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Women in Economics: Natallia Gray

This 24-minute podcast was released Aug. 27, 2020.

Natallia Gray, Southeast Missouri State University

“What my students learned that day, besides economics and things that were discussed at the symposium, is that … you may feel small and insignificant at times, and maybe even invisible, but your actions do matter,” says Natallia Gray, associate professor at Southeast Missouri State University. She talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, about how she and her students inspired the first Women in Economics Symposium at the St. Louis Fed.



Transcript:

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 joined by Natallia Gray, an associate professor at Southeast Missouri State University. Natallia, thanks so much for joining us today.

Natallia Gray: It is my pleasure to be speaking with you today. Thank you, Mary.

Suiter: Let's start off by having you just talk a little bit about why you chose economics.

Gray: I was born in the former Soviet Union in the early '80s. So, I grew up in this post-Soviet period in Belarus where economy was very much planned. And I think that my early experiences growing up and seeing how much a person's livelihood is affected by economic conditions have led me to be asking questions such as, where does prosperity come from; how does trade affect well-being; and so on; that led to my initial interest in the micro topics.

I began studying economics at Belarus State Economic University. And the university is very unique because the whole university was devoted to just studying economics and nothing else. I struggled because I was good at more than one thing. I liked languages. I was good at math, especially towards the end of high school. So, having to decide on the one thing was a very painful process for me.

And about this time a new and immediately very popular department opened up in this economic university; it was called the School of Tourism, which offered a degree of economist manager in the hospitality industry. So when I heard about the economist manager in the hospitality industry degree, I knew that that degree would require the use of a variety of schools, including math and languages because in Europe, you would need to know at least three languages to work in that particular industry. And I would also learn some economics. I felt that this was a perfect fit for me, and that's where my economics journey started. Because the degree was so broad, I was relieved that I wouldn't have to give up some of my interests or skills, although at the time, I didn't have a good understanding of what economics was really about.

Suiter: That is so interesting because choosing the hospitality program really did hone in on the things that you enjoyed most, languages being one of them. So, what languages do you speak?

Gray: Well, Russian is my native language, English, French.

Suiter: Wow. OK.

Gray: So, I started my studies at the university. And it was also challenging to get in. The competition was tough. And I remember that there were 10 applicants per one spot. We had four entrance exams. They were challenging. And those students who passed at the top of the distribution would be given the state scholarship. Well, it wasn't me, as it turned out, and I was a half-point short to get the scholarship. So, my first year my parents had to pay for my tuition, which was unsustainable for our family. So, I knew at the time that I would have to try again next year. And I did. I worked really hard on preparing, once again, for the entrance exams. And hard work paid off that time. It was a great university. We had about 100 students in our cohort. I would estimate that about 80% of the students were women.

My program at Belarus State Economic University required students to have internships abroad. So, after both my second and third year in college, I had an opportunity to come to the United States for several short-term internships. And those internships were all related to the hospitality industry. And during that time, I tried a variety of jobs, and eventually realized that I was more interested in the economic side of things, and not so much in the business of hospitality management.

So, these internships were in southern Maine. And it was during these internships that I thought I could look into transferring my course work to the University of Southern Maine in Portland and continue my studies of economics there. So, I did, and the very first economics course in my very first semester in the United States was intermediate microeconomics. It was very difficult, and it also turned my whole world upside down. It completely undone everything I thought I knew about economics. The book was by Robert Frank, Microeconomics and Behavior, and I still have that exact book in my office. And I spend hours thinking about concepts and reflecting on how the content of that book related to real life.

On my first quiz in that intermediate microeconomics class, I got a 2 out of 27. That's like 7%. But I studied a lot. And, in fact, that's all I did. I just studied. And by the end of the semester, I finished in the top 1% of the class.

Suiter: Wow.

Gray: The professor, Dr. Vaishali Mamgain, she was a female professor originally from India, played a critical role in inspiring me. And she continues to inspire me. I had many interesting classes at the University of Southern Maine, although intermediate micro was my favorite. I also greatly enjoyed urban and regional economics and political economy.

