Women in Economics: Martha Olney

July 31, 2019

This 26-minute podcast was released July 31, 2019.

Martha Olney | St. Louis Fed

“I think we're on the precipice of change partly because there's increasing awareness of this issue within economics,” says Martha Olney, teaching professor of economics at the University of California Berkeley. She talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the St. Louis Fed, about her teaching success and why she mentors. She also discusses changing demographics in the field and how former Berkeley undergrad Alice Wu’s thesis took the profession by storm.


Mary Suiter: Hello. I'm Mary Suiter and you're listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the St. Louis Fed's Timely Topics audio channel. I'm here today with Martha Olney, teaching professor of economics at the University of California Berkeley. Martha, thanks for being with me today.

Martha Olney: I'm very happy to be here, Mary. Thank you for inviting me.

Suiter: Why did you choose economics?

Olney: It's kind of a funny story. I didn't actually choose economics the first time I took economics. I was signing up for classes at the beginning of my sophomore year, and at the time we signed up for classes in the gymnasium. The English class I wanted was full. It was about 106 degrees in Redlands, Calif., in a very hot gymnasium and the departments were lined up alphabetically. So it was English, engineering, economics. There was no one in line at the economics table. I walked up, I said, “Do you have a class that would fit my schedule?” They did. I took the class, I left the gym, I got some cold water, and that was how I started.

But what I found was that economics was a field that allowed me to take my math interest, because I had already declared the math major and use it in something that applied to real people and so it turned out to be a really good fit.

Suiter: That's great and serendipitous that you got in the right line. So could you talk a little bit about what your struggles have been in your career in economics and how you've overcome them?

Olney: So I'm 62, so I'm of a different era than a lot of the younger women and the recently PhDed women in the field. And so I was in college and starting graduate school before the protections of Title Nine. It was a very different era, and you're nodding your head because you're also from that era. We have tales to tell. I'm not sure that it's helpful to people who are in their 20s and 30s to hear all of our tales. I think that's a whole different podcast -- Women in the Trenches.

So some of the struggles were related to what it was like to be a woman in the male dominated field in the '70s and the early '80s when there weren't the protections in place that exist today. Some of the struggles were being the only woman in my math classes and being the only woman in most of my economics classes once I got past the intro classes. I remember a lot of times when I would ask questions that I actually knew the answer to, but I would ask a question so that people didn't think I was as smart as I was because I was taking a lot of grief for being the only girl and being smart.

So graduate school for me was very freeing, because it was the first time that I was in an environment where there were a lot of smart people, and I didn't have to pretend that I wasn't smart. And that was an amazing experience for me at the time.

Suiter: You are extremely successful in your field, and I'd just like you to talk a little bit about your successes as well.

Olney: Thank you very much. So one of the things that I am particularly known for is my teaching, and one of the things that I do and that I have an international reputation for is my teaching of large enrollment classes. So I teach at UC Berkeley. I teach Econ 1, which is the intro to econ class. It has 720 students in it. I teach intermediate macro, which has 510 students in it, and so on. I also teach pedagogy. So I teach the graduate students how to teach.

I've been asked over the years a lot of times to reflect on what makes me successful as an instructor, as a faculty member, and there are little things I can say use clickers because active learning is good and it engages all sorts of students, and the research shows that active learning engages the first generation students and the students of color particularly, and I can give you little tips like that. But I think that one of the things that sort of undergirds the success I've had in that realm is I believe that students are people. And it's kind of funny. It was actually one of my colleagues at UMass who said that first. He said, “Students are people, too.” But there are a lot of times when you're instructing, particularly if you're instructing 700 people when you can think of them not as individuals and humans who are of worth because of their very existence, but as yet another student. One of the hoards. And recognizing and acknowledging and honoring the humanity in each of the students that I instruct, I think that's something that has really undergirded the success I've had as an instructor, and it really informs a lot of the things that I do.

