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Women in Economics: Marie Mora and Lea-Rachel Kosnik

Marie Mora and Lea-Rachel Kosnik with Mary Suiter | St. Louis Fed

University of Missouri-St. Louis Economics Professor Lea-Rachel Kosnik (left) and UMSL Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Marie Mora (right) are interviewed by St. Louis Fed Assistant Vice President and Economic Education Officer Mary Suiter (center).

This 30-minute podcast was released March 31, 2020.

“As economists, a lot of the research that we do in an academic environment affects policy,” says Marie Mora, associate provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Mora and Lea-Rachel Kosnik, economics professor at UMSL, talk with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the St. Louis Fed, about their experiences in the field of economics and their roles at the university.

Also, St. Louis Fed Senior Economic Education Specialist Andrea Caceres-Santamaria interviews students in the undergraduate and graduate economics programs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.



Transcript:

Mary Suiter: Hi, I'm Mary Suiter, and you're listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today we have a special live recording at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. I'm joined today by two notable Women in Economics here at UMSL, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, who are studying economics, and who work in an econometrics class this afternoon.

I'd like to introduce Marie Mora, an economist and the associate provost for Academic Affairs here at the university, and Lea Kosnik, an economics professor and the advisor for the Women in Economics club here on campus. Welcome to everyone here. Thank you for joining us. I'm also joined today by Andrea Caceres‑Santamaria, a senior economic education specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In a little bit, Andrea is going to be talking with a few members of the econometrics class, but first I'd like to learn a little bit more about Marie and Lea.

Ladies, how are you today?

Marie Mora: Doing very well. Thank you.

Lea-Rachel Kosnik: Yes. Thank you. Very good.

Suiter: Marie, you earned your bachelor's and master's degrees in economics from the University of New Mexico and a Ph.D. from Texas A & M University. You came to UMSL in 2019, and part of your job as associate provost includes diversity and equity issues. From your perspective, why is it important to encourage more women and underrepresented minorities to study economics?

Mora: I think that's an excellent question, and it's one that I've been very passionate about over the years. One of the reasons I was very interested in this position here at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was because of the focus and some of the responsibilities in the administrative position to work on diversity and equity issues, particularly—in the case of my role, particularly among faculty.

So I've been very involved with trying to increase diversity and inclusion in economics essentially through my entire career. It's one of the things that got me interested in economics to begin with many years ago. I think it's extremely important that we have more diversity in the profession, both in terms of having more women and also having underrepresented minorities, both men and women. And the reason is that as economists, a lot of the research that we do in an academic environment affects policy. And so if we have policy that's being driven by let's say members from a particular group that has excluded, let me say has excluded representation from society at large, then we are making policy decisions that have implications for everybody from the voices of just a few. And so it's extremely important. As economists we believe in for markets to work, we need perfect information. And so if we are driving policy based on imperfect information, we may not get the best policy for all.

Suiter: Wow, that's a great answer. Thank you so much. You've done some work with CSWEP or the Committee on the Status of Women in Economics. Could you talk a little bit about that work?

Mora: Yes. So, actually, I worked a lot with both the Committee on the Status of Women in Economics Profession, and I was also a board member of the Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession. And over the years, traditionally the two committees had not done that much work together, and you would think a lot of the issues are the same. Certainly, there are some differences. But over the past several years, both committees have been having concerted efforts to begin having more coordinated events and realizing that a lot of the issues that we're facing are the same.

One example would be a couple of years ago—and this is why I'm actually a fan of Twitter it turns out—and it started with Shelly Lundberg, who at the time was the chair of CSWEP, the Women in Economics, myself, and also Trevon Logan and Lisa Cook. There was a lot of discussion about a need for more mentoring programs for women, but there wasn't as much talking about what about mentoring for underrepresented minority women. And so with this 20‑minute Twitter, just going back and forth, it turned out I had a grant from National Science Foundation. I said, "I have funding. We're going to the American Economic Association's annual conference. What if we put together a panel discussion? I have funding. I can bring in speakers. And just talk about best practices for mentoring underrepresented minority women." And so within 20 minutes we had decided to do that, and probably within an hour I went and emailed some folks. We had a fantastic panel that we were able to put on.