Suiter: And you persisted and studied and went from a 7% on the first quiz to being in the top 1% of your class. That's just tremendous. So, did you decide to go on to graduate school?

Gray: So, I did get the bachelor's degree at the University of Southern Maine, and it wasn't enough. So, I felt like I still had lots of unanswered questions. And I didn't really know what to do with the degree, so I started applying to graduate schools. So, at the time I was very naïve, and I thought that graduate school, you just study more economics and you take courses that you've never took in your undergraduate career path. So, you really become a well-rounded economist in graduate school. And I also always wanted to go to Boston. I knew I wanted to study more economics, so what I did is I just applied to pretty much all schools in Boston area that offered a graduate degree in economics. And I reached out at the time to Dr. Vaishali Mamgain, the intermediate micro instructor, and I asked her for a letter of recommendation to graduate school. And almost immediately she sent me an e-mail back asking me to come into her office. So that is where she told me that my approach was not the ideal approach to selecting a graduate school, but she would be happy to write me a letter. However, she noticed that I had a very clear geographical preference to go to Boston, and that was not what I needed to do when choosing graduate school.

She took the time to explain that there are a lot of different fields of specialization in economics. Environmental economics was very popular at that time. Urban, regional, sports economics, public choice; that I had no idea that those fields existed. And so, the advice that she gave me was that I needed to decide on the field that I wanted to pursue first, and then look for graduate schools that offered those fields. And after that, I would need to look at the departmental rankings for the economic departments to decide where to send my application materials.

So, I ended up at the University of South Florida. It was a five-year program where you get accepted after your bachelor's and receive master's, as you're working towards your Ph.D. I specialized in health care economics and defended my dissertation in 2014. And it was a very good time for health economists to graduate that year.

Suiter: Did you then decide that you wanted to go into academia and teach? And is that how you ended up at Southeast Missouri State?

Gray: After I completed my Ph.D. program, I think I applied to 225 places, including Southeast Missouri State, which is where I ultimately accepted the job offer.

Gray: So, in 2014, I moved to Missouri and I joined the economics department at Southeast Missouri State University. In 2019 I earned tenure and I was promoted to the rank of associate professor. I have been teaching courses in both economics and health care management programs. And in January of this year, I transitioned to the management department to teach in health care program full time.

Suiter: Congratulations.

Gray: Thank you.

Suiter: So, I want to talk a little bit about the Women in Economics Club. What led you to form the Women in Economics Club at Southeast Missouri State?

Gray: When I first got to Southeast, I was very focused on developing classes and getting my research off the ground so I could satisfy all the tenure criteria. I taught principles classes at that time, and primarily in my classes I saw business students. So, there's a good mix of gender in those classrooms. And in 2016, so two years into being assistant professor, I came across the statistics on a national level that shows that for every one female student in economics, there was three or four male students in economics. And I wondered what it was at my institution. So, I requested some data from the administrative assistant. I found out that at Southeast we only had one female student for every nine to 10 male students in economics. And, in addition, economics major was very small, and we only had five female students in total. So, one was in the first year, another one was a senior year, and so on.

So, as I sat in my office, I wondered if they ever knew one another or sat in classes together. And that immediately brought back memories of my own undergraduate experience where I felt like I was very isolated and missed out on a lot of social interactions with my peers because I was a female and because I had an accent. So, what I did, I e-mailed the five students right away and I asked them if they'd be interested in all coming to my office on a Friday afternoon. And we met. They introduced one another. And I remember at some point I asked the senior students if they'd be interested in being mentors to younger students. I asked if they would like us to meet once in a while for mentoring lunches, talk about career choices, what to do with the degree. And so, we started meeting on a regular basis.

