Women in Economics: Paula Tkac

February 05, 2020

This 23-minute podcast was released Feb. 5, 2020.

Paula Tkac | St. Louis Fed

“The more different people we bring into the profession to ask different questions, the more we’re going to learn,” says Paula Tkac, senior vice president and associate research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the St. Louis Fed, about her experience as a student, teacher and mentor—and how having a mother who worked outside the home inspired her to become a “rule-breaking” economist.


Mary Suiter: Hello. I'm Mary Suiter, and you're listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today, I'm speaking with Paula Tkac, senior vice president and associate research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Paula, thank you so much for joining me today.

Paula Tkac: Well thank you for inviting me, Mary.

Suiter: It's really great to have you with us today. You've studied economics at the University of Chicago, so all of your degrees are from the University of Chicago. How did you come to be a student of economics? And could you talk about your experience as a woman in economics classes there?

Tkac: Sure. When I was undergraduate, I got interested in economics, but I was also interested in psychology and mathematics. So I liked a lot of different areas. And as I was kind of thinking about my future, I guess I knew subconsciously that I wanted to become a professor. I wanted to create new knowledge, and communicate that knowledge and continue to learn things. The question was more what field was I going to pursue?

I think, as many decisions in life, it wasn't a discreet moment where I said, “Economics is the one for me.” It was more kind of a confluence of being very successful in my classes, finding them interesting, trying it out. At the time, University of Chicago had a program where you could begin taking graduate classes while you were an undergrad. And never one to shrink back from a challenge. In fact, I'm usually one to go after the most challenging thing I could find, I decided that was a fun idea. And then before I knew it, I was in pretty deep and having a lot of fun. And so I just decided to continue and have been very, very happy with ultimately that decision.

Suiter: So what made it fun for you?

Tkac: Well, I think it was a combination of intellectual challenge, but also using my intellect and these mathematical tools and concepts, sometimes very subtle and powerful concepts, to make sense of the world. Now, you know, many disciplines do that. Physics does that, chemistry does that. We're all, in some way, seeking to understand. But understanding the world of people, and commerce, and interactions that folks have even when they are not explicitly economic. Maybe like a marriage market when you're looking for a mate or you're thinking about what school to attend. All of those things can be thought of using economics. And so I found there was sort of no end to the way I could apply the tools that I was learning to the world around me, the one I lived in every single day.

Suiter: That's great. Were there many women in your classes at the University of Chicago?

Tkac: There were more probably as an undergrad. I only ended up taking four undergraduate classes before I began graduate school. I did have one woman graduate student instructor for one of those classes. But once I was in graduate school, and specifically graduate classes, the number decreased, although Chicago had and still does – has a large Ph.D. program, so there were a fair number of women. But I quickly got used to being the only woman in the room because the fields that I chose to pursue were financial economics, mathematical economics and there weren't a lot of women studying those. So yeah. Very quickly, it became the case that at least folks who were in my classes with me were generally men.

Suiter: Who were your mentors in economics and your graduate programs?

Tkac: I've always tried to find role models that embody some aspiration of mine. And so I didn't really have anyone kind of guiding me along. Certainly, you know, not encouraging me to go down the economics path. Chicago was a very self-sufficient sort of economics graduate program at the time, and it was actually a great thing because I knew that once I had come up with a dissertation topic and had worked to prove my case to the folks on my committee, all of whom were men, I knew that this was my work, that I had competed to convince them that I had something to say. And that's a great feeling.

So when I got out of graduate school, I never really had a crisis of faith about whether I could come up with another good question, or whether I could do good work. It was going to be really hard, and I was going to have to work hard to convince others that my work was a big contribution, but I know several other folks who went to other graduate programs and maybe paradoxically had a good experience in graduate school, but came out and kind of wondered whether they could stand on their own two feet. So for me, I had a lot of great role models about how to be a good economist and that's what I drew from as I tried to emulate them. The way they argued, the way they wrote papers, the questions they took on, the way they behaved in seminars, the way they would question everyone and anyone because it was about the ideas and not about the people in the room. Nothing was personal, and that was a really big lesson for me.