In terms of the research, most of my work has been in the area of consumer spending and consumer indebtedness, particularly with a focus on the '20s and the '30s. And there I think that I was thinking about the role of credit in making decisions in the household certainly long before the 2007, 2009 downturn, and long before a lot of economists realized that, “Oh, issues of household finance are probably important in understanding macroeconomic behavior.” And so it kind of relates to the struggle. I remember when I was working on my dissertation and the common question was, “Well, why would anyone borrow at such outrageously high interest rates? That's not economically rational.” Now we have a language for that, but in the early '80s we didn't have a language for trying to explain why people who are credit constrained, when they can get access to credit to buy something that they're not able to save up for, would be willing to pay outrageously high interest rates in order to do so.

I sort of look back on the work that I've done, and that I was asking questions 30 years before the theorists figured out why they were interesting questions to ask.

Suiter: That's fabulous. Last year I saw you make a presentation here on using clickers to teach aggregates in your large classes. And I have to tell you, I was so excited and I would go around to other people in my division and tell them how excited I was about this and give them the example. But it was just amazing. It really made me think about teaching and how important it is to think about your students, and structure your examples, and make it relevant to them. And I know that you do a great job with that. I know that you have very few students drop your class, which is phenomenal given the size of your classes.

Olney: Yeah. Thank you very much.

Suiter: That’s just magnificent. So, why do you think it's important for women and underrepresented minorities to study economics?

Olney: I have a selfish reason and that is that I believe that the research that we do, and particularly the questions that we ask, and the assumptions that we make in our research are going to be so much better and so much more well-informed if we are listening to a diverse set of voices. Let me go back to the experience I had in doing the research on the use of credit in the 1920s and the 1930s. For people who have lived their entire life in upper middle income families in which there was never a question as to whether or not they'd be able to get a credit card, there was never a question as to whether or not if they wanted to buy a car someone would give them a loan to buy a car. There was never a question when they were young and in their 20s about whether they could go to their parents for a bailout if they got into financial problems. They may not have the life experience to realize that there is a whole other swath of the population for whom none of those things are true, for whom getting a credit card is not straightforward, for whom they don't have family and friends who have financial resources that they can tap into.

And so when we have a less diverse set of voices at the table, the assumptions that we make in our research are going to reflect that less diverse set of experiences. And that means we're going to be developing models that don't address all of the population, and we're going to miss things. And so I think selfishly, I want to see more women and more students of color taking economics, because their voices in the classroom inform my thinking and inform the thinking of my colleagues. And I think that's really important.

But I also want to see more women and more students of color in the economics major, because economics has many bad raps. One of the bad raps that economics has is the belief that economics has nothing to say about issues that are issues of poverty, or issues of health, or issues of education, or issues related to development. And in fact, economics has a lot to say. And the tools of economics have a lot to contribute to those questions. And I think that we lose a lot of students who are interested in the exact questions that economics addresses, and we lose them early because we are not sharing with them early enough how broad and how, frankly, interesting economics is, and how the tools of economics can be used to answer almost any question that they might be interested in asking.

Suiter: Yes. I agree. And I think in the introductory classes, a lot of times we don't provide any kind of information that ties them to those topics that they might be interested in, and that's the last economics class they take as a result.

Olney: That's right. I think one of the numbers we heard was that 80 percent of students who take an intro economics course never take another economics course. And even at Berkeley, two-thirds of the students who take intro to economics never take another economics course. And so I think it's really important in that intro course to expose students to the broad array of questions that are asked in economics. I try to do that through the reader articles that I select. So I have a reader that has about 25 articles from the news that they read in conjunction with the class. There's discussion questions for each article. I also do it through the examples that are woven through either the lecture or in the problem set or the other exercises that we give to the students.

