Women in Economics: Nancy Rose
This 37-minute podcast was released March 31, 2021.
“Having it all is not having it all at once,” says Nancy Rose, the Charles P. Kindleberger professor of applied economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the St. Louis Fed, about how she handles “life-work tension”—and how her interest in public policy led to a career in economics.
Mary Suiter: Hello. I’m Mary Suiter, and you’re listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today I’m speaking with Nancy Rose. Nancy is the Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Applied Economics and former department head in the MIT Department of Economics.
Hi, Nancy. Thank you for joining me today.
Nancy Rose: Thanks very much, Mary. I’m delighted to be here.
Suiter: You earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and government from Harvard and a Ph.D. in economics from MIT. How did you choose to study economics?
Rose: So, great question, and I’d like to take a few minutes on this because economics and I almost missed each other, with the variety of idiosyncratic experiences that pushed and pulled against that playing a sometimes significant role. And I’d like to encourage others who might see some of their experiences in mine to give it another try.
So my participation in high school debate and forensics kindled a lifelong interest in public policy, and when I got to college, it seemed that many of the freshman debaters were signing up for the yearlong intro economics course, and I did that, too, as well as taking an introductory government, which is political science speak at Harvard, class. But while economics and I had a cordial introduction, I would say, there weren’t any sparks. Like intro econ classes in many schools, mine was taught primarily by grad students, supplemented by some mass lectures by a distant, but famous, economics professor, and in the thrice-weekly classes with the grad student, it often seemed that my questions and his answers too often sailed past each other. So at the end of the year, I concluded that economics was fine, but not for me. And as an aside, when Claudia Goldin put out her 2014 note observing that women who got a B+ in Harvard’s intro course were less likely to choose economics as a major than were men with a similar grade, a result that’s since been expanded on and confirmed in more recent work by collaborators from Wellesley College, let’s just say I felt like I’d been identified as a second data point in Claudia’s research portfolio. [laughs]
So government, on the other hand, connected, so I declared a government major and trained my sights on law school and perhaps a future in political office, but as you noted, I didn’t end up with just government. So, two things made me rethink that path. First, exposure to college political clubs helped me to realize that politics was not mostly about policy, and that the character sacrifices that were too often necessary to win political office were not ones I wanted to make, so I decided at that point that my public policy interest would be in analyzing and informing policy, not in legislating it. And then I decided to dabble in another economics class to round out my schedule. I took a class in industrial organization from Dick Caves, a fabulous undergraduate teacher, and, somewhat to my surprise, I not only loved it, but I understood it, and I began to see economics as a very powerful tool to understand behavior and make decisions.
Still on the government track sort of the next year as a junior, I took another economics class, this one on economic regulation, with another really terrific undergraduate teacher, an assistant professor named Joe Kalt, and I was utterly hooked. This was at the height of the policy debate over economic deregulation and restructuring, and all the institutions that I was learning about in my government classes or working with during my D.C. summer internships were in upheaval. But this economics class showed me that I could use economics to construct a framework both to analyze those institutions and understand the political forces that were pushing for the changes and carry them forward when those institutions changed, something that was durable and versatile and exciting and hugely policy relevant.
So by my junior spring, I reviewed the major requirements, realized that if I filled every slot but one in my senior year schedule with econ classes and I wrote a joint thesis, I could add an economics major, finish the rest of my degree requirements, and that’s what I did. So I ended up finishing Harvard with, as you said, an econ and government major, but I still was not thinking Ph.D., and I owe grad school to two other significant influences, because just as I’d never come across economics in high school, I had no thought of an academic career anywhere along this path. So even by my senior year, I saw economics as a tool, not as a career. But my college boyfriend, a guy named Jim Poterba, had long been on the track to econ grad school and an eventual Ph.D., and he and Larry Summers convinced me to at least take the GRE as well as the LSAT.
