Women in Economics: Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe

July 30, 2020

This 30-minute podcast was released July 30, 2020.

Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, founder and president of WISER

“This profession is what we make it … therefore, it's going to take all of us to be responsible to make it a better profession,” says Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race, WISER. She talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, about WISER’s mission to expand women-focused research on the needs of Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native American and multiracial women.



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 Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, president and founder of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race, or WISER.

Hi, Rhonda. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Rhonda Sharpe: Hi, Mary. Thanks for having me.

Suiter: Tell me about the mission of WISER and how you and your staff work to achieve that mission.

Sharpe: So the mission of WISER is to expand women-focused research to include the needs of Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native American and multiracial women. There are a couple of ways that we achieve the mission.

First, we stress the disaggregation of data. And disaggregating data is the mechanics of how we analyze data, to divide the data into samples that share the nuances and outcomes. With the current pandemic, disaggregating data is important to get the full picture of the impact of COVID‑19, which includes things like unemployment, who is working an essential job, who is getting tested and treated, who has lost their lives, who’s benefiting from the CARES Act or who’s going to be harmed because it’s not extended. In this moment, disaggregating data, reporting data by race, ethnicity, gender, and age allows us to see the nuances and outcomes that are masked when we report the data by race, ethnicity, age or gender. And that’s the way that the data is currently being reported.

Disaggregating data is also important for crafting better policies, and it saves lives. I’ll often tell people things like if you look in the healthcare industry, we know that Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer but not necessarily have a higher incidence of that. And the reason we know that is because the data was disaggregated by race and ethnicity and gender, not just women and breast cancer.

Second—and this is also in line with disaggregating data—we avoid using the term “women of color,” which is meant to be a political term, not a biological term, but we also avoid the term “women of color” because it assumes that Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native American and multiracial women are a homogeneous group, and we are not. With respect to disaggregating data and women of color, I have a very short piece in Nature Human Behaviour that talks again about why this is important. It also has policy ramifications. Right? You want to know what’s happening not for the group, but for individuals, so that you can plan things like child care. We know that Hispanic women still have a higher fertility rate than other women in the U.S., and so that’s important for things like planning for child care.

And then, finally, our goal is to shift the conversation to be inclusive. So when the unemployment April numbers came out in May, the conversation was that we were in a “she‑cession.” And as I was looking at the reports around it, everyone seemed to be very focused on what was happening with Black and Hispanic women and completely missed that, of the 12 million women who became unemployed in April, 8 million of them were white women. So there’s this notion for me that’s always around this deficit lens with respect to non-white women that we’re also looking to share. We want the conversations to be inclusive, because inclusive conversations lead to better public policy.

Suiter: So when and why did you found WISER?

Sharpe: So I founded WISER on March 8, 2016, which was International Women’s Day. When I tell people that I was tired of reading reports in which I would see Black and Hispanic women between the commas or I would see these reports, and there would be a paragraph about Black and Hispanic women, and it was always deficit‑based. So you’d get “women, except Black and Hispanic women.” And I turned 50 in 2016, so it’s been my joke that, you know, feisty 50 was upon me, and I was tired of being “othered.”

The “othered” part is absolutely true, right, just beginning to see these reports and not seeing myself in the data, constantly wondering, like, why am I always between the commas? Why is there a separate paragraph? So I wanted to have an organization in which would do these reports and not “other” women of color. And notice I said “women of color.” And generally I tell people, like, it’s OK if you use “women of color” once you define it—that it means Asian, Black, Hispanic (or) Native American women. And so that’s why I founded it. I just didn’t want to continue to read reports, one, where I didn’t see myself; two, in which I was being “othered”; and, three, not wanting to see conversations about non-white women where the comparison is from a deficit perspective.

And then the other one is wanting people to be really clear that when you say “women,” if you mean white women, put that descriptor in front of it. Right? Because otherwise I’m constantly asking, as Sojourner Truth asked over 150 years ago, “Ain’t I a woman?”

Suiter: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that’s profound. And I applaud your efforts to do this, because it’s important.

Sharpe: That’s where I actually get the pushback. It’s not necessarily in the disaggregation of data, but there is something about asking people to put “white” in front of “women”—if you’re talking about white women, they refuse. Or asking people not to say “women and minorities,” because, I asked the question, “Who are you talking about?” Because as a Black woman, I both fit in the minority category and I fit as a woman. But when you say “women and minorities,” either you’re double counting me, or you should be saying, “white women and minorities,” or you should be saying “women and non-white men.”

Suiter: I can imagine that you would get pushback, but your reasoning is sound, and careful analysis would suggest that we should use the right terminology always when talking about data, and I’m sure that we don’t. So your efforts to move that forward, I think, are very valuable to the profession.