If I could give you an example, on the first midterm this semester, it had the standard question about the production possibilities frontier and the specialization of trade and the gains from trade. So instead of having it be about boring country X and boring country Y, the question was framed as being about Chris and Robin. Chris and Robin are a married couple. They both use gender pronouns, they, them, theirs. They can produce market production or they can produce home production. And they want to figure out whether they should specialize in trade and what are the conditions under which specialization and trade will enable them to have a greater amount of collectively the combination of market and home production. It's a straightforward PPF specialization and trade gains from trade question with a different focus that helps students to see that these tools that we're learning can be applied to a really broad array of questions.

Suiter: And so much more interesting than country X and country Y.

Olney: Oh, yeah.

Suiter: So you've been teaching economics since 1984. You're currently at Berkeley's economics department and you've taught at the University of Massachusetts and Stanford and Siena College. Have you seen your students' demographics change over the years? Are you seeing more interest from young women and minorities in economics?

Olney: I think that over the last 30, almost 35 years that I've been teaching, I certainly think that we have more international students than we used to. At Berkeley, that's partly by design. When the state cut its funding for public higher education, one of the strategies that the University of California decided to pursue was to have more international students and more out of states students because they pay full fare, and they don't get the discounted California rate. But it's also the case that the United States as a whole exports higher education. Lots of our colleagues around the country have a lot more international students.

I think other changes that I've seen just simply reflect the changing demographics. So I started in 1984 with my first job at UMass Amherst. That's only 19 years after the big Immigration Reform of 1965. And so the population shifts that we've seen over the last 35 years largely reflect the changes in the population of the United States that followed that big reform.

In terms of the question about women and students of color, I think that we are on the edge of change. So I think that we're at a moment where a number of different pieces are coming together all at the same time and I'm hopeful that those pieces are coming together in a way that's going to effect real change. Because if you look at the data, there has not been much change in the enrollment of women as undergraduate majors in economics or the enrollment of underrepresented minority students in economics over the last 30 or so years.

I think we're on the precipice of change partly because there's increasing awareness of this issue within economics. The fact that you all have this Women in Economics symposium, the fact that you have the Women in Economics podcast, that's something that's happening now that I don't think would have happened in 2015. One of the things that has led to this change was, frankly, Alice Wu who was one of our undergraduates at Berkeley who wrote her undergraduate thesis looking at the postings on an anonymous forum called Economics Job Market Rumors, something that no one should look up. So I won't repeat it. And finding that it was, as my colleague David Romer called it, a cesspool of misogyny, and let me add, homophobia as well. And while many of us knew that to be true, even before Alice's thesis, there are a large number of our economics colleagues who need to see really good statistical significance before they believe something to be true, and Alice was able to use machine learning to show that.

Her thesis received the prize at Berkeley for the best undergraduate thesis. Subsequent to that, David Romer, who was on the stage when we awarded Alice the prize, asked me for a copy of the thesis, which he then sent to the AEA Board and he sent it to Justin Wolfers, and Justin, has you know, a column, The Upshot in the New York Times. And Justin wrote a column about Alice's thesis. And her 15-plus minutes of fame thus began. And her thesis took the profession by storm, and a lot of people who had been denying or just not aware of the issues that go on in the field became aware and became concerned. The American Economics Association put out a statement about a code of conduct for economists. This is something that other fields had done. Economists are late to that game, but at least we finally did it. The AEA established a new committee on diversity. The AEA had had for years the Committee on the Status of Women for the last 40 years, the Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economic Profession for the last 40 years, but now there's a committee on diversity, which is really charged by the AEA Board with coming up with strategies to effect change in the profession.

There are a number of people at individual colleges and universities around the country who are hungry for, “Give me something I can do in the classroom that I can do tomorrow. Give me something I can do as the undergraduate director that I can do this semester that will effect change.” And so I really think we're on the edge of really powerful change, and I'm hopeful in that regard, and I don't think this moment's going to pass the way other moments have in the past.

Suiter: I certainly hope you're right, and that's why we have begun to convene and in hopes of bringing people together and helping to promote the change that we think needs to happen.