Then graduation week, another one of these serendipitous events took place, and that was I got a call from a law firm in D.C. who were looking for a B.A. economist to work with their lawyers on regulatory policy, and, somehow, they’d been told to find me. The first person that they’d hired into this job, a woman named Robin Prager, had been a huge success, and they were hoping to replicate that before she headed off to MIT for grad school in the fall. So this was a perfect way for me to compare the law school versus economics career paths, and I flew off to D.C. for the interview, accepted their offer to start on July 1, and spent, then, the next year immersed in regulatory policy work, where it seemed to me the lawyers did the much more boring parts of the policy and I got to do the much more exciting parts. And that is what convinced me, in part, to can the law school plans. I asked Jim to comment on my essay for grad school, which was no mean feat in those pre-digital days, because he was at Oxford doing an M.Phil, so this went back and forth by letters, put in an NSF application, a bunch of grad school applications, and ended up at MIT the next fall. And the rest, I guess, as you would say, is history.
Rose: So, a long way of convoluted things along the path leading to what has been an extraordinarily exciting and fulfilling career.
Suiter: Yeah, that’s an incredible story, but it’s so important, because often the young women I encounter are interested in policy, in making a difference through policy, and they don’t necessarily see that economics is the important component there.
You served as a deputy assistant attorney general for economic analysis in the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and so I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what you did in that role.
Rose: So that was something I did from 2014 to the end of 2016, and I will start by saying that my 28 months at the DOJ antitrust division were the most exciting and rewarding period of my professional career. I cannot praise too highly the incredible career staff at the DOJ, the economists as well as the lawyers who have to know a lot of economics to practice antitrust, and the cadre of other public servants who support that work. The focus of the antitrust division, the mission of the antitrust division, the work that that career staff does is all focused on preserving, protecting, promoting competitive markets, which are the bedrock of the U.S. economy that all of us, as consumers, depend upon.
So I started out my career in D.C. learning how to use economics to promote effective public policy, working in a law firm where I was one of two economists and everybody else was a lawyer or supported the lawyers. Thirty-five years later, I ended up back in D.C. again in an organization that was mostly lawyers who worked collaboratively with a now much larger group of economists, but still a small fraction, and I was part of the leadership team of the antitrust division, so I got to help make that policy through our law enforcement decisions and our competition advocacy within the federal government, and it was absolutely amazing. Part of my job was a management and mentorship and people-development job, which was leading the economic analysis group, a group of about 45 Ph.D. economists within DOJ. Had a great career staff director of economics, a guy named Bob Majure, and so I worked closely with him and learned a lot about management skills on the fly, which was quite a privilege.
Then I got to help craft and evaluate and refine the economic analysis that we did as part of merger investigations or anticompetitive conduct investigations. Largely, mergers were our focus, given that we were in the midst of a merger tsunami during my time, so those show up on the doorstep of the antitrust agencies, and you have 30 days to decide if they need a closer look, and then you’re on a pretty tight timeclock to decide whether or not they need to be challenged. And then with senior leadership, we would take the results of the legal and the economic analysis and make litigation decisions based on those staff recommendations, and if we decided to sue, I would then work with staff and outside experts to prepare the economic side of the merger litigation and integrate that with what the attorneys were doing. So we had a great track record during the time that I was there of blocking both the high-profile anticompetitive mergers that hit the front page of the papers, the health insurance mergers like Aetna-Humana or Anthem-Cigna, and then some that you’ve never heard of, but that would have had substantial anticompetitive impacts on the economy, like some semiconductor mergers or oil field services mergers.
But the experience was also very informative for what I’ve been doing since I got back to MIT from DOJ, and that is it confirmed for me something that I’d begun to talk about in the teaching I’d done before I went to Washington, that antitrust enforcement had become increasingly hamstrung by the ideological application of economic principles that were largely unmoored from empirical facts and maybe even some degree of economic hubris in antitrust enforcement, this notion that we’re really good at measuring things, and that seemed to somehow morph in the legal context into judges thinking, well, if you can’t measure it really precisely, it must not be something that’s very important, or maybe it doesn’t even happen. And so I’ve come back from DOJ also energized to shift my research agenda to focus on how to make antitrust enforcement more effective, how to investigate some of the kind of assumptions that underpin the developing case law on antitrust, and also, frankly, how to convince more economists to realize that this is a really interesting and important and exciting area and take up some of the research challenges in that space.