Suiter: You're speaking about mentoring. Who's mentored you in your career?

Mora: That's a fantastic question. I think early on in my career I did not have as many mentors, there weren't as many women in economics, and so when I think back, I kind of carved my way—I feel like I've had a lot of success in my career through a lot of hard work and also kind of accidentally. I kind of fell into economics, and I love being an economist, but it wasn't something I was necessarily guided into. I will say over the past several years, one person in particular who stands out who has been a fantastic mentor to me is Dr. Cecilia Conrad, who is currently the director of the MacArthur Fellows Program at the MacArthur Foundation. She started her career as an economist in academia and has this wonderful career and is a wonderful person.

Suiter: So as a woman in your career, what kinds of challenges have you faced, and how have you overcome those?

Mora: Economics does have a problem with respect to not being very inclusive, and so the representation of women is low, the representation of minority groups is low. I will say early on, it was in a very harsh field. I think it's opening up more. I had a fantastic major professor, who said, "In order to survive in this field, you have to have a very thick skin." And that advice stuck with me. I do realize that there are times that you need to put yourself forward to establish your credentials. And one of the ways that I found with respect to my classes is actually putting in a brief bio about myself on my syllabus and talking about that I have a Ph.D. and I go through some of my history. And so that sets the stage on the first day of class that, yes, I do have a Ph.D. I also started teaching very young at my faculty position. I was 25. It was important for me to establish the credibility.

Suiter: Hm‑hmm [affirmative]. I think that's really important when you're young and starting out in the profession that you make sure people understand who you are and where you fit in and what your credentials are, and particularly if you're a woman or a minority or a woman and a minority. Well, thank you so much. I'm going to turn to Lea for a couple minutes here.

So, Lea, you've been at UMSL since 2004. You received your Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. You studied econ as an undergrad as well at the University of Michigan. You have expertise, and you've done considerable research in environmental, energy, regulatory, and behavioral economics. What attracted you to the field of economics and those topics?

Kosnik: Well, I found Marie's first answer interesting, because she talked about how economics influences policy a lot, and so you do want diverse perspectives so that you can have different perspectives at the policy‑making table, but I would add even asking the questions, right, you need diverse researchers even doing the research. There's a lot of research areas that were not studied, I believe, because there weren't women to study them who maybe had the perspective on them. But I got into economics because I enjoyed math very much, but I didn't want to do engineering. I didn't want to do accounting. I didn't sort of want to do physics, some of these more technical things that I was capable of, and then I took an economics class and realized there was a public policy aspect to it. And when you bring in a public policy aspect that has to do with people and their lives and I could still do math, then it was a good fit.

Suiter: So I love that answer. We have a student board of directors at the bank, and they're seniors in high school, and we have young women on that board, and most often those young women tell me they want to major in political science.

Kosnik: Yeah.

Suiter: Because they want to change the world.

Kosnik: Yeah.

Suiter: And I spend a whole year convincing them that if they want to change the world, they should get a degree in economics—

Kosnik: Right.

Suiter: …so they can influence policy.

Kosnik: Right. Exactly.

Suiter: I know that you sponsor the Women in Economics Club here on campus. Could you talk a little bit about why that's important, the networking skills and things that these young women need to succeed in economics?

Kosnik: Recently the economics profession has really been looking into why women are so underrepresented, and there hasn't been an empirical analysis that definitively answers the question as to why, but there have been a lot of things written and opinions voiced. And one thing you repeatedly hear from people when they throw out their opinion on why there aren't enough women in economics is that there aren't enough mentors and role models and networking. You know, it's an old boys' club, and you need these networks, and you need role models and mentors, and so how can we address that? I mean, one thing I would say is that the University of Missouri-St. Louis, should fund another line in economics so that we can hire another professor who's a female, because—I'm quite serious—It can start from the top and go down. So having more professors who are female and who are teaching and who show it can be done and how to do it, and then you'll get more majors. And then when you have more majors, you can also, network and get them into a club, then they'll get more jobs, and it'll just sort of continue.