In the beginning it was a very small group of students, not even enough to call ourselves a student organization. So, originally, we were women in an economics club, so we didn't have to fill out formal registration paperwork. And we would meet for those mentoring lunches with other economics faculty that we would invite. I started to eventually look into organizing workshops and study nights. We tried different things throughout the years, and some things worked and some didn't. We also started traveling to the surrounding universities to see economics speakers and whenever there was a professional development opportunity related to economics. In 2019, and according to our organizational constitution, the purpose of the group is twofold: the primary purpose is to engage in at least one professional development opportunity related to economics each month; and the second is to promote the interest of female students in studying economics. In 2019, we were up to 20 members, including economics majors and minors, and soon we were getting requests from female students from other areas of business to join the group.

Suiter: That's fabulous. You took it upon yourself to find a way to mentor young women and bring them together and help them prepare for their careers. That's just an incredible story. Thank you so much for doing that.

Gray: My pleasure.

Suiter: I know as an associate professor you actually inspired the first Women in Economics Symposium here at the St. Louis Fed. You reached out to see if you could bring some of your female students to see the different kinds of jobs here, with an economics degree. So, why did you reach out to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis?

Gray: This is a great story. I will gladly share it with you. This request came directly from the students. So, they wanted to travel to St. Louis Federal Reserve. And I said that I was going to explore the options and I would get back to them. So, I went on the website and I looked for the group tour information. And I saw that a minimum of 25 students were required for a group tour. And I'm not sure if that's true today, but at that time we didn't have 25 female students in economics. After some hesitation, I e-mailed Scott Wolla, an economics education coordinator at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and explained that we are a very small group; and that the maximum number of people that I could potentially bring was eight, including myself; and that is assuming that 100% of people would actually be able to go, and also that the probability of us ever reaching the required minimum number of people was not very high.

I explained that we were seeking some information on what to do with the degree and career mentoring and, in general, being more involved with the Federal Reserve and being a part of the economics profession. And I honestly expected a no. And about two to three weeks later, I heard back from Scott Wolla. When I think of Scott, I think he's a true innovator, because it takes an innovator to not say no immediately and to think about solutions to problems like this one. So, he came up with a brilliant thing. Scott e-mailed me back and he said, "How about you bring your eight people and we will invite other undergraduate female students from the St. Louis area and make a day out of it?" So, most exciting, he asked for the students' input in the agenda. I remember that my students really wanted to see some famous women economists, rock star economists who were not necessarily working in academia, and they wanted to learn from the success stories.

Suiter: So, that is a great story, because Scott came to me and said, you know, "We have this professor at Southeast Missouri State. She wants to bring eight people. You know, we don't do that. What if we do this?" And I said, "I think that's a great idea," and that led to the Women in Economics Symposium. And I think we've delivered on that rock star status for your students, too.

Gray: Yes, you did.

Suiter: Oh. You brought students to both the Women in Economics Symposiums that we've had at the St. Louis Fed. So, can you talk a little bit about that experience for you and for the young women you brought to the symposiums?

Gray: Yes. The first symposium was an incredibly satisfying and emotional event for myself and the students. I think that only four of us attended, so I didn't have the 100% participation. And I remember that as we were driving to St. Louis, it was a rainy day and it was a two-hour drive, and I kept thinking to myself, "I have started this and I'm only bringing four students. And this guy, Scott Wolla, at the Federal Reserve, whom I never met before, is really going to hate me for this. Nobody will show up on the rainy day, and it's just going to be four of us sitting in some giant room at the Federal Reserve."

That was not the case at all. So, for the first symposium was at full capacity. Students came from the St. Louis area, from Midwest, East Coast, and even from abroad. Faculty brought groups of students. Male faculty brought groups of their female students. And the Federal Reserve delivered on their promise of several rock star economists. And the energy was great.

What my students learned that day, besides economics and things that were discussed at the symposium, is that you may feel isolated in rural Missouri, and you may feel small and insignificant at times, and maybe even invisible, but your actions do matter. Knowing that an e-mail they asked me to send resulted in this incredible event was very empowering to them. So, they realized that day that what they do matters; and that they can have an impact. And, of course, I was very proud.

