Women in Economics: Ellen McGrattan, Kathleen McKiernan, Emily Moschini and Ming Xu
This 34-minute podcast was released Nov. 19, 2021.
“I do think very passionately that economics is a great gig,” says Ellen McGrattan, professor of economics at the University of Minnesota. She joins three of her former students: Kathleen McKiernan, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University; Emily Moschini, assistant professor at the College of William and Mary; and Ming Xu, assistant professor at Queens University. They discuss their economics careers with Maria Hasenstab, media relations coordinator at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Maria Hasenstab: Welcome to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the St. Louis Fed, I’m your host Maria Hasenstab and today I’m joined by several women who are making their marks in the field of economics. We’re joined by Ellen McGrattan, Kathleen McKiernan, Emily Moschini and Ming Xu, thank you all for joining us to have this conversation today.
Ellen McGrattan: Thank you.
Ming Xu: Thank you for having us.
Emily Moschini: Thank you.
Hasenstab: I’d like to just start by asking each one of you to introduce yourself, Ellen, we’ll start with you.
McGrattan: Sure so, I’m Ellen McGrattan, I’m a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota and you’ll be meeting my wonderful students on this podcast who all graduated from here. Prior to coming to the university, I came in 2014, I spent much of my career at the Federal Reserve, down the street at the Minneapolis Fed. So, happy to be talking to our friends at the St. Louis Fed.
McKiernan: Hi everyone, I’m Kathleen McKiernan and as Ellen mentioned, I was her student, I graduated with my PhD in 2018 from the University of Minnesota. And I’m now an assistant professor of economics at Vanderbilt University.
Moschini: Hi, I’m Emily Moschini, I was Ellen’s student and now I’m an assistant professor of economics at the College of William and Mary.
Xu: Hi, I’m Ming Xu and I’m, again, Ellen’s student. I was in the same cohort as Kathleen, graduated from Minnesota and now assistant professor at Queen’s University.
Hasenstab: Well, great, thanks everyone again for being here today. Ellen, I wanted to start off by saying, as a professor at Minnesota, as you mentioned, you taught Kathleen, Emily and Ming and you actually inspired today’s interview. So, in addition to talking about you and your work, it’s exciting to connect with three of your former students who are now all teaching as well so, thank you for that, Ellen. I’d like to start out learning a little bit more about each one of you and how you became a woman in economics. Ellen, do you want to start off to tell us, how did you choose economics and end up teaching?
McGrattan: Very haphazardly, probably that’s everybody’s story. I actually started as a math major but kind of looked around, I didn’t imagine myself being a mathematician as a career. But, you know, I thought that’s a good basis for study and then I took a class in economics. I went to school at Boston College for my undergraduate and there was a professor, Richard Tresch, was his name, he was teaching, kind of, the first-year macro. And, you know, they put the people who really can excite the students about the topic, and he was really great. And once you get past that first year, you’re like, “Okay, I’m sold on this.” But then, you still don’t know, what is it like to be an economist? What is a career in economics?
When I was at BC, in my junior year I asked some of the professors, could I do some RA-ing or something like that? And one of the guys said, “Well, where are you from?” And I said, “I’m from Connecticut.” And they said, “Well, we’re friends with this guy Bill Nordhaus. And Bill Nordhaus, I mean I didn’t know at the time, Bill Nordhaus is a super famous guy, in fact he won the Nobel Prize very recently. But Bill agreed to take me on as an RA, you know one of the undergraduate RA’s or two of us and then he had a bunch of graduate students and after spending time with Bill’s team, I was sold. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, I knew I wanted to go the economics route, yeah.
McKiernan: Yeah, so, I have somewhat of a similar story in the sense that people came in and kind of guided me towards economics. When I came into undergrad, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and was just taking economics classes because it seemed like a good elective for a future lawyer. And during my sophomore year I had a professor, Steve Lugauer, who e-mailed me after I took his macro course and just said things like, “Hey, have you thought about going to graduate school?” Which I really had not and after that he kind of guided me, told me what math classes I need to take and really helped me to get there and get me to Minnesota and then, I think Ellen kind of took it from there.
