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Women in Economics: Zena Pare and Ella Needler

This 24-minute podcast was released Sept. 28, 2020.

Ella Needler and Zena Pare

“I really saw how economics can be useful in your everyday life and how much those basic principles kind of run the world in some ways,” says Zena Pare, a junior at Western Kentucky University. She joins fellow St. Louis Fed intern Ella Needler, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, as they discuss studying and working in economics with Maria Hasenstab, media relations coordinator at the St. Louis Fed.


Maria Hasenstab: I'm Maria Hasenstab and you're listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today I'm speaking with two young women who are interning at the St. Louis Fed, Zena Pare and Ella Needler. Thank you both for joining me today.

Ella Needler: Hi.

Zena Pare: Thank you for having us.

Hasenstab: Zena, let's start with you. You're a junior at Western Kentucky University. Tell me what you're studying, how you came into the field of economics, and how did you become an intern here at the St. Louis Fed?

Pare: Yeah. So I have three majors. And I am studying economics [laughs] and international business and corporate and organizational communication. And I have a minor in American sign language studies and a certificate in applied data analytics. And so my majors kind of emerged from each of my interests. I've always been very interested in having a global focus in my career, and so I didn't know exactly what that would look like, though. I had an interest in business growing up, but I didn't know anyone kind of in my community or in my family who had gone into business or had studied a business degree. And so I didn't know what that looked like.

Follow my freshman year, I was looking for classes to take. I came in with a bunch of credits from high school, so I had a little room to explore and test out some different subjects. I found a honors principles of macroeconomics class and I was, like, "Okay. Yeah, this sounds fun. It would let me learn some more about business and econ sounds interesting." And so I enrolled in that class, and I didn't understand how much of an impact it would have on me at that time. And so in that class, I loved it. It was my favorite class of the semester. I looked forward to it every time. And after class ended, I remember I would, like, talk to my friends and my family and be, like, "Wow, we learned this and, like, this is how it relates to the world." I really saw how economics can be useful in your everyday life and how much those basic principles kind of run the world in some ways. I really enjoyed that opportunity.

And I had also taken a couple classes in communication that semester, as well, and I saw how both of those could really complement each other and give me the critical thinking, the analytical skills from the economics, but also the way to articulate that and to really represent those ideas. And so I decided to combine both those and decided to major in both those. And then by spring semester of my freshman year, I was able to study abroad on Semester at Sea. And so I ended up going to, like, 20 countries on that experience after the program and traveling independently. And that really solidified that I wanted to have a global focus on what I was doing. And so that's how I ended up with the international business major with a concentration in global trade and economy. So it all kind of relates and connects to things I'm passionate about.

And as far as how I ended up at the Fed, so fall of my sophomore year I was looking for internships. And I remembered how much I enjoyed learning about the Fed and the work that it did and its very meaningful, impactful presence. I just started Googling, like, "Federal Reserve bank internships," and I saw that they all had internship programs. And so I applied to the St. Louis one because I'm in the 8th District because I'm from Kentucky, and so it was kind of a connection for me to see, "Oh, okay, I want to go here and I want to see how something that's very influential in my life—you know, again, that economic concept—how that relates and what I can maybe help contribute to their mission. And so I was very fortunate to receive an internship at the Fed and I've loved my experience here. It's really given me a lot of insights into future careers and other ways to combine each of my majors.

Hasenstab: Well, that's awesome that you said you were learning things in your classes that then you were able to make those connections outside of a classroom in real life in your conversations.

Ella, how about you, you're a senior at Washington University in St. Louis. Tell me how you ended up studying economics and the kind of internship work you're doing right now at the St. Louis Fed.

Needler: Yeah, absolutely. So I always knew I wanted to study econ. Coming into college, I, as a middle schooler and high schooler, my two favorite two subjects were always math and history. Which I always remember telling people that and they were always kind of taken aback and confused as to why it wasn't math and science or history and English. But I really liked the logic. And so knew I wanted to do econ coming into college. My criteria for finding a university was, in terms of cities, I wanted to see if there was a Federal Reserve in that city and also a House of Blues because I am a huge music in concert fan [laughs]. So those were the two places I checked for by my potential colleges. So I came across Wash U, which was great.

Coming in, I didn't know what area within econ I wanted to study, so throughout my freshman and sophomore year, I took a number of econ classes, both in our business school and our arts and sciences school. So spring of my freshman year, I was taking a management economics course and a course that was the history of economic thought and the great economists. And I realized that summer that I was really interested in the history of economic thought and decided to kind of spend the time that summer to read more into some niche areas of economics. And so I actually read John Maynard Keynes' Economic Consequences of the Peace and Richard Thaler's Nudge. And that really showed to me that I wanted to be doing this very kind of niche specific areas of economics. And so I declared myself as a major in economics in our Arts and Sciences School along with a major in finance.