Suiter: I think sometimes economics gets not overlooked, but the topic becomes so complex in the conversation that an average person has difficulty grasping what the significant information is, and so having someone with your experience translate some of the content into a way that’s more understandable—and I would encourage you to do that anytime that you can.
Rose: I do think what I’ve seen over the last, I don’t know 10 or 15 years, maybe, is two very different trends that seem at odds, but maybe, in fact, are—one is a response to the other. One is, as you pointed out, right, economics journal articles are getting, generally speaking, much more technical, much more complex, much, much less accessible to a broad audience, sometimes even a broad audience within professional economists, and at the same time, at least as I think about my colleagues at MIT, many of the scholars who are producing the work that’s coming out in leading journals are recognizing that if they want their work to be influential, they need to find ways to serve that kind of translational function or to publish the work in outlets that would be more accessible or accessible to a broader audience. And so, for example, my colleagues who are working in health economics are increasingly publishing maybe a long economics paper on a topic in an economics journal, but then finding a way to communicate those results and the significance of those results to medical or healthcare communities maybe by publishing in medical journals or medical policy journals. And I do think that it’s important that all of us who are engaged in the economic research mission recognize that if all we’re doing is talking to each other, we’re missing many of the ways in which economics can contribute to improving policy debates or decision-making or other outcomes.
Suiter: You were the director of the National Bureau of Economic Research Program on Industrial Organizations. So what did you do in that role?
Rose: Sure. So in I think about 1990, Marty Feldstein, who was the NBER president, decided to expand the set of activities that the NBER was engaged in, and the National Bureau of Economic Research mission has been, essentially, to promote the creation and dissemination of leading-edge economic analysis, particular research with policy relevance. So when Marty asked me to be the founding director of a new program in industrial organization, my role was to identify and help develop leading scholars in the field, to encourage and promote their research through the NBER Working Paper Series and through conferences that the NBER sponsored, to convene program meetings at which innovative work in IO would be presented and discussed, and to organize occasional conferences on special themes that might merit particular attention. And what did I do with that mission, you know, the set of objectives I had? I would say one of my core focuses throughout was to increase the diversity of voices and perspectives and the kind of inclusion, finding ways for younger scholars to participate for increasing the visibility of women in the field. This was a period in which IO was becoming a much more empirical field, so it was, again, an ideal time to do this. We were a very small program within the NBER for most of early history, but I realized that we could leverage that by being very broad and inclusive in our calls for papers and in invitations to program meetings. One of the things that seemed to me kind of obvious, but turned out to be an innovation was that the bureau had a longstanding custom of if you were a program member, a member of the NBER, research fellow or research associate, that if you attended program meetings, your travel expenses were reimbursed as being a program member, but that they didn’t have funds to often reimburse others who would travel to programs. So, again, it wasn’t a big program, but a lot of our program members had access to unrestricted research funding from their universities, particularly folks at business schools, and so I basically said, “If you don’t have money to pay for your travel and you need reimbursement, you have to ask me.” So I created somewhat of a bar for people. They had to come to me and plead poverty. But what that meant is I could invite younger scholars who didn’t have that kind of research funding or unrestricted travel money available to them to come and present their work, pay for their expenses, and expand participation that way. So, something that was very simple, but very powerful in helping us to reach a broader audience and increase participation.
Something else that I did that I think is pretty common among directors is to rotate who organizes program meetings, on the theory that if I was doing it all of the time, even if I was trying to be inclusive, you get whatever particular tastes or biases I might have, and so by creating a rotating pool of organizers and often trying to pair up a more senior and a more junior scholar to organize a program meeting, that would also expand our reach and our diversity.
So another thing that was important to me was to keep everybody in IO in one room, to have programs that reflected a diversity of approaches to questions, and to have people engaging with and interacting with one another across their methodological preferences, and I think we succeeded. I think it was a period where there was enormous interest in participating in the NBER program meetings, where young scholars, felt they got a tremendous amount of feedback on their work and visibility for their work, and where we, as a field, advanced by having us all in one room at those meetings.
Suiter: You’re the 2020 recipient of the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award from the American Economics Association Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, and just in this conversation, you’ve highlighted ways that you have tried to diversify IO, bring women and underrepresented minorities into the field. So, just a heartfelt congratulations to you on that award.