Hasenstab: Well, that’s great, Kathleen, what about you Ming or Emily? How did you come to study economics?
Xu: I think my experience mainly comes from kind of my background. I was born and raised in China, northeast part of China which is, relatively speaking, more poor. So, when I was a kid, I heard all the stories from my parents about the great famine, that people were starving, how they survived all those years and just trying to get enough food. And even now, I mean, that region still a lot of people have never walked out of the village in their lifetime. But when I was in undergrad, I was in Xiamen, which is a coastal city in China, very wealthy, skyscrapers everywhere. So, that kind of got me thinking just, you know, why are some places that wealthy while some places are so poor? Why are some people making this much money or that kind of career while some others don’t have that option? And I guess, just kind of like the famous quote, you know, once you start thinking it’s hard to stop. So, yeah, and economics is a way to kind of answer these questions, provide a way to think about these questions and that’s how I got in.
Moschini: Well, this is Emily. So, for me, when I was deciding which major to pursue in college, I started out thinking about medicine and chemistry. And I changed my mind, actually, I had this moment of insight in an embryology course that I took. When the professor brought some preserved human hearts to class and I think he was trying to show us examples of birth defects in the valves that connect the chambers of the heart. And I remember watching the other students jostle with each other to try to get a better look at the hearts. And they were very focused, and they were asking lots of thoughtful questions. And I remember watching them and thinking that whatever I decided to study, I’d have to have the same devotion to the topic. And so, I kind of took that as a watershed moment to do some soul searching and think about what I was interested in. And so, in the end I decided on the social sciences because I liked the questions that they asked. And I picked economics because at the time, my impression was that it was the most rigorous among the different social sciences. And I think, now that I know a little more about economics, my initial impression was correct.
Hasenstab: Well, thank you all for sharing that, it’s always interesting to hear how people come into the field. This podcast series has talked a lot about the importance of mentorship and Kathleen, you even just highlighted that in your recent answer. How one inspiring voice can really shape the direction of someone else’s studies and then, their career., I’d like to hear from each of you, how has mentorship affected you? And as the field of economics has really embraced this women in economics movement, are you doing anything specifically to mentor women and members of underrepresented minorities with the goal of encouraging more of them to pursue careers in the field?
McGrattan: Well, I’ll start but because I’m at a different stage then these guys and the reason I said let’s bring them in is, reaching to the younger people, it’s easier if they can see themselves like a high school student looks at Emily and Ming and Kathleen and says, “I could do that.” Whereas they look at me as, I’m like an old person, you know, who’s gone to school years and years ago, so it’s maybe less relevant for them. But I will say, when I’m talking with students here, I like talking to young people, to our graduate students. I don’t necessarily seek out women. I have students that come in all varieties. But I do think very passionately that economics is a great gig. I like getting the word out to younger people, you know, try it, it’s really interesting. But I don’t necessarily do anything special for women versus men or underrepresented groups.
McKiernan: Yeah, I think to build on that, and Ellen mentioned that just the visibility of having a female professor that you really can look at and I don’t know about other schools but it’s probably pretty similar that in our undergraduate economics courses we get really diverse students. So, there’s a wide range of students that are coming to take these entry level or even intermediate level courses and just having people, I think in myself, teaching those courses helps keep some of them in the program longer and pushing towards those higher levels rather than going to another major or another career.
Xu: Women are underrepresented. When we are in our cohort, Kathleen and I, we had 25 students in total and I think five female students in total. And our year is actually, comparatively, a better year. I think Emily’s year there were only like two female students. I don’t think that’s a difficulty itself, but it did really help seeing Ellen as a role model, kind of motivating and very strong. And like Ellen said, it’s not about treating female students versus male students or minority versus majority, it’s just all about, you know, economics, about the career, about how you are succeeding in this profession. And that really encouraged us as a young economist, that we just do what Ellen does and we can succeed, as long as we work hard and do our best.
Moschini: I’m going to draw distinction between mentorship and inspiration because I think mentorship is kind of a day-to-day thing that can be pretty mundane but can have really meaningful payoffs. Whereas inspiration, for lack of a better word, is a bit more magical and harder to control. With respect to my own experience, I don’t think that I can speak to my ability to inspire others, but I can give them practical advice about how to pursue their goals. And I do find that my students who are also women tend to seek me out to ask about graduate school. Maybe I volunteer information that they don’t even have to ask about because I anticipate what they’re concerns might be or what their questions might be. And so, I try to help with that mentorship portion. But for inspiration, I think I’ve got a lot to learn.