So Women in Economics Club—we had a few female majors and about five years ago now, who said, "You know, it would really help if we could swap stories and support each other." And they came to me. They came to my office one day and said, "Can we start a club, and will you be the advisor?" And I remember thinking how dumb am I not to have come up with the idea and was very happy to become the advisor and work on it. We've had a lot of social events where you meet at dinners and happy hours, but at those meetings I know we've had both fun conversations, we've had networking conversations about jobs, we've had emotional and serious conversations about students being harassed on campus and other issues. So it's run the gamut. And whenever we have one of those meetings, I think, oh, my God, how valuable is this. So I think the way to encourage more women in economics is having networks and other people to talk to.

Suiter: So talk a little bit about how you mentor your colleagues.

Kosnik: So I am, you know, now at the level where I put together sessions for conferences and write letters—So one of the main things I do that sort of exposes me to the profession is I'm the Midwest coordinator of all the environmental sessions at the Midwest economic meetings, and that usually ends up to be something like eight sessions and, you know, 32 papers, so we get 50 submissions. And I purposely go up to female colleagues that are younger than me and tell them to put my name down.

Suiter: Hm‑hmm [affirmative].

Kosnik: Because I don't think they even think about it.

Suiter: Yeah.

Kosnik: And I'm, like, "Don't forget, when it's five years from now, but when this comes up, come to these meetings, and I'm somebody you can put."

Suiter: That's, that's awesome. That's great. And I would say to the young women here today that the people around you, your colleagues who are your fellow majors, this is the start of your network, whether you go on to get a Ph.D. or not, you get a master's, you go to work with your bachelor's degree, these are still your, your initial networks, and you should keep that in mind and maintain those connections, because everybody needs that network and those connections.

Well, I want to thank you very much, both of you, for talking with me.

Kosnik: Thank you.

Suiter: And I'm going to turn this over to my colleague, Andrea, who's going to talk with some of these wonderful young women who've chosen to major in economics. So thank you.

Kosnik: Thank you.

Mora: Thank you.

(Applause)

Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: All right. Well, thank you so much, Mary. I've been able to spend some time getting to know a couple of students in the econometrics course.

First, I'd like to introduce Hannah Drury. She is a senior here at UMSL. And quick question for you. What made you decide to major in economics?

Hannah Drury: So I had a really great scholarship at UMSL. I was really blessed. And I didn't know what I wanted to major in, so I just kept taking classes, and I ended up in an econ class with Professor Kosnik and she would write on my tests, "You should consider econ. You're doing great." And I never considered econ. I really liked the way she taught, and I enjoyed the class, and I liked the math aspect and how it made you think, and I was, like, maybe I should consider it. And so I gave it a chance. I took the next class, and I realized, you know, she's an environmental economist that interested me. I liked the whole idea of policy as well and maybe making a difference one day. And I was, like, okay. I graduate in a year. I need to pick something. It's going to be econ. And I'm really glad I did. I think UMSL has a great economics department, and they provide a lot of resources. And I got a job when I graduate, so I really can't be mad.

Caceres-Santamaria: So you stated that you have a job at Ameren lined up after graduation. Can you give us a few more details about what you'll be doing for them?

Drury: So it'll be a co‑op. I have a feeling it's going to be a lot of job exploration and seeing where I fit in and what I'll be good at, but it will be more the business side. So I know the person I'll be working under, and she does a lot with Ameren in the community, so I imagine I will be doing networking-type events with Ameren.

So my goal is to get my foot into the door with the energy sector, and my goal long term is to work in the clean energy field, hopefully making some change in the way we have our policies written.

Caceres-Santamaria: That's really wonderful. I've also heard that you are a member of the Women in Economics Club. Can you please tell us a little bit more about why you joined and what is your role in the club?