You talked a little bit about how you do even small things in your classroom that are more inclusive for women and underrepresented minorities. Could you talk just a little bit about those? Because I found those very interesting.

Olney: One of the things I started doing—and I didn't come up with this idea. I got it off of Academic Twitter, which I think is a great thing—is when I am putting up slides that are to talk about a research paper, on the very first slide where I'm introducing the paper, put a picture of the author, because that's going to show students the diversity of people who are economists.

There was a thread on Twitter last year or the year before, “I look like an economist” where a lot of us who are female put pictures of ourselves and “I look like an economist.” The engineers started it and then we copied it over and stole it. But it was really saying, “Look, there are people who don't realize the diversity of people who already are economists.” And I can be only one person in front of the classroom. But if me, as one person in front of the classroom can put a photograph of Lisa Cook, who's an African American woman, on the slide when I'm talking about her research, that's going to give our students a lot broader sense of the diversity of economists as they currently exist. So that's an easy one.

And so by showing photographs of people and presumably finding current photographs of people, we're able to show that not only are these economists that we're talking about a diverse set of people, but some of them are in their 30s, some of them are in their 40s, some of their 60s. We still exist. But to break down barriers.

Another easy thing, research has shown at several different schools that women are more sensitive to grades than men are in their decisions about whether to go on and continue with the major. So studies looking at what was the grade that you got in your first economics course and did you become a major, and how that decision varies systematically depending upon whether you're male or female.

One of the things that I have done at Berkeley is to send a letter of encouragement to students after the first midterm, but most importantly before enrollment for the next semester's classes, and encouraging students who got, essentially a B minus or better on the midterm to consider taking the next economics course and here are the links to the department's website and other places where you can get information about the major, and just trying to say, “Yay!” Being a cheerleader, and helping essentially to re-frame grades. Because we were finding in the data for Berkeley we found that women students were responding far more negatively than I thought was appropriate to a B-plus or an A-minus, which in Economics 1 is a really good grade. And so what we found was that simple letter totally changed the likelihood that a student would go on and take the next theory course. So a letter of encouragement makes a difference.

There are some things that we can do in the department that are relatively easy, then there are other things that take a little time. What I've established at Berkeley is a mentoring program by which the graduate students are mentoring the undergraduate students in research. And so the undergraduate students can sign up to say, “I would like to be a research assistant,” and they are then able to work with a graduate student and serve as an RA on that graduate student's research project. The graduate students go through a daylong workshop in how to mentor, because it's not obvious straight away how to be a mentor as opposed to how to be an employer.

Then there's quite a bit of interest. So I would say we have about 130 to 150 students who express interest in the program. We're able to place about 60 or so of those students each semester in a mentoring relationship with a graduate student. The experience that the undergraduates are gaining in that research apprenticeship is tremendous, and they are all extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity, because one of the gaps that exists in a lot of economics programs, is that research gap. That providing students with that one-on-one opportunity to engage in research, to know what it means to do economics as opposed to study economics. For a long time we were struggling with how to integrate the undergraduates into the research part of what we do in the department. And this has turned out to be a win-win. The graduate students appreciate having the RA assistance. The undergraduates love the opportunities they're acquiring to do research. They also really appreciate the mentoring opportunities. And so they can go to the graduate students with questions about graduate school, with questions about jobs, with questions about what classes they should take next semester.

So that's a program that I'm very proud of having started that program and would love to see it replicated at other universities around the country.

Suiter: That's great. So how else can we encourage women to be in the field of economics?

Olney: Well, there's a lot of things I think that we can do. I think making sure that departments are clear from the very beginning, which means at visit day, the spring before they come in as freshmen, are very clear in their literature as to the wide variety of topics that are addressed by economists. I think having part of the department webpage for undergraduates, the examples of jobs that people get with an undergraduate economics degree. I think having information out there for the incoming undergraduates that people with econ degrees go on and they get masters of public policy, or masters of transportation, or masters of education policy, or masters of health economics, or on and on and on and on and on. That the variety of things that people do with an economics degree is really big. Because I do think that there is the misconception on the part of high school students and the part of their parents that economics equals finance. And finance is a subset of economics, but it's only one of many, many, many fields within economics.