And in terms of what I'm doing here with the St. Louis Fed, I have a really strong interest, as I mentioned, in the history of economic thought and economic history. And so I'm really happy that I'm working with the FRASER team this summer. They run a digital library, essentially. And so that's been really great because I get to work right with the economic history and apply it to what the Federal Reserve is doing now. So I've gotten a chance to write some blog posts and also help gather statistical information that's currently in pdf format on the Fraser website and gather it to get prepared to go onto FRED to make it more readily accessible.

Hasenstab: Well, that's awesome that you were able to take those interests and connect them with your internship.

Ella, you actually do some work for the Women in Economics Initiative, a group out of Germany; is that correct? Can you tell me more about that group and how you became involved?

Needler: Yeah, absolutely. So the Women in Economics group, while it's based out of Germany, it's an international group with members from all over. I've worked with teammates that are in Cape Town, South Africa, Luxembourg, and even London, which has been really interesting, great to get all of those perspectives. The group's goals are to help empower women and form and connect. So building those relationships, building those connections, and just helping raise awareness about the gaps that do exist for women in the field.

I came across them by searching "women in economics" on Twitter and LinkedIn to find ways to get more involved with that kind of a movement and was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to work with them and help contribute with content. So I get to write articles that are informative. I get to write stuff that are some opinion pieces. And I've also had the opportunity to help with some of the digital design processes of the group. So editing some videos and creating esthetic graphic materials for PowerPoints and articles.

Hasenstab: Does your school have a Women in Economics club?

Pare: Yeah. So my school, actually, does not have a Women in Economics club, specifically, but we do have a Women in Business organization and I'm serving as the president for that in the upcoming year, which I'm very excited about. This organization helped me a lot my freshman and sophomore years. Like I said, I didn't have a lot of business background or knowledge of opportunities within studying econ and international business. And it really helped me to connect with women who were interested in the same thing. I met other econ majors. I met econ professors who were women. I remember after one panel, I went to all their offices and introduced myself and just sat and asked them a bunch of questions about their careers.

So I really love that that is a way to connect people across disciplines. And I'm specifically trying to connect the Women in Business organization at my school with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. I've asked several women who I've met throughout my internship here to speak on a question and answer panel. And everyone's been super supportive and very willing to help out and share the knowledge that they have with the women of the organization. So I'm looking forward to that opportunity.

Hasenstab: Oh, wow. Really cool. And what about you, Ella, is there a club at Wash U?

Needler: As of now, there is no Women in Economics club at Wash U. It has definitely crossed my mind to try and get something started, especially now that I have this connection with this Women in Economics Initiative. The initiative does do panel discussions and discussions between universities, so I'm hoping to eventually build a connection between Wash U and some other schools, both potentially in the U.S. or even in Europe, to have these conversations about women's position in economics in the field and see how the experiences of U.S. students may not actually differ that much from the European students.

Hasenstab: Yeah, that's great to look at the differences that might exist across countries.

As female students, do either one of you, or both of you, do you ever feel like a minority in your economics classes? And if so, is that a hardship or is that a challenge?

Pare: So thankfully, my experience has been very positive. While there may not be, a majority of women economics students in my econ classes, I have always felt very supported and encouraged in this path. My first two econ professors were men, but I've also had women professors. And I'm working with a woman on my upcoming thesis, as well. So I've felt like I haven't really had a negative experience with anything, which I'm super grateful for because I know that is not always the case. But I definitely see how and why it's important to encourage women to study economics because I think it is one of those disciplines that perhaps feels like there is more of a male presence or like it's not something that might be as welcoming for women. So I'm definitely very encouraging of the initiative.

Hasenstab: And what about you, Ella, have you faced any other challenges as a young woman in the field of economics?

Needler: So after attending the Women in Economics Symposium that the St. Louis Fed hosted in 2018, I was always very aware when I got to my first day of a new economics course to just kind of scope out the room and see what the breakdown was. And it was never 50/50, but I never felt like a minority. I felt still very comfortable in the situation.

There was one class, though, where I was in a co-research project with one of my friends who was a guy, and we were meeting with our professor about the project. And at this point, we hadn't really had any grades or anything in class. We'd had one exam, and I had actually done better than my friend. And the entire conversation, though, my professor only made eye contact with my male co-researcher. That was my first instance of really noticing those biases that do exist within the field, especially because at that point, this professor, he didn't know much about our skills and our knowledge. We'd had one exam which I'd also done better on, but he only really made contact with my male co-researcher.