Hasenstab: You could be inspiring your students and not even realize it. And I bet if I ask all of you how you feel about Ellen, that might be the same thing. Ellen may not have known if she was inspiring you, but I think, the way this conversation has come together, that she was. Ellen, you said something great here earlier, you said, “Economics is a great gig.” I love that and one of the parts of this gig is the really interesting research that all of you guys have done and I wanted to dive into that and hear from each of you about some of the research you’re doing. Ellen, you’ve recently published a couple of pieces, “Sweat Equity in US Private Business” and “What do Survey Data Tell us About US Businesses?” How did those opportunities come about and where do you find your passion for these topics?
McGrattan: So, this is going to sound strange, but these topics live in my head for years. Typically what happens is I’m working on something and you just don’t get the whole picture. It’s like you’re zooming in on something and you’re starting to better understand some aspect of the economy or some aspect of how policy effects the economy. But there’s a blurry part, there’s a part you haven’t really nailed typically because we don’t have perfect data to fully bring everything into focus. So, for those particular papers, I’ve been thinking about that since work I did with my colleague at Prescott, who is at ASUN, the Minneapolis Fed.
During the 1990s tech boom we were noticing that hours were booming, there were signs that things were booming and yet, if you looked at total factor productivity or you looked at standard measures economists at the Fed would look at, we would say, “Gosh, things don’t look really good, productivity statistics look pretty bad and yet people are working their heads off.” And we couldn’t figure out why and that sat in our heads for years. And then, we finally figured out, you know, a lot of the investments that businesses make are intangible in nature. So, for example, take big corporations, they made a lot of R&D investments but at the time that we were looking at the data, the national accountants don’t add that in as investment, they treat it like a current cost. So, it gets subtracted from GDP, so, it looks like we’re not making very much even though we were investing a lot in all these new technologies, the communication sector was growing like mad, all the tech giants were growing like mad, and they were doing tons of investment, but it didn’t show up in the statistics.
So, we were looking at data that just made no sense until we finally said, “Well, wait, if we take into account, they’re making these investments and kind of redo our theoretical models with that in mind, maybe we can make sense of it.” And at the time, the Fed, of course was, you know, with the tech boom the stock market was booming like mad. But people at the Fed where like, “Okay, we’ve got to bust this valuation bubble.” And we were like, “Well, hold it a second. First of all, this doesn’t seem to be a monetary thing and second of all, we think there’s some measurement that needs to be done better.”
So, that was happening during the whole tech boom and we wrote this paper about, you know, the puzzling 1990s. But there was a piece of the puzzle that never was figured out and the piece of the puzzle was, what was going on in private business? So, we see a lot about public business, we see how much they’re investing in R&D because they have to publish that, you know, they have to tell the SEC what they’re doing. Private businesses tell us almost nothing and I mean, Ed and I suspected that there was a lot of investment, probably time on the part of business owners in building up the capital in their business. Building up their client list, building up their patient list if they were doctors, building up their customer base. All these things which are intangible in nature, they are investments, but they get expensed, just like the ream of paper that you buy for the printer, it’s a cost. So, it doesn’t show up the way the computer or other plant equipment shows up. But we didn’t have the data to dig into it. And then, my colleague, Anmol Bhandari, who’s in the office next door and I—he’s an accountant so, I thought, “Okay, this guy’s perfect because he’s going to understand economic data, also he’s a great theorist. So, he can help me.” We stumbled upon this data, there were these brokers that you could buy the data for brokerage sales. You could look inside of business sales and find out how much of the assets they were selling were intangible in nature. And we learned that about 60% were, which is a huge thing and people have no clue that these investments actually get transferred across businesses. Like we just stumbled upon that, it was $890 to buy the data, I mean, best $890 I’ve ever spent in terms of research money, my God. It wasn’t perfect data, right now I’m actually accessing data that help us a lot better, the administrative data that help us understand better. But, my God, we learned so much just from looking at that and so, that led to those papers.