Drury: Yeah. So at UMSL I was taking all these different classes. I never really had a community of people that I enjoyed spending time with, so when Professor Kosnik invited me to the Women in Economics barbecue last year, I met a few different women there; and then as I declared the major and had more classes, I just started meeting people, and I liked the idea of having a group of people that I could share interests with and talk about, especially females. I hate to say it, but it is so hard to make female friends, it really is. So having that opportunity with people in the econ department, because I was the only female student in one of my econ classes. So having the opportunity outside of school was awesome.

Caceres-Santamaria: Thank you. All right. And here we have Geraldine Germain. And, Geraldine, what attracted you to the field of economics?

Geraldine Germain: I'm a social worker by trade -- that is taking the prerequisites to do the master's in economics program here at UMSL -- and over ten years providing services to underserved communities, you start to see patterns.

Caceres-Santamaria: Hm‑hmm [affirmative]

Germain: You start to see cycles. You start to see sort of structural systemic problems come to light. And it's a wonderful experience being on the frontlines and sort of seeing it from that ground level, having that kind of social worker perspective, but I started to see a need for bigger changes, for policy changes, changes in institutions. So I decided to go back to school and, hopefully combine, the social work experience with, you know, the economic perspective, learn to think like an economist, learn to solve problems like an economist, to really make the changes we need to see happen in our community, and globally as well.

Caceres-Santamaria: What advice would you share with young women that are thinking about pursuing a graduate degree in economics?

Germain: So I would say go for it. You know, one of the things that, I've seen others who've done economics or who have majored in economics or are practicing economics do, is they get seats at tables that you don't get in other professions. So some of the communities I serve are very underserved, and they don't get seats at tables like this, which means that their voices aren't heard, and that really I think contributes to some of the systemic problems. So that was one of my primary motivating forces was to be able to kind of speak the language. You know, if we're going to be impacting issues around poverty, we're going to have to understand economics, we're going to have to understand business, so go for it.

Caceres-Santamaria: Great. Well, it sounds like you're the person to make it happen. Thank you so much for your time.

Drury: Thank you.

Caceres-Santamaria: Hm‑hmm [affirmative].

(Applause)

Caceres-Santamaria: First, I'd like to introduce Sindi Ceta. And Sindi is a junior here at UMSL, and she's majoring in economics. And I'm very curious, what made you decide to major in economics?

Sindi Ceta: So originally when I first started college, I was unsure of what my career path was going to be, so I was having a hard time deciding on a major, and ultimately, after talking to students and faculty members, I kind of decided that economics would be the perfect major no matter what, because the knowledge that you can build, you can use in almost any career, whether it be, like, law or if you go into business, finance, things like that, so that's why I chose it.

Caceres-Santamaria: Where did you get your internship at?

Ceta: Wells Fargo Advisors.

Caceres-Santamaria: So what do you plan to do after you graduate?

Ceta: I am considering getting my master's in econ. I'm not sure exactly yet, but I do think I want to continue my education and also, obviously, look for, like, a job that I'm interested in, and I think it just depends on my experience and what I end up liking most.

Caceres-Santamaria: Great. All right. Well, thank you so much.

Ceta: No problem.

Caceres-Santamaria: Thank you. We have Ashlee Sprock. Ashlee is also a junior here at UMSL. And, Ashlee, what made you decide to major in economics?

Sprock: I actually started my undergrad at University of Missouri, Columbia. I started off going towards a business degree, because one of my high school teachers that was my mentor really got me into the business world, and I was really attracted to that, but I was also attracted to other fields, such as public policy and more complex ideas, as well. And so whenever I went to college, I started off with my business degree, and—I felt like I was being trained to work in an office, and that just wasn't for me. So whenever I started my intro to macroeconomics class, my professor really took hold to me because I, without even knowing it, was asking a lot of questions that went past the intro level of macroeconomics. Whenever I came to him about possibly switching my major to economics, he said, "You're not already an econ major? Are you free right now? I'll take you to the advisor's office, where we'll go get it changed right now." And he helped me change my major.

