as they’re making decisions about increasing or decreasing interest rates. And I think they had done some machine learning, textual analysis of the minutes of these things, and they found that some of the central bankers that had lived through periods of great inflation actually had a noticeably different viewpoint, right? And so all of us, in everything we do, bring our entire background with us. We try to be as inclusive in our viewpoints as possible, but we are people, after all, and I think it’s really important that we try to have a diverse group of people helping us decide which research questions are important.
Almost all of my work has been collaborative. And I think when you’re thinking about a research question, you want people that can bring, you know, the econometric skills, the data skills, the writing skills, the person that presents it, but you also need the people that have different life backgrounds that can help you understand what it is that you’re studying.
Stierholz: So what challenges or have you faced challenges as a woman in economics, and how did you overcome them?
Foster: So I’ve been in economics for a long time, and I think some of the challenges that I’ve faced have probably diminished over time. But I would say a continuing challenge is being taken seriously.
I would say one of my earliest disappointments in economics was I went in to talk to a professor about getting a summer job in a think tank. And so I went in there and said, “I’m interested in getting a summer job in a think tank, and I was wondering if you could help me.” And they said to me, “Are you sure you want to do that? Wouldn’t you rather be waitressing at the beach?” And it was like, “No.” I had taken the honors sequence, so I felt like I had already signaled my interest so that was—That kind of set me back, you know? And I think all of us at times in our lives struggle with the imposter syndrome. Like, do I really belong here? And sometimes you just need somebody to say, “Yes. Yes, you actually do belong here.”
Stierholz: So in CSWEP or maybe in the Census, are you part of a group of women economists who mentor one another or others?
Foster: There’s a Federally Employed Women group that sponsors mentorship. I think they had a speed mentoring event that you could take place, and I’ve definitely participated in that. That’s great. You know, we sit at a table and people move around. And then OPM, the Office of Personnel Management, actually just sponsored a mentoring session, and you sit at a table and you talk to various people about your life experience and they can ask questions about what it’s like to be a woman in the federal government.
Stierholz: I only have one other question: Why do you think it’s important for women and minorities to enter the field?
Foster: I would say it’s important for women and monitories to enter the field of economics for two reasons. One is we need diversity of views so that we’re asking important questions in economics, because a lot of the research is driven by what you think is an important question.
The other reason is that the, the profession should be viewed as welcoming of everyone. I don’t want to be part of a profession that is not welcoming to all people.
Stierholz: So is there anything else you want to say about women in economics?
Foster: Yeah. I guess I’d say the last thing is the importance of persistence. It’s really important in any research field to be able to face failure over and over again and to get back up again and try again. So persistence is really important. I think for all of us, whether you do research or not, you’re going to face failure in your life, but for economists where a lot of us, what we do is research. When you do a paper, for example, when you submit a research paper to a journal, the most likely outcome is going to be reject or revise and resubmit. You’re not going to get accepted the first time.
So you’re going to have to go back over and over again until it’s eventually, you hope, accepted.
So to that, related to persistence is resilience, right? You get knocked down, you get back up again.
Just to give an example, I applied for a job at the Fed, and I didn’t get the job at the Fed. And I did a self-assessment. Okay, I need to work on this and I can reapply. So also I said, you know, I applied for a lot of different jobs. So one place I applied to was a think tank in Washington which was a place I really wanted to work at. And I applied for a job there, and I didn’t get the job there. But where resilience came in is not only did I not get the job there, but they passed my resume around to a whole bunch of different divisions there, so I got rejected from every division that that think tank had. And I was like, “Okay, I could get really bummed out about this, or I could have a sense of humor, like you know, it’s not everybody that can get rejected from jobs they didn’t even apply for. I have accomplished that.”
So I think, you know, it’s true for people in general, and I think everything I’ve been saying has had something, I hope, that, you know, any woman could take away from this but I think people in general, too, about your life path is that persistence and resilience are really important and to try to take in what’s going on around you and try to improve yourself always over your life.
And so the last example I could give is that the AEA, so the American Economic Association, had their first ever 5K this last January, and I took up running maybe two years ago. And I’m a terrible runner. So slow. It’s painful. But I decided, you know what? It’s the first ever 5K, and it’d be fun to do, and so I signed up for the race. And it was last January when we were in Atlanta, and so I get to the race, and there’s a lot of people there, and I find out that they’re going to do prizes based on gender and age. I looked around, it’s pitch dark out, but you know, there’s a lot more men than women, and of the women there, I’m like at least a decade older than every other woman there. I have got this nailed.
So we run the race. Of course, I’m terrible. Really slow. And all day long I’m checking my phone. And somebody said, “Why are you checking your phone?” It’s like, “Well, because they’ve got prizes.” And I’m a shoo-in. I’m, like, by far, such a much older woman than anybody else there. Well, I didn’t win. I didn’t win, and so what I took away from that was, well, first of all, there’s some woman out there who’s amazingly fast, and she looks terrific. Like, she looks great. So, she’s like my role model for next year.
I’m going to try harder. I’m going to be faster, you know. And I’m never going to beat that woman, but at least I can maybe have her in my sights when I’m running next time. You’re going to get knocked down. You need to get up again.
Stierholz: Mm-hmm. That’s very good. So Lucia, thank you so much for spending time today to tell us your story and share your wisdom.
Lucia Foster: Thank you very much.