But, you know, kind of to go full circle, that had been sitting in my head for ten years. it was this puzzle that we had never figured out for ten years. And then, on the survey data we realized that a lot of people are looking at survey data that isn’t very good, So, we need theory, that’s where the academics come in, we need theory to kind of help guide the data analysis and that was kind of those two projects.
Hasenstab: Kathleen, Emily and Ming, you all have done important research as well and you’ve even partnered on some projects. So, would you guys like to tell me about those collaborations, working together and the results that you’re finding in your research?
McKiernan: So, Emily and I, you know, we met being students of Ellen. So, it was kind of like good collaboration and we have similar training and it’s been really interesting to kind of look at some of these things and still very preliminary type work. But we’re looking at thinking about these ideas of, how are we retraining workers who may have lost a job but might not be a fit for a changing economy and the types of jobs that are coming through? So, we’re kind of trying to focus on that, we can look at employment and what are the earnings of workers after they experienced an unemployment spell? But we also need to think about things like, how long are they spending on unemployment? And what types of jobs are they getting after? When we’re thinking about the designs of these policies and I don’t know if Emily has more to add. But that’s kind of where we’re trying to head and working together has just been a good opportunity to use these similar backgrounds and push forward some work.
Hasenstab: Emily and Ming, you have collaborated on a couple projects. Tell me about working together on those and the results that you’re finding.
Moschini: Well, thanks a lot for asking about my research with Ming. We actually have two joint projects, both of which are about student loans. The first, which you’ve asked about, relates to early labor market outcomes and it’s joint work with Tom Phelan who’s at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. In that project we’re interested in how student loans effect young workers’ early career outcomes.
Our preliminary findings in this project indicate that wage growth after college seems to be dampened by having a positive student loan balance. And we’re currently exploring various mechanisms that could account for that fact. For example, reduced ability of debtors to obtain credit and so, search for better jobs. And in light of that, we’re looking at the relationship between student loans and credit scores in order to try to solidify the link more directly. For our second project I’m going to let Ming explain a little more about that. So, go ahead, Ming.
Xu: Thank you, Emily, for summarizing our project. So, the second project that Emily mentioned is joint with Gajendran Raveendranathan from McMaster University in Canada. So, our research is basically motivated by two facts, one is that we see many students years after graduation still struggling with their repayment. And that makes people wonder, are students borrowing too much in their student loans? But at the same time, we also see that student loan limits, as a fraction of the total cost of college has actually decreased in the past two decades. And that makes people wonder, are students borrowing enough for their schools? And that’s exactly what our research is about. We want to ask, what is the optimal student loan limits and will expanding or shrinking student loan limits improve or decrease students lifetime welfare? So, our preliminary finding shows that in real terms, expanding student loan limits from current levels reduced welfare for some students while improve for others. In particular, students with low high school GPA are hurting by this student loan expanding policy. And note that, you know, in standard theory with rational consumers, if we expand borrowing limits this will benefit all consumers but it’s not the case in our study. So, that the information behind it, it’s just that high student loan limits enable students to go to college, but some students go to college who are overly optimistic and therefore, they pay the tuition but do not earn the degree. So, do not realize the benefit of college in such study, expanding limits actually hurt these students.
McKiernan: Yeah, so just kind of to get back to the point on this collaboration with Minnesotans that Emily said and to also kind of bring the mentorship aspect back into it that I think people would see when hearing Ellen talk about her research. Ellen has a wonderful quality that when she talks about her research, she makes you want to do that well yourself. And having that push really, I think, helped all of us and, not to speak for Ming and Emily, but to work together to answer new questions.
McGrattan: I always tell the students, there’s so much to do. People, you know, the very youngest students come in and they go, “You know, everything’s been done.” And I say, “Nothing’s been done. I literally could do three lifetimes of work, there’s so much to do.”