Caceres-Santamaria: So what do you plan to do with your degree after you graduate?

Sprock: I actually decided while talking to Professor Kosnik in office hours that I wanted to get my Ph.D. in economics and eventually work at either the World Bank or IMF or another think tank focusing on poverty in developing countries.

Caceres-Santamaria: That's wonderful. So what advice would you give to young women who are looking to or maybe exploring their different careers, what would you say about, hey, let's major in economics? What would you say to them to kind of inspire them to do so?

Ashlee Sprock: I would say if something grabs—like grabs your attention and really makes you want to learn more about it and think deeper about different issues, like economics did with me, I would say definitely go for it.

Caceres-Santamaria: Well, thank you so much, for sharing your stories and for inspiring young women to get into the field of economics.

Sprock: Thank you.

Germain: Thanks.

(Applause)

Caceres-Santamaria: All right. I'd like to introduce Maia Elkana. Maia is a graduate student here at UMSL. And, Maia, what made you pursue a graduate degree in economics?

Maia Elkana: Well, I originally got my bachelor's degree in anthropology, and back then, just before the crash and the recession started, I had all these ideas about what I was going to do with my life, and I realized pretty quickly that those plans were from an old world and that they weren't going to work out for me. All of my friends who were graduating were being laid off. They couldn't find jobs. And I looked around. At the time I was working at a teen pregnancy center, and I thought I could do this. I love this. And everyone had MSW, or Master in Social Work, on their name badge, and I thought, okay, I'm going to go to grad school and ride out the recession. So I did that, and I got a master's in social work, and I worked in the field for about a decade; and I realized that I was unsatisfied with a lot of the methods and a lot of the way that other people, especially people with power, interacted with me, with my clients, with my organizations that I worked for.

I think other people have said that folks most impacted don't have a seat at the table. The people who are experiencing economic hardship, they're not at the table. The people who work directly with those people, they're not at the table. And as I worked my way up in my career, I started doing program management, a lot of program evaluation, and I realized that for all that we like to talk about at evidence‑based practice, for all that we like to talk about being research informed, a lot of the research that you see in social services is not up to the rigor I think that you might see in other sciences; and I had these kind of two twin problems, one where I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted my work to be taken seriously. I wanted the people I cared about and the things I cared about to be taken seriously. And, also, that I care about doing the right thing. I care about optimization, and economics is about optimization; and economists have those tools that are more rigorous, mathematical tools, that help you actually achieve some of those goals in a way that is sound, in a way that other people value for good or for bad.

And so I started looking around, and I thought to myself I've got two young children, who are here today, because I didn't have childcare, and that's a real thing. And I started looking around and thinking about going back to school, and that was a big deal. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of money. It's a lot of time. And I thought, well, I'll just take some math. I'm, like, I'm just going to take linear algebra, because I never took linear algebra, and that seems like a good idea. And so I did that, and I was the only woman in the class. I looked around and I was, like, literally I could be some of these kids' mom, you know. I'm not joking. Like I was, like, "Oh, you're 17, hmm, okay."

And it was amazing. It was at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, Dr. Speegle, she was amazing, and she encouraged me so much. And I was like you know what? Linear algebra is really fun. I can do this. So I talked with Dr. Anne Winkler, here at UMSL, Dr. Kridel here at UMSL, who—Dr. Winkler is the chair of the department. Dr. Kridel is the graduate studies advisor. And, and I was like I can do this, and I took those prerequisite courses. They were fun. I had a blast. And I've been in this program, and I graduate in May. And I have gotten those tools, those rigorous tools that I was looking for.

Caceres-Santamaria: Hm‑hmm [affirmative]

Elkana: I've been able to take work that I was doing in the field of early childhood and network with professors here at UMSL, and I'm working on applying for grants with different professors here in order to take my work and to take what I believe in and what I know is amazing and wonderful and it's helping people, and elevate it to a place where someone else might listen, because at the end of the day—and I think that this is a gendered issue—we privilege certain types of knowledge in our society. We privilege mathematics. We privilege economics. So even if we have other types of research and other types of knowledge at the table, sometimes they're not valued as highly, and so that's a big part of the reason why I'm here.