And the one thing, though, that was I guess a silver lining of this is I mentioned this to my friend after the conversation with our professor, and he recognized it. He was, like, "Yeah, why was he only making eye contact with me?" He recognized it, which I really appreciated and made me feel a lot more comfortable. And I think also made me recognize and realize that I have allies. But I still feel very comfortable in most of my classes and settings.

Hasenstab: That's interesting that your colleague noticed that and mentioned it to you after the fact, as well.

Talk to me about mentorship. Do either one of you have a mentor in the field and, if so, how has that person inspired you or helped you in your path here in economics?

Needler: I personally have a number of mentors, both formal and informal. I think a lot of professors can always be a mentor in some aspect and you can always find advice and those benefits of a mentor here and there. So I guess what I'm trying to get at with that is by fall of my sophomore year, I was in a history class with a professor who, she really noticed how much I loved research. And at this point, I didn't really notice that in myself yet. And so she sat down with me at one point at the end of the semester and kind of said, "Hey, have you thought about pursuing any undergraduate research grants?" And at that time, that was nothing that had crossed my mind. She kind of talked me through it. And it sounded like it was something that would be feasible.

And so I started looking more into it and applying for these grants. And I needed a research mentor, so I actually ended up kind of cold e-mailing [laughs] some professors at Wash U saying, "Hey, would you be willing to have this conversation? I'm really interested in doing this. Your research aligns with this, as well." And that's how I came across Steve Fazzari who is a professor in the economics department at Wash U, and he has been phenomenal. I've had a kind of mentor connection with him since the spring of my sophomore year. And we will hop on calls or meetings and we'll end up talking for an hour-and-a-half, two hours, in what was meant to be an hour-long meeting about economics as a whole and just advice and guidance. So I think mentorship is something that is incredibly important and worthwhile, and I think you can find it in a number of different ways.

Pare: Yeah. I really want to echo what Ella said. I've had different mentors in different capacities. And so the economics professor that I took his Honors Principles of Macroeconomic class my freshman year, I have actually stayed in contact with him. And he's been a really great resource for me over the past few years. Whenever I have questions, I'll just, like, go to his office and say, "I don't know what to do for grad school; I don't know what to do for internships. Like, do you have any advice?" Or I'll ask for his opinion on different things I'm applying to or possible career options. So I've really appreciated his guidance and support kind of over the few years because I actually haven't had him in class since my freshman year, but he's always been really willing just to answer my questions and provide guidance as he can.

And then I've also had mentors through different settings. And so some of them may not always be a long, really lasting relationship, but I've had good relationships from my study abroad programs with different professors who have really given me great advice for my career, as well as encouraged me in different opportunities. And so I think it's important to really learn what you can from as many people as possible, but then try and develop a strong relationship with a few people. And if you have several majors, like, I think it's great to have good relationships with people in each of those so you have someone to turn to for each discipline.

Needler: Can I build off of Zena really fast?

Hasenstab: Yes. Absolutely.

Needler: You mentioned having mentors in different majors in different areas, and I also want to echo that I think that's incredibly important. I have a mentor who she has a background in finance and the business working world. And to get her insights and opinions sometimes when I am trying to make decisions within econ I think has been incredibly valuable. So I just wanted to echo that on what Zena said.

Hasenstab: Yeah. And I just want to let you both know that that search for mentorship, that kind of request for either guidance or feedback, that doesn’t end once you get out in the work world. I've found mentors and found them so valuable at every stage of my education and my career. So I think it's great that you're identifying and looking for that, finding those opportunities now, and that will continue.

Needler: Absolutely. There's also a lot of research out there that shows that mentorship does actually help encourage women into the field of economics. So if you're debating it, find a mentor [laughs].

Pare: I would also echo that. It's really helpful to even have just one person to say, "Oh, yeah, you have talent and I believe in you and you can do this," because I think it boosts your confidence a lot because, of course, you have to have confidence in yourself, and I really believe that, but also, it's really meaningful when someone you respect or who's very experienced in the field tells you that they see talent in you because that's very encouraging at times when maybe you lose sight of that in yourself.

Hasenstab: Well, this is a great follow-up to that. I wanted to ask you both, what advice, if any, would you give to other female and underrepresented minority students and why would you encourage them to study economics?

Pare: I would really encourage people to study economics because it is so useful in your everyday life, decision-making and critical thinking. Just these concepts and skills that you learned from your economics classes are really useful in your personal life, as well as your career.

But also, I think another reason I would encourage people to study is economics or business, they are not necessarily—and I know some people may think, "Oh, you know, you study econ or finance or business and you're going to go work on Wall Street and do that kind of whole life," which there's nothing wrong with that, by any means, but I know a lot of people who maybe wouldn't study economics because they don’t see how it could also apply to other situations because economics is so useful in how the world operates. It can be a very impactful tool to uplift others and really make an impact and leave a positive change on the world, which is one reason that I was really so excited to study it. So I'd really encourage anyone, if you have an interest in it at all, just to try it.