Suiter: That's a good lesson for all of us when you're working on ideas and projects like that. So you succeeded in your goal of becoming a professor, and you were a professor at Notre Dame. Can you talk about your experience as a woman economics professor?

Tkac: I don't know that there was anything particularly different about being a woman professor, at least from my perspective. So I had great colleagues, both men and women. I was in the business school and the department of finance and business economics. There were several other women faculty in my department and around the college.

I think the way it influenced my experience, being a woman, that is, was really not in the classroom or how I saw myself, but some of the experiences that I had. So I had a child at the end of graduate school, my daughter, and I had my son three or four years into my time at Notre Dame. And I remember hearing from other young women faculty that they had been counseled by folks around the profession, and these weren't in the economics department. They were in other departments. That they had been counseled by older colleagues in their profession to put off having children until after you receive tenure. For me, obviously, it didn't resonate. And personally, I chose not to outsource my decision about my family to any committee. You know, let the chips fall where they may. And that was something I was comfortable with, but I know a lot of people felt pressure, and that's something that I don't know if those same conversations were being had with young male professors. I suspect not.

The other thing is, at the time, I came out of graduate school, this was the mid-90s. Strangely enough even in the mid-90s, I heard from people that when I went on a job talk to a university, to give a seminar, to meet with faculty, as part of the recruiting process, that I shouldn't wear a suit with pants because somehow that wasn't acceptable or serious or would look strange. So of course, I wore a suit with pants, and felt really comfortable and got a job. Everything worked out fine. Today of course, nobody would think twice about what people are wearing and those things. But at the time, yeah, there was still kind of some thoughts about different rules applying to men and women. So I'm glad to say that, again, those things I think have faded from most of our consciousnesses.

Suiter: So when you were teaching, then, you were teaching economics classes, did you notice a change in the number of women in the class as you were teaching as compared to perhaps your own experience with women in your classroom when you were taking classes?

Tkac: Well, I was teaching predominantly business students, and so that tended to have a greater representation of women. And I was teaching a class that was required of all business students. So again, that played into having more women in my classes. I wasn't teaching students preparing to go on for Ph.D. level classes. I wasn't teaching more theoretical college, you know, technical or esoteric classes where there are just bigger barriers to anyone who wants to take those classes. These were very accessible. And I did try very hard to make them interesting for students no matter what they were studying in business school, and I think that helped resonate the material with a lot of the folks.

Suiter: Did you perhaps convert any young women to major in economics?

Tkac: You know, I don't know that I did. I honestly didn't try to. My goal really was to open up everyone's eyes, however they came into my class, to what economics could do for them as they sought to go down the path that they found most exhilarating and exciting and advantageous. And so I really wanted them to leave my class with kind of the tool set that would allow them to be good, let's call it, intuitive economists in the real world. Right? Not necessarily to remember the equations and the graphs and how to work out a problem, but to be able to look around them and make a little more sense of the world than they could before they got into my class. And so I think I made a lot of intuitive economists out of kids, at least from the feedback that I heard over the years, but I don't know that any got the bug specifically from me to pursue economics single-handedly.

Suiter: But what a success to have feedback that they are better able to interpret the economic world around them.

Tkac: Yeah. It's very gratifying. Especially when one comes a long time later. So I got an e-mail, maybe now it was about a year ago from a student that I had in the late '90s saying that he had read something and thought about something we had done in my class, an essay I had had them write about a real world event that was in the Wall Street Journal, and he said he carried that with him. And so yeah. It's nice to know that you've had an influence and that those people are paying it forward because now they're able to pass that knowledge along and make a difference.

Suiter: That's fantastic. So how did you come to your role at the Fed?