I think that encouraging women and people of color to major in economics also includes making sure that in the classroom we're using active learning techniques. A lot of studies have shown that the use of active learning doesn't hurt anyone in terms of their learning, but disproportionately helps some groups of students who happen to be female first generation students and students of color. Using active learning is as complex as fully flipping your classroom, but it's as easy as using clickers. And so there's a huge range of things that come under active learning that can make a difference.

Having student organizations and supporting those student organizations. So we have had for as many years as the university has probably existed the Undergraduate Economics Association, the UEA. We now also have a women's group. The Undergraduate Women in Economics at Berkeley, UWEB. And we have a Students of Color in Economics, SOCE, at the university. So having student organizations that allow students to find community.

You think back to what I said when I was an undergraduate, I was the only woman in my math classes and often the only woman in my economics classes, and that was very isolating. But I had been at a high school that had a really strong women's lib group, and I wasn't going to be personally detoured by being the only woman in those classes. That's not true for everybody. For a lot of people it's important to find community. And one of the ways, particularly when you're at a university like ours where the classes are really large, one of the ways to find your community is through these student organizations. I think having student organizations requires faculty mentoring, and to the extent that you can afford it, money. Give them money so that they can buy pizza, so they can serve food to people when they come to events. That's the kind of thing, frankly, that a donor is really interested in.

Donors like to know that their money is going for something specific. So departments that are listening and saying, “There's no money.” This is something that you take to a donor. You say, “Would you be willing to pony up $5,000 a year in order for us to fund these student organizations on campus? And we will associate your name with it if you like.” Knowing where their money is going and their money is going to fund these student organizations is something that a lot of donors would be quite interested in. And that's a way of really encouraging the creation of community, and it's that creation of community that encourages people to stay in the field.

Suiter: I think those are great suggestions, and the active learning in particular, too. I really think that's important. I know that you mentor on your campus and across the country, really. Why do you do that?

Olney: Well, the very first words that came is because I'm called to do so. I mentor because I can. I mentor because I think it's the right thing to do, because I believe in you and I want to help others succeed.

Suiter: That's very powerful. It's wonderful for those you're mentoring, but there are rewards there for you as well to see that success. So it's very powerful. There's a role for us, obviously, as women trying to mentor other women and make sure women and other people of color are represented in economics. What do you see for the role of our male colleagues, our male counterparts who are in economics?

Olney:  So at Berkeley every graduate student in their first semester of teaching is required to take a semester long pedagogy course in the department they're teaching in, and I teach that course for economics. And we have a week in which we talk about identity. Not the identity of our students, but our identity and how that impacts how our students react to us. And I point out that if a woman graduate student says, “I believe my students are responding differently to me, questioning my authority more, giving me more grief because I'm female,” therefore the woman student is saying, “My gender is affecting how the students are interacting with me.” That also means that the gender of a man is influencing how his students react to him. The male graduate student may not recognize it, but if gender matters if you're female, then that means gender matters if you're male. If race matters if you are African American, that means race matters if you're white.

And so part of it is recognizing the privileges that we have and that understanding that how we are treated by others and the opportunities that are afforded to us may be a reflection of our race and gender either because we're being negatively or positively impacted by those demographic characteristics, and then finding ways to use whatever power or privilege that we have to effect change.

Suiter: I agree. Thank you. When I say women in economics, what's that mean to you?

Olney: Us. Women in economics means that we are here, that economics is a field that includes men and women, that values the questions that we all bring to the table, that values the assumptions that we question and the assumptions that we make, values the contributions that we make, and that we have a profession that has voices that reflect the diversity of voices in the population as a whole.

Suiter: Thank you so much for being with me today, Martha. I really appreciate it.

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

Olney: Thank you very much.

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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