Sharpe: You know, Mary, I think about this beyond economics. Right? I think about this just in terms of good research, even if you’re not talking in economics and good policy. Right? If you don’t name it correctly, it is very difficult to address an issue. I think that’s sort of one of the things that they tell you with people who have addictions; first, you got to name it. You’ve got to claim what the problem is. And I think the other part of that is when we’re having these conversations about diversity and, more importantly, inclusion, you can’t be creating an inclusive environment if you keep “othering” people. Right? If you keep saying “women,” but you really don’t mean women, we’ve got to be very careful about the language that we use and to be mindful that in so many ways, language is exclusive. Right? It excludes people—the way that we word things. So, to me, it’s not just about economics; it’s asking people to walk their talk about inclusiveness.

Suiter: Yes, I agree. It’s not just about economics, and certainly it’s about much broader—all fields, and policy. How did you choose economics as a field of study?

Sharpe: So my story in econ is very different than most. I was at Stanford University studying operations research, was realizing that widgets don’t excite me, and had thought about doing a Ph.D. in education and had some conversations. And folks were, like, you don’t want to do the Ph.D. in education because education requires that you have a subfield, suggesting the subfield. And the subfield would allow you to have broader options, right, like, so you’re just not focused on education. And so I had a conversation with my department chair, Richard Cottle, and asked him about taking my electives in the School of Education, and he said, “Sure, but they have to be quantitative,” which meant I took my courses with economists.

So my first economics course was with Myra Strober, who was huge in feminist economics, but the person who really encouraged me to study econ was at the time the institutional research person for Stanford, and his name was William Weiler. And I had signed up to take the economics of educations course, and Hank (Henry) Levin was supposed to be teaching it, but he was on leave, so Weiler was teaching it, and I was the only one in the class who wanted to do higher education. Everybody else was there for K through 12. So I kind of had an independent study course with him, and he would talk to me about economics and what I wanted to do in education, and so that’s how I got to econ.

Suiter: So what challenges have you faced as a Black woman in economics, and how have you overcome them, or how have you worked to overcome them? Maybe they’re still there, but you’re working to make them disappear.

Sharpe: I would say much of what I face in econ is just the nature of econ. Like econ hazes everybody. And I think that’s a lot of the conversation that we’re hearing about the bad behavior. The challenges when you are Black and then you put “woman” on top of that, the consequences can feel different. Right? The way that I’ve protected myself, or should I say the way that I’ve been protected, is I’ve got an incredibly supportive network. My dissertation adviser was Cecilia Conrad. She’s the CEO of Lever for Change and oversees the MacArthur Fellows Program. Sandy Darity—I was thinking 20 years ago I wanted to be a postdoc at UNC Chapel Hill, and that began my working relationship with Sandy Darity.

And then there are other senior Black economists like Sam Myers, Bill Sprague (and) Patrick Mason, who definitely in the earlier part of my career—I mean, I think that’s when you see it more—protected me. And then I have a supportive group in terms of my co‑authors, Nina Banks, Greg Price and Omari Swinton. And since I’ve started WISER, Willene Johnson, who I think this year, you know, is going to really retire, has been just a huge support for me with the work that I do with WISER.

So I think for me it has been having a supportive network of economists, primarily who have been Black economists, especially early on. I would say as I progressed in my career, the International Association for Feminist Economics has become more supportive As I’m growing as a feminist economist and in that space, it has been people like Diana Straussman, Randy Albelda, Mary King, and Rodica (Neamtu). And I’m not going to attempt to say Rodica’s last name, because I’m sure that I will get that wrong. That has been a community that has been supportive.

But I’d also like to say that I think my experience in econ in some ways has been different. I wasn’t hazed as a graduate student. I had a great experience as a graduate student. And I think part of that is in economics, the data is showing more and more that the people who are getting Ph.D.s aren’t American-born. And at Claremont Graduate University, where I went, it was moreso the American students who stuck together, and so I didn’t feel the isolation that a lot of people talk about. My study buddy was a woman named Miriam Matthews, now Miriam Fognon. Miriam and I are still very close. So I didn’t have that experience as a graduate student. And then as a professional, for me, it’s just been having a supportive network of economists.

Suiter: So that’s interesting. You didn’t have that hazing experience in graduate school. Then the reason for that, as you described it, is the network that you have, and you began developing that network in graduate school. What kind of advice do you have for a young Black woman or a young Black man or Hispanic or any underrepresented minority—what kind of advice do you have for them in terms of developing that network? Because I don’t think all of us have that experience of an adviser who protects us as you describe.

Sharpe: I should say, Mary, for me in grad school, Cecilia was my adviser, and I know that there was protection that came along with that, but I also had a wonderful relationship with my white male adviser. There’s a guy named Craig Stubblebine. And Stubblebine is probably 6 feet 2 inches, 250 (pounds), and, you know, just this force. And I sat in the front of the classroom. And so this is one of my favorite stories about him. And he would come in class, and he’d say, “Miss Sharpe, still sitting in the front?” And I would say, “Yes, and still asking questions.”