Rose: Thank you.
Suiter: And that leads me to a discussion of something that you’ve also received awards for, and that is your teaching, advising, and mentoring. So you’re a three-time recipient of the MIT Undergraduate Economics Association Teaching Award and MIT Graduate Economics “Meta Advisor” Award and an MIT-wide Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship Award, and you’ve served on the Doctoral Dissertation Committee for more than 25 students. So could you share with us why the teaching and the mentoring are clearly so important to you?
Rose: Sure, I’d be happy to. I think that’s one of the enormous benefits of having traveled successfully an academic career. As I mentioned at the start, a couple of extraordinarily influential teachers are the reason I’m an economist today, and so part of it is just trying to pass on my enthusiasm for economics and my appreciation for what it’s enabled me to do to students. So teaching especially undergraduates is an enormous source of joy. My undergraduate course sits roughly where Dick Cave’s course did. It’s a low barrier. The prerequisite is one semester of introductory micro. It attracts as many non-majors as majors and some students who are exploring economics to see where it might take them or where it might fit in, and I’ve designed that course to incorporate some of what I loved in teaching MBAs. I started out my first 10 years teaching at MIT Sloan School, MBA students, and I loved the discussions and the applications that we had there, the kind of hands-on use of economics, so I’ve put a bunch of that into my undergrad class. We play some games, do some team exercises, and then try to mix the kind of modeling and empirics with discussions of whatever the topical issues are of the day, increasingly antitrust. So I’m expecting this spring we’ll have many discussions about the most recent Google and Facebook antitrust cases, among others.
The other thing I love is the energy that you get from working with students and here I think about my graduate students, who I feel I have learned as much from, I have grown as much with and have developed lifelong friendships with, as much as anything they’ve gotten from me. And at MIT, that’s taken the form of both teaching in the end of the semester of the graduate IO courses and advising students, but also I’ve had the privilege to work with a larger group of students. So the “Meta Advisor” Award turned out to be something that one of my groups of job market students created in appreciation for my work with them. But I had the privilege of running placement for our roughly 20-, 25-a-year Ph.D. students who were going on the job market and turn that into a yearlong experience with them, where I created some career workshops because I felt students knew a lot about what an academic career looked like in a, you know, R1 research university, but they knew very little about what other careers in economics might look like. So I created some panels that brought in alumni or others from government, from liberal arts colleges and business schools, from industry, from consulting to just describe what you could do with economics if you didn’t think that the Ph.D. granting department academic path was the one that was the best fit for you, and then we ran through, of course, all of the job market support.
But it’s just such a joy to get to work with people who are starting out in economics, or in the case of my undergraduates, might not even be in economics before they show up in your class and maybe some of them are afterwards, or to get emails sometimes from my undergrads who’ve gone off to work in industry, will email me back, you know, several years later to say, “I can’t believe that that stuff we talked about in industrial organization is exactly what I’m doing today in my job as a marketing manager,” or something. It’s a blast. So, as I said, I think I get more out of the teaching and mentoring than my students do, but don’t tell them that.
Suiter: [laughs] Well, it certainly sounds as though it’s very fulfilling.
You’ve served on the editorial boards for several prestigious journals, including The American Economic Review, The Review of Economics and Statistics, and The Journal of Industrial Economics, and you just joined the editorial board for The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Often, we hear about the difficulties that women and underrepresented minorities have in publishing their work. What advice do you have for young women who may just be beginning their research work in econ?
Rose: I do think there’s a lot of anxiety that is associated with that. So here’s some of the things that have worked for me.
First is to use your colleagues, your peers. If you’re a grad student, I would encourage you to talk with your fellow students about your work, to make a point of talking with faculty at your institutions.
But then as you move forward, I think it’s really important to develop your network. This is something that didn’t come naturally to me, but, I’ve mentioned that my then-boyfriend, now-husband Jim Poterba was kind of a bit ahead of me. We went through college together, but he short-circuited the Ph.D. to be three years, and he knew he wanted to be on that path, and he’s been a terrific source of advice and mentorship for me at various points in my career, including as soon as I turned in my dissertation to MIT, saying, “Okay. Now you have a month. Get those chapters turned into working papers and send them out.” And as awkward as it seemed at the time, I sent my work out to a collection of senior scholars, and I’d encourage people to do that. You want to personalize why you think the person you’re sending it to either would be interested in it or be particularly helpful in terms of giving you advice, and then give them some time, but maybe follow up gently a bit afterwards.