And then, very similarly, the advice I would give is just try new things and get out of your comfort zone. It sounds really cliché, but whether that is saying, "Oh, like, I don't know if I would like econ," maybe you don't feel confident at math or something, just go ahead and take it because that's how I was. I wouldn't consider myself being excellent at math, but I really loved my economics courses. And so that's been something that I've been able to challenge myself with and grow in. And I would really encourage other people to do the same thing.

Needler: I really first want to echo Zena on what she said about giving it a shot and giving it a try. I've been able to talk with a number of mentors and people who I say are successful in the field of economics, and they all echoed and mentioned the importance of following what you're interested in and that it will all work out in the end. And it's hard to think that and let that sit in as an undergraduate [laughs], but as I've gone about the past few semesters, I think that's something that is actually very true. So with that, I know a lot of women are hesitant to get into the field of economics because of the mathematics. And there are very kind of standard ways I think people expect to approach econ. But there is actually a quote from John Maynard Keynes where he claims the true master economist is a statesman, a historian, a mathematician, and a philosopher. And I think that is something that is very true to the field. And I think because of that, there are many different ways you can approach econ and you can go about being an economist. So I guess there is not a one size fits all for being an economist. And I think that's something that isn't necessarily advertised very much, especially to women.

And I guess one other piece of advice that I would definitely give is don't hesitate to reach out to anyone. Send an e-mail to no one you've never met before. Don't hesitate. Worst case, they just don't respond [laughs]. Best case for me, I got a mentor out of it. I've had conversations with people that I never would have expected to have. So don't ever hesitate to reach out to someone.

Hasenstab: Yeah, that is great advice: Send an e-mail to someone you may not have met before. You never know what kind of response you're going to get.

Ella, you're in your senior year at Wash U. What do you plan to do after you graduate?

Needler: Yeah. So I am still trying to figure that out. But right now, my main hope is to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and economics. As I mentioned, I don't think there's a one size fits all for economists, and I really like the interdisciplinary approaches. So I've been looking at programs in philosophy in economics because it gives me the opportunity to look at some of those subfields that I really enjoy such as the history of economic thought and behavioral economics within kind of a more established framework.

Hasenstab: And Zena, you're in your junior year, but what are your plans after you graduate?

Pare: Similarly to Ella, I am still trying to figure out to some degree, but I feel like the further I get into my undergraduate career and the more classes I take in specific fields, the more I'm narrowing down what I'm interested in. I really want to do work that's impactful, that's meaningful, and that's very mission driven, which is one of the reasons that I was drawn to the Fed and have really enjoyed my time here. So I could see myself pursuing a career with the Fed. And I definitely think that it could be a great place to work and to really make an impact.

I have also thought about working in more of an international development situation or with an international organization of some variety. So I've thought about World Bank or the UN or something like that. But whatever I do, I really want it to have some global influence and focus, as well as being meaningful and impactful. And of course, I want to empower women along the way, however that looks like.

Hasenstab: Well, this is so great to hear your stories as women in the field of economics. I want to ask you both, when you hear the phrase, "women in economics," what does that mean to you?

Needler: For me, the first word that popped into my head when I heard that was empowerment. I think women in economics, we do have a lot of power. I think it's different than what people might expect. So I guess what I'm trying to get at with that is women can have a different outlook on things. And I think that's incredibly important to get that extra perspective and that extra advice when it comes to economics because economics impacts so many people and in so many different ways that to get more perspectives, you're going to be better off in the end. When I hear "women in econ,” I think of empowerment and helping to further the conversation of economics and further the literature and, as a whole, further the discipline.

Pare: Yeah, for me, I think what I thought of at first was change. And in some ways change because, you know, women are stepping into a field more and more where maybe they felt like they didn't belong or felt excluded. And I think that is a wonderful thing to be able to have that change and really support that equality.

But also, economics is a great resource and a great knowledge to have to create change in the world. I feel like I know I really want to do something impactful. And I fell like a lot of women feel similarly. And whether that is, like, with development or whether it's impactful in building a company and making it really successful, I think that change is something that women are very capable of and are leaders in and really driving to new innovations and ideas. And so I think women in economics is really representative of that for me.

Hasenstab: Wow. You guys, thank you both for sharing your stories. You are both truly the future of women in the field [laughter]. And it's so great to hear your optimism and your thoughts and your plans. So thank you for sharing your stories today.

Pare: Thank you for having us.

Needler: No problem. Thank you. It was great to talk with you both.

Hasenstab: To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit That's one word, 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."