We also went to the second symposium, and I went with them. This year I was able to finally travel to Cleveland Federal Reserve. So, so far, we've been able to attend all of the events, and I hope that they continue with this tradition in the future. The students were able to meet inspirational women in the profession and gain knowledge about what role women play in the profession. They were also able to participate in conversations surrounding various issues in the workplace affecting women.

Suiter: I find that is an inspiring story. And the fact that the program had that kind of impact on your students is fabulous. And, of course, we are planning to continue Women in Economics Symposiums. We do have one scheduled for February 2021.

Gray: That's great.

Suiter: And so, we hope that you'll be involved, and that you'll have your students involved in whatever comes forward in the future under that banner of Women in Economics here at the St. Louis Fed.

Gray: That is good to hear.

Suiter: Yeah. And as you can tell, we're expanding our outreach through the podcast series as well.

So, you mentioned a little just now about students feeling invisible and about your struggles as an undergrad woman in economics. Why do you think it's so important for women and minorities to enter the field?

Gray: I think that everyone should have at least basic level of economic and financial literacy. In addition, all people affected by the economy, even if they don't participate in the labor market. Economics is a study of how societies function and how the world works. Women are half of the economy. We consume, we produce, both inside and outside of households. And we vote. For these reasons, I think that it's important that more women and minorities enter the field and study economics.

Suiter: Those are great reasons.

Well, is there anything else you'd like to say about women in economics?

Gray: You know, when I was sitting in my undergraduate economics classes, I never thought that I was going to become a professor of economics. First of all, I wasn't born in a country with market economy. I felt like I really don't understand what's going on, and all I know is how to extrapolate and work off of tables. So, the second part of it was that I had an accent and I thought, there's no way that a person with an accent can become a professor in the United States. And when I took Vaishali's course, as I mentioned, she was a female economist originally from India, with an accent, and I sat in her class and I thought to myself that this can happen. And this is the first time that it occurred to me that I can become a professor in economics.

Suiter: So, I think that speaks so much to what you said earlier, that young women need to see themselves in their instructors, have the opportunity to see women economists in order to have a vision of themselves in that role, because that's really what happened to you with that instructor in that intermediate micro class.

Gray: Absolutely. I think that if young people never see anyone in the professions that they aspire to eventually have, that have similar backgrounds to them, then it would be very difficult for them to see themselves in those positions eventually. That is part of the reason why these events at St. Louis Federal Reserve and other Federal Reserves are so empowering to students because they get to learn about the jobs that female economists can have in the industry within the Federal Reserve System and on Wall Street, not just in academia, because they see their professors all the time. And I'm afraid that they get a little bit tired of the advice of, "Go to grad school. Get your Ph.D. in economics so you can become an economics professor."

Suiter: Yeah, I agree. Southeast Missouri State University should count themselves lucky having you and all the work that you do to promote women and bring people into the field of economics. So, thank you for all of that.

Gray: Thank you.

So, I just want to say that I am optimistic about the future of women in the economics profession. I'm glad to see so many changes and initiatives taking place. I think it's absolutely wonderful that the AEA, American Economic Association, recently got rid of the hotel room interviews on newly minted Ph.D. students. I also think it's great that today female students and minority students of economics have so many academic resources, professional development opportunities available to them, as well as people, both male and female, who are now more aware of the challenges that female and minority students face and are willing to support them and to be mentors. The Women in Economics podcasts are wonderful resources. I have listened to every single one of them myself. All of those women who shared their stories have indirectly mentored me through the podcasts, and I'm thankful to them.

I'm also incredibly thankful to the Federal Reserve of St. Louis for being so responsive and welcoming and for all the work that you've done with us.

Suiter: Well, thank you. We appreciate that. And I think that young women like you, professors and others in the field who are making efforts on behalf of that goal of increasing underrepresented minorities and women in economics, it makes me hopeful as well for the profession to see the things that you're doing, to hear about the things that you're doing, and know that change is being made and does give everybody hope about the profession in the future.

Thank you so much for being with us today, Natallia. It was great speaking with you. To hear more from Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That's one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. Thanks so much, Natallia, I appreciate it.

Gray: Thank you for having me.