For me, that was terrific advice, and I had enormous mentorship gains from those mailings. George Stigler, who was one of the giants in regulatory economics and IO, read the paper that I sent him and invited me to present at Chicago my first year, which was really terrific, because I had not done a full job search. Jim, at that point, was an assistant professor at MIT, and I got an early offer from the Sloan School, and we decided that that pair dominated almost anything else we could think of, so I didn’t have the usual job market experience of going around and giving talks, so this mailing was particularly important for me. But I think the same likely applies to many people. Even if you’ve given a handful of job talks, there will be many more people in your field who don’t know your work or haven’t seen you present, and so this can be a good way of reminding them that you exist and that you’ve got interesting research that you’re doing and potentially generating later seminar articles.
And then you should submit your work to conferences, to NBER program meetings. I’d encourage people to put together sessions, complete sessions, for the AEA, the Econometrics Society, other professional meetings, because that’s a great opportunity, again, to do this kind of networking. If you’re putting together a session that’s thematically organized around a paper that you’ve written, you’re reaching out to other scholars that are working in similar areas. You can connect with senior scholars and ask them to serve as discussants or session chairs. That again creates an opportunity for them to become better acquainted with your work and just creates those connections.
And then as part of the review process, I think it’s become increasingly long and complex. Don’t navigate that on your own. When you get referee reports back, go and ask a senior colleague either at your institution or somebody you’ve established one of these networks with to help you read and understand the referee reports that you got and the editor’s letter that you’ve got so that you’re investing the time you’re putting into revisions in the most effective way possible,
And then the final thing I’ll say is CSWEP runs a fabulous set of mentoring activities from informal drop-in coffees at the meetings to the cement workshops, and I think those are really awesome.
Suiter: I think that that’s terrific advice for the publishing and editorial work and research work for young women and others entering the economics field, but also advice for building a career in general, the networking and finding the colleagues and having people to work with and talk with and make sure you’re on the right path.
Suiter: The next thing I wanted to talk about, Nancy, is that this podcast series really aims to highlight the careers and the studies of women and underrepresented minorities in the field of economics. Why do you think it’s important that more women and minorities enter the field, and what larger efforts need to take place to draw more of them into the field?
Rose: I think we’re all struggling with trying to identify what we can do to make the most progress. Why is it important? I think, first, that we want economics to look like our students, to look like our society so that people can better imagine themselves as economists. And why is that important? Because I think we need to have the opportunity to develop the new talent that will advance both our field, but, more importantly, our society. How to do that? I do think that what excites many of us who do applied economics is seeing how the tools in the field can be used to answer important questions and advance public policy and public policy goals and to help companies run better, to help organizations operate more efficiently and effectively and all of that, and so getting some of that into the beginning of students’ exposure to economics I think can really help. For me, working a year between undergrad and grad school turned out to have been enormously useful, I knew the set of problems I wanted to work on in regulatory policy, and so I had that touchpoint to keep me coming back and saying, “Okay. This model of consumer behavior just has consumers A and B and goods X and Y, and that doesn’t seem immediately translatable to the world, but I know why I need to learn this.” And so I think helping students to see those applications at the start can be useful.
I suspect—and this is another really important reason that we have greater diversity in who is in the field, is that communication-style differences, I have come to believe over my career, play a much larger role than we might expect. This is a gross generalization; it’s not true in every case, but I think women are more apt to express self-doubt or self-criticism—to go back to that study I mentioned by Claudia Goldin and others about how women respond to grades that are less than the top grade in what they think about themselves and economics as a fit, I think that’s representative of a broader set of behavioral differences, say, between men and women, and while I don’t have the personal experience to be sure of this, I think the same may be true for many underrepresented groups, including underrepresented minorities. My first as a grad student at MIT, there was a women’s student dinner once or twice a semester, to hear other women students say things like, “Oh, God, yeah, that theory course is just impossible. You know, half the people fail it the first time around, but you just retake the makeup exam and it’s all fine.” You know, that was a revelation. [laughter] It was this permission to say you didn’t have to be at the top of the top of the top to sort of feel that you had a path through this.