Caceres-Santamaria: How or what would you say to young ladies who want to major in economics or to inspire them to major in economics and kind of having the impact that you will have with having majored in econ?

Elkana: To, a young woman or a young person interested in this idea of making the world a better place, I would encourage them to study economics in the way that I wish I had been encouraged to, to be honest.

Caceres-Santamaria: Hm‑hmm [affirmative].

Elkana: I thought that economics was banking and—I had a bunch of stereotypes in my head of—what economics was, and I was really worried even taking on this master's degree that I'd be walking into a boys' club, and I was so pleased and so happily surprised that, at least at UMSL, it's a really nurturing place, and that I feel valued as a woman. I feel valued as a person, as a student here, which has been really amazing.

And so I would tell a young person that maybe those stereotypes are unfounded I would tell somebody don't think that just because it is a very much coded masculine, very much coded white, very much kind of majority‑feeling world that your voice won't be taken seriously, because I mean, it might not be, but at least you might get a seat at the table. And as a social worker, you're not always granted that. And I've been able to make a real difference in small ways and big ways, and it gives you those tools to be able to do that.

And, you know what? As somebody who came of age during the recession right before, you will have a job. You will always have a job if you major in economics. Oh, my goodness. You will not have a job if you major in anthropology. Please learn from me. No offense to anthropologists.

(Laughter)

Elkana: But that's, that's real, you know. You can't just—that's the world we live in today, so yeah.

Caceres-Santamaria: And another thing in regards to the story that you shared is being a nontraditional student and in the sense that you are a mother, a mother of two. So maybe out there, there's someone thinking, oh, I'm a mother, I'm going to pursue that graduate degree or even that degree in general in the field of economics, and there's, you know, again, the stereotypes, the male intimidation, being a mom, balancing it all out. What advice would you have for, you know, a young mom who's out there kind of thinking, I want to do it. Should I? Could I?

Elkana: As an economist or a budding economist, I don't know, I would have to say everything has a cost and everything has a benefit. And you have to be really real with yourself around what those costs are. And how you're going to make that work. So there's logistics. I have a really supportive family. I have a partner who's incredibly supportive, and we both have really busy lives, but we make it work for each other. And sometimes that means that my kids come with me somewhere. Sometimes it means he takes the kids somewhere. My mom's going to be picking up my kids while he's out of town so that I can go to class. Like there's a lot of logistics, and that's hard.

Caceres-Santamaria: Hm‑hmm [affirmative]

Elkana: And, you know, I—Excuse me. You know, I miss out on a lot.

I'm not always there at bedtime with my kids, and I'm not always able to do the things with them that I want to do. And for me that's something that I check in with myself a lot, and I check in with, with my partner, and I check in with my kids and with the rest of my support system; and, you know, it's costs and benefits. It's constrained utility maximization. Right? And you have to do that. There's not an easy choice. It's not like just do this and everything's great. But for me it's been worth it.

Caceres-Santamaria: Hm‑hmm [affirmative]

Elkana: And, and think about what, what are those costs and benefits for yourself?

Caceres-Santamaria: Well, I think you're amazing and the work you do is amazing and your story, is wonderful, and I cannot thank you enough for sharing your story.

And, to everybody who shared their stories today, all the students, you are the future of Women in Economics, and we thank you so much for sharing that. Really do. Thank you.

(Applause)

Suiter: Well, thank you to everyone who joined us this evening, and thank you particularly to Marie and to Lea and to Anne Winkler for letting her econometrics class meet with us. To hear more Women in Economics podcast, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That's one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You can also stream the Women in Economics Podcast Series on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, or ask your Amazon device, "Alexa, play Women in Economics from TuneIn."

So thank you again for joining us, everyone.

(Applause)