Tkac: You know, just like my decision to go into economics. It was just a constellation of particular kind of events that the time was right. And I was at Notre Dame and we actually had an economist in to give a seminar, and he was the financial team lead here at the Atlanta Fed. His name was Jerry Dwyer. And Jerry came to Notre Dame and he was always on the lookout for more talent at the Fed. That was one of his great strengths. Every time he was out giving talks or going to conferences, he had his eyes open for good economists that he thought would be a good fit. And I think one of my friends said, “Well, you know, she might be movable,” and so Jerry asked me, would I like to interview with them at the meeting? And quite honestly, I thought, “Well, I'm not necessarily in the market for a job change right now, but I never want to pass up an opportunity to have a conversation.” So I had the conversation and then they asked me to come out and job talk. And you know, at that time I thought about it. I thought would I really move? I don't want to waste anyone's time. But I thought, I want to investigate this some more. And I really thought I would come here for three to five years, get a bunch of research done, go back into a professorship somewhere. But the Fed became a really good fit, and then the financial crisis came and my expertise was more valuable inside the system than it had been. I knew things and had connections and perspectives that helped me to help at least our bank understand what was going on. And that then kind of created a whole new set of opportunities for me here, and so it's been a very fun ride and one that's nowhere near the end.

Suiter: So talk a little bit about that. Your interests, your emphasis areas in economics, and how those would have been of real value during that crisis.

Tkac: So when I was doing research with the vast majority of my time, which I don't get to do as much anymore, I focused on the area within financial markets related to asset management and individual investor decision making. So a lot of financial economics especially that which deals with the investment side of finance, deals with how to make money. So differential returns, why one stock earns more than another, different portfolio strategies, all kinds of interesting questions that have to do with performance and prices and returns.

In particular, I had done a fair amount of work on this mutual fund selection process and pension fund selection process and had done some thinking about mutual funds more generally. When the financial crisis hit, I knew a lot of institutional detail about how the mutual fund markets work, specifically about how money market mutual funds work, and there was kind of a relatively little-known area of financial markets. They weren't particularly sexy, I would say, before the financial crisis. Many people use them and they think of them just like checking accounts, but they're structured differently and those differences can be really, really important when you're talking about a situation like we had in the fall of 2008 when we were concerned about massive amounts of money leaving money market mutual funds and shifting around to the financial markets.

So that kind of knowledge, my institutional knowledge, because as an empirical economist I spend a lot of time understanding the nitty gritty structure of how the real world operates, that became helpful as I kind of communicated that to others, and pointed them toward resources. So I wasn't instrumental in any of the facilities that were set up or anything, but we did have lots of cross staff communication as we all tried to get up to speed on what was going on.

Suiter: I think it was an exciting time to be an economist, although a scary time.

Tkac: Very much so.

Suiter: As a senior vice president and the associate research director there at the Atlanta Fed, do you find yourself in that role mentoring women, minorities, recruiting women and minorities to the field?

Tkac: I certainly try to do as much as I can in those dimensions. We don't have a lot of turnover here among our economists, so unlike some universities where you might have multiple positions every year. We're not always on the market, and so a lot of my activity is in trying to help develop the pipeline at local universities and universities more broadly making economics interesting to everyone, and specifically interesting to folks who may not have thought that it was a potential area for career exploration. So I spend time doing that. We've got great relationships with local universities, including the HBCUs here in Atlanta and Agnes Scott College, and we definitely create opportunities for folks at all of these places to come in and do research experience at the Fed, working for one of our economists or working on a special project. Now with our new President Raphael Bostic we've got a whole new set of projects going on that are kind of in the interface between what you might think of as standard academic economics and sort of the community and economic development world.

I'm always ready to talk with students who are interested, and hopefully get them to understand the opportunities that are available in economics, whether it's as an econ major, or just taking an econ class, or maybe even becoming an economist.

Suiter: In general, what do you see or what value do you believe that women and minorities bring to the table that might not be there if they weren't there?

Tkac: This is a really interesting question. I think sometimes people can interpret that question as asking whether or not there's a women's kind of economics, or you know, whether women do economics differently. I don't believe the answer to that is yes. I think it's emphatically no. Economics is a way of looking at the world. But in doing economics, the first thing that happens is the researcher has a question. Right? The tools that we use are the same and we're trying to increase those tools every day, but the questions are very personal. The questions really come from inside the individual economist. What do I find interesting? What do I want to explain?