Many of my students, often say one of the things that they most characterize my office at MIT is the box of tissues in the middle of the table that I meet with students in and the frequency with how often it is used, but that it’s a safe place for people to come in and maybe if they need to, even, kind of fall apart and recognize that I’m not going to judge their value as an economist or their ability as economists because they, you know, came in to say, “I’m struggling over—,” this, that, or the other thing. And I just feel like having a more diverse set of faculty, for instance, is going to offer that kind of diversity of potential experiences for students to find the right people to interact with at various moments of their path.
I also think different people choose different paths through economics, have different interests in economics, and if we have a profession where everybody looks like everybody else, we’re much less likely to be answering all of the important questions that need to be asked and answered.
Suiter: Thank you. As a woman in economics, are there other challenges that you’ve faced, and how have you overcome them?
Rose: Some of my challenges are not unique to being a woman, but maybe are more likely to hit women. I’ve found balancing—I don’t even think “balancing” is the right word. I have found accommodating my career and my kids, at times, to be extremely challenging. I think I was lucky because I decided at the very beginning of my career that having kids was kind of a core value for me and that if tenure at MIT wasn’t compatible with that, I could be happy doing economics in a million other places, but I wouldn’t be happy not having kids. So my first child was born while I was still a junior faculty member, just after my associate review. I had not anticipated quite how difficult that was. Even though I was the oldest of five kids and thought I knew what, like, having kids was like and raising kids was like, I think I probably wasn’t fully prepared for how challenging that was, especially because I didn’t want to outsource it all.
So I would say that that life-work tension was one of the things that was most difficult for me, and part of it just involved acknowledging I wasn’t going to do everything and I wasn’t going to do everything to the level I thought it should be done, and I wasn’t going to do it all at the same time. And so, for instance, while I’ve always had this burning interest in public policy, the invitations I had over my career to be considered for jobs in Washington seemed at odds with being able to be as engaged with my kids as I wanted to be, and so I turned them down. I turned them down saying, “Not now,” but knowing that “not now” might mean not ever. You can’t count on stuff coming back.
I was really lucky, you know. It came back in the form of an invitation just after my youngest had set off for college. You know, so that let me take the DOJ job and probably have infinitely more fun with it. I wasn’t feeling torn between, you know, could I work late on this particular case that needed my attention or was that going to take time away from my family at that point. So I think some of the challenges are ones we put on ourself, and maybe recognizing that you don’t have to do everything at the same time, that having it all is not having it all at once, and sequencing can be important.
Suiter: I think you used some words that I think are really important. So you talked about tension and being torn and recognizing that you can’t have it all at the same time, and the term “work-life balance,” which I hear so much, particularly for women, we never go on to talk about what that means, and it means exactly what you described, that the tension of making choices about where your time goes and maybe being torn because you can’t take a particular offer at that point. But then you really rounded that out by talking about the notion of sequencing and the fact that you may not be able to have it all right now, but you may be able to have most of it over a career. So thank you very much for that perspective,
Rose: Sure. And I will just say it is such a personal decision. You know, the answer that’s right for me is not the answer that was right for some of my female colleagues who were peers of mine. Recognizing that what works for one person may not work for another is really critical so that you’re not feeling trapped into a particular path.
Suiter: Yes. It’s great advice.
So is there anything else you’d like to discuss about women in economics, Nancy?
Rose: I think I would just like to encourage any young women who are listening to this or the other fabulous podcasts in your series, give it a try. If you’re on the fence, give it a try. I think it is such an exciting time to be an economist. There is so much that we can contribute to the world, and we need you to be part of that mission and part of that movement.
Suiter: Nancy, thank you so much for spending time today to tell us your story and share your wisdom. It’s really been terrific. I appreciate it.
Rose: Thank you, Mary.
Suiter: To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon, that’s one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You can also stream Women in Economics on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher, or ask your Amazon device, “Alexa, play Women in Economics, from TuneIn.” Thank you.