Xu: I just want to add a little bit on the collaboration part, that, you know, we’re all Ellen’s students and we’re collaborating not by coincidence. Sure, we’re all Minnesota and such, but one thing I think Ellen did, all her students, she encourages us to get together. Especially closer to finding a job on the market. She often has these lengthy meetings that are encouraging all of us to present our research to each other, to share our ideas, to, you know, just encourage brainstorming or just more polished papers, to sell it to each other. So, we actually learned a lot from that. So, I mean, as Ellen’s students I feel really, really fortunate to have this opportunity to work with my cohorts in this way.
McGrattan: I make fun that I hold anger management sessions and people always ask, “Whose anger is being managed?” And I say, “Mine.” Because I can see, I can see the ideas are there and it’s like, “We can make this pop, let’s do it.” But that’s a skill, I mean, presenting well, communicating ideas is one of the hardest things. But really, it pays off, on the job market or when you go to conferences, I like going to see the Minnesota students because they take it very seriously. They practice, they’re not on the plane typing up slides. They’ve already practiced 50 times in front of someone and they look really good. And I’m always like, “Oh, they’re good, way better then the others. Those guys from MIT, they’ve got nothing on our guys.”
Hasenstab: I love that, I love all these shoutouts to Minnesota. We have been able to learn so much from hearing from other women in the field of economics, learning about their successes and even their failures. So, I wanted to ask you guys, what challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Moschini: I have something to say. So, I think most of my challenges in graduate school and so far, as an assistant professor would have been faced by anyone. I think it’s, one struggle to learn new things and one struggles with self-doubt while you’re doing that. And these are ubiquitous human challenges and felt especially salient in graduate school. But since you asked about my experiences as a woman, I’ll say that in my cohort women were a noticeable minority, I think Ming already mentioned that earlier in the discussion. And we started with three out of more than 20 and only two of us finished. So, I think that being a woman has meant not only that I maybe stood out demographically from my peers, but I’d also like to say that I think it means I have to work harder to be taken seriously. In particular, I think I have to really work on my communication skills and invest in persistence, to a larger extent, because of my gender. And I must say, I’d like to say that Ellen helped me a lot with these skills, especially with public speaking. And I think that that guidance is something that I really appreciated and has really paid off for me.
Hasenstab: Thank you so much for sharing that.
McKiernan: I really agree with two things that Emily said. First, that it’s very hard to disentangle, you know, these are challenges we face because academics can be a hard path. And it’s hard to disentangle, is this just the path that I’ve taken or is there something specific about being a woman in this field? But I do also agree with, there may be times that I feel as if I don’t necessarily get defaulted with the same respect that I might get otherwise. And just remembering that that just means that I’m going to step up and I might need to be more professional to earn that respect. And just having a group behind you and having kind of the support of Ming, Emily, Ellen, other people from Minnesota and the field has really helped me.
Xu: I fully agree with what Emily and Kathleen have mentioned. I think one kind of more unique thing I’d like to mention is that I’m hosting a seminar series at Queen’s and one of the speakers I invited, she’s a great, young, female economist. And she specifically requested that during her day long meetings, that she has to take breaks because she has to pump. She has a 3-month-old baby at home and that just strikes me as, it’s very different. You know, female and male are different, that’s not in economics, that’s any career, right? And in academics, when things are a little bit challenging, how do we overpass this? How do we balance family and career? I think that’s a question that every working female is asking. And I’m not sure what Ellen’s going to say about this because she’s obviously a great mother as well as a great economist. So, I’d like to hear, how do you overcome this?
McGrattan: Well, good thing my kids aren’t here to hear this. But I’m a big believer in benign neglect, both of my students and my kids. I’m not hovering mother type or the hovering advisor type. I do try to inspire, and I do try to cheerlead. But really, the people in our group who make it, they make it because of them. As Kathleen says, a lot of it is you’ve got to just stand up and meet the challenges. Both women, men, mothers, non-mothers and it is hard to—I understand the balance is tricky and tenure comes at a tricky time in reproductive life. I had a bit of advantage because I was at the Fed when I had both of my kids and there was not the tenure stress. But my husband went through the tenure stress because he’s at the University of Minnesota.