And so when I think about the economics profession, it just seems to me completely obvious that if you want the richest, most powerful impact for economics to be realized in terms of helping us understand the world around us, we need a huge number of different questions to be asked so that we can pursue absolutely every area of human interest using these tools. And I think the questions that people ask often come from their own experience, from just what naturally interests them, from things that they've seen in their families and their neighborhoods and their communities, in the newspaper, in some interaction, the problems that they perceive going on in the world that aren't being solved, and they want to understand how do I solve them? That's often the first time that you think of a research project is coming from that kind of tension. That wanting to say, “Why is this still going on? I think there should be a solution to this.” So then you dig into understanding the problem and hopefully that helps pull apart the really complex angle of interactions that are going on, incentives, structures, laws, behaviors such that maybe you can find a way to move the ball forward in terms of solving the problem.

For me, it's not about kind of doing economics differently, it's just doing economics. I think the more different people we bring into the profession to ask different questions, the more we're going to learn. And we're all, as economists, socialized into trying to kind of maximize the greater good, and so every question is fair game. And the question of what is good and how do we balance off different notions of good is an important one that sometimes we struggle with. But it's in the struggle that we move towards trying to find some answers and to make a contribution.

Suiter: I really like what you said there about using the same tools. We're all using the same tools, but it's the questions we ask. And my questions would be very personal to me and yours to you. So the whole profession benefits, the whole world benefits if we're answering more questions. I appreciate that.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about the notion of women in economics? Is there anything you'd like to add or anything you think that's important about the discussion that we haven't touched on?

Tkac: So, yeah. I'd like to circle back to kind of where we started this conversation. I was very fortunate to have a mother who broke a lot of rules. And by that, I mean kind of social norm. When I was three years old, and let's say I guess 1969, my mom went back to work and I went to preschool, which today would be nothing new, but at the time this was a rarity. When I went to elementary school I walked to school. I didn't live far enough to take a bus, and I had to get special permission to stay at school and eat lunch with the kids who took the bus because all the kids who walked went home and their moms fed them lunch and then they walked back to school. And in fifth grade I remember, no joke, this must have been, 1976, having a structured debate. It was part of the classroom instruction where I took the side that women should be free to decide whether or not they wanted to work in the workplace. And a young man in my class took the other side. So from a very early age I had a role model or a mentor who told me that I could do anything I wanted to do and it didn't really matter what other people were doing. And as I went through school, I kind of maybe lost a little bit of sight of that and I looked for, as I said, role models everywhere. Men, women, whether they looked like me or not, whether they had anything in common with me. I just looked for people who I wanted to be like in some way. They were kind, they were good economists, they were effective, they were take charge. But as I got older I realized this impact that my mother had on me, and I realized that these role models and this sense of permission to be yourself is an important component in making sure that everyone can realize their own potential, that nothing seems closed off.

So I would encourage people to do what I did, which is to look everywhere and anywhere for role models. Anyone that you might want to be like in any way, and maybe it's only in one way. You know, one thing you admire about someone, but figure out how they do it. And then also look for those people that might be mentors or role models, even if they're not economists, right? If they're anybody who just provide that inspiration for you to do what it is you want to do. Find that rule breaker that can give you the emotional support or the inspiration or the vision that it's okay to chart your own path, and wherever that takes you is exactly where you're supposed to go.

Suiter: That's great advice and it's a great story.

Tkac: I definitely am a rule breaking role model inside the Fed. And I don't mean that in any bad way I'm constantly just trying to see outside the box, how could we do things differently? I believe in bringing my whole self to work and so that means the days that I'm struggling with some issue, the days that I'm happy, I love watching people get excited by whatever crazy thing they get excited about, even if I cannot relate at all. And so sort of the celebration of individuality is something that I try to bring to this department. And I often get the comment when I go out and talk, “Well, you're not like what I thought an economist would be like,” because we get a bad reputation. I consider that a compliment. Maybe it's opened people's eyes that you can like economics and still like horror movies, and want to go to women's roller derby, and watch football, and do all kinds of other things. It doesn't define you. It's just a really cool part of you.

Suiter: So I'm grateful for that and I'm grateful to you for the work that you do in reaching out to audiences and teaching economics in the way that you do. So thank you very much.

To hear more about women in economics, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That's one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. Thank you so much.

This podcast features conversations with women and underrepresented minorities who are making their marks in the field of economics. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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