So, there was stress in the family, but I totally understand that the timing for having the family and, having young kids and working and getting papers published, especially during a tenure clock, is extremely challenging. And we’re kind of lucky to be in a field that, we make decent money as economists so we can afford childcare or nannies to take care of kids. And I do always say to my female colleagues, who are having kids, and any students who would listen, if you have children, unless you’re a single parent—and I don’t even know how single parents do it. But you take half the responsibility, not full responsibility, you know? So, I do think I definitely relied on my partner to do half of the work. I mean, we literally changed exactly half of all diapers of my children, we counted. We had like a spreadsheet; it was kind of gross. Like how many have you done this week? And this is why I don’t want my kids listening into this because they’re going to be like, “Oh my God, you talked about that? That’s horrible.” The partner has to step up and that’s the only way because it’s very challenging.
Hasenstab: I thank you all for sharing those stories. Ming, I will say to your point, that someone reached out and asked about taking breaks specifically, I will say that when you ask for that help, that takes real courage. Sometimes people don’t want to talk about that, you know, it’s a private thing. But it takes real courage and so, thank you for sharing that story and kudos to the individual who did speak up for herself.
This is my favorite question of every podcast episode because you never know how people are going to weigh in. But I want to open it up, is there anything else you’d like to discuss about being a woman in economics?
McGrattan: Well, with the whole #MeToo movement and more open discussions about women in economics I have written on the topic of female labor force participation with two men. The paper is titled, “Why Are Married Women Working So Much?” But we were really after trying to understand the big shift into the labor force of women between the 50s to the 90s. Which was dramatic for the married women. So, I think of women in economics more like a topic, because they’re half of our economy, you know? And they’re an important half of the economy. I’ll let my younger colleagues speak on this, I do know that there are conversations happening amongst the men just because I’m listening in. I think it’s kind of funny listening to them discuss women in economics. But it is being discussed and I think the #MeToo movement changed things. What do you guys think, Emily, Ming and Kathleen? Do you think there was a change?
McKiernan: Yes, I do.
McGrattan: For the better?
McKiernan: Yeah, I do.
McGrattan: Although, I mean, we really don’t have many more women. When I went to school there were 6 out of 22 in my class. That’s not changing, why aren’t we getting more women into economics?
McKiernan: I don’t know the answer.
Xu: Great question, Ellen.
Moschini: I’ve heard stories of directors of graduate studies having a 50/50 quota for the entering cohorts in a bid. I’m not going to say the specific program but the example I heard was, they had a cohort where there was no women or one woman and this concerned them greatly. And so, the next DGS decided to try this policy. there are ways to address that that might have unintended consequences but there are ways to address that.
McGrattan: We’ll see 10 papers once that cohort comes out on, how did they do? Right?
McKiernan: It’s not really a deep insight into this but kind of a fun anecdote. We were having a macro workshop here at Vanderbilt and I walked into the room and I’m sitting there, like five minutes early. And there’s just four women there, it was kind of a different feeling and it was a good feeling, not going to lie.
McGrattan: Yeah, hopefully things will change. The reason I wanted to do this podcast with students, I do think having the younger women talk to or spread the word amongst, I would say girls in middle school in high school. You know, because coming into college you do need to have a decent background in math and math is a learned subject. It’s not you’re good at math or not good at math, you have to learn some math. It’s learnable and I think if we get the word to younger girls in, again, middle school before they get into high school and tell them what a great gig this is, how fun it is, maybe we can change our numbers. I think more people should become economists, it’s really fun and half the population is women so, let’s get more in.
Moschini: I do hope generally the profession becomes more representative of the population and along many margins, not just gender composition, that’s my hope.
McGrattan: Yeah, we’ll get new perspectives, for sure. It’s like Ming, you know, coming from her small village, we’re going to get a new perspective.
Xu: I think things are definitely getting better, right? Ellen inspired us and hopefully, one day, we will inspire some others. And, you know, like Maria was asking, that speaker asked for break time, that’s because—at least I think—it’s probably because I’m a female so she feels more comfortable to ask a female colleague for this kind of request. Hopefully, gradually, as more and more women enter this career, we can encourage each other and have more of them coming.
Hasenstab: Absolutely, I love to end on that positive note. Thank you all so much for your time today. Thank you for sharing your stories as women in the field of economics.
McGrattan: Thank you for having us.
McKiernan: Yes, thank you.
Xu: Thank you.