For a lot of students, that would have been off-putting, but that’s not my personality. Right? Like you can be snarky with me, and I got something for you. But in addition to that, Stubblebine was also my study partner for the micro quals. And last year, as I was going to give a presentation about custodial grandmothers—he and I, we chatted on the phone. And I was just talking to him about doing WISER. And when I started WISER, in addition to Cecilia and Sandy, I also sent cards to white male professors that I’d had. Curtis Eaves, when I was at Stanford, Stubblebine—who was at Claremont McKenna—John Angus, who was my math professor—I sent them cards to thank them, right, because so much of my willingness to do WISER, the confidence that I had, is a combination of both these white men, who I encountered in graduate school, and the Black economists that I’ve come in contact with.

So my advice to folks is not to shy away from folk. Right? Like I really think that there is value in building a relationship with a person in the department nobody likes. And I know that sounds like why would I do that, because when that person goes to bat for you, nobody’s going to say anything. Like that just squashes everything. And I think a lot of things in econ, it is hard to separate how much of it is just bad behavior and how much of it is about you. And economics, like I said, hazes everyone.

Now, having said that, I will say to you the bad behavior that sticks out in my mind has come from women. And in this conversation about bad behavior, the thing that I don’t like is how we are not talking about all bad behavior. The bad behavior is focused on the bad behavior of men, but it is women that I have seen who will be incredibly critical. It is women who I have seen who erase other women. I expect women to fight. I expect them to mentor you. I expect them not to do the things to you that somebody did to them, and that is not at all what I’ve seen or have I experienced. Right? And those are the things that stick out in my mind. Right? Just the bad behavior of women, not the bad behavior of men.

So my advice is reach out to folks. Make the extra effort to get to know people. And I often tell junior people, whether you’re a faculty member or a graduate student, invite somebody to lunch, especially when you’re a student. And if they don’t offer to pay for your meal, you might want to ask yourself is that really somebody you want to have in your circle, because if they’re not willing to pay for your meal, knowing how broke grad students are, how willing might they be to share their network? Right? So the advice is to put in the extra effort. Don’t shy away from people because folks have told you bad things. Don’t ignore it, but don’t shy away. Find out for yourself, because sometimes the bad experience people have is not one‑sided. Right? Like we’re bringing our own stuff into each relationship that we have.

Suiter: That’s an interesting perspective, and I think it’s a challenge often for young people to do that, but that’s great advice.

Right now I think we’re in a somewhat unique time in the field of economics. There seems to be a lot of discussion among economists about race, gender and equity in the field of economics. The American Economic Association recently released an important statement about the inequality Black Americans face today, and a couple months prior to that, they also adopted a professional code of conduct. So could you talk a little bit about any positive actions that you’ve seen in the last several months as a result of those discussions and of those actions on the part of the American Economic Association?

Sharpe: I’ll start by saying is I don’t see these as unique times, and part of that is, if you look at several organizations like the National Economics Association and the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, a lot of these organizations got started in 1969, 1970, so they’re celebrating 50 years of existence, you know, either in 2019 or 2020. There is an article that was published in The American Economic Review called “The Statement of Concern of the Caucus of Black Economists to the American Economic Association,” which outlined a lot of the things that I saw in the statement, so for me I don’t feel like it’s unique.

But having said that, in terms of what I see is going on that’s positive is, one, I think there’s going to be what I consider guilt money that’s going to be coming to organizations with a mission of increasing diversity in the economics profession. I find that the media has provided a platform for the voice of more Black economists. In some ways I think that’s positive, although I don’t think the media understands the ways in which they are perpetuating many of the things that Black economists are complaining about, and that is that you’re only talking to us because you see it as a Black issue and not necessarily an economic issue. Like you could talk to us on the other side of that.

I think it is good that we’re having these conversations about behavior. What I’m not excited about is, one, it’s not a full conversation about behavior. I’m not excited about the erasure that I see going on that we’re not having a conversation about. And I think EconTwitter is especially bad about this. EconTwitter tends to only talk about things when it’s white men who are do things and not when it’s “other.” So I’m cautiously optimistic; I’m happy to see the conversations. I just wish they were full and honest conversations and not what I consider to be the trite ones about bad behavior of particular folks and not bad behavior of everyone. That’s what I want. I want, like, full conversation of bad behavior. Right? So we can call everybody out on their behavior, because, again, unless we’re pointing to all of the bad behavior, I think that there’s an assumption that this is not my problem, and the reality is it’s all of our problem and it’s all of our responsibility to make this profession better, and it is one of the things that I really try to be mindful of, of my behavior both as a coeditor for The Review of Black Political Economy and in the work that I do at the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race. Right? Like I’ll see people do things, and I kind of step back and go (gasp), “Am I doing that?” Right? Because they say, you know, you attract what you are, so I have to kind of step back and go, oh, my God, like, did I just do what somebody just did to me? Right? And I think that that is important, and I don’t know that we’re having those conversations.

Suiter: So your comments about women demonstrating behavior that needs to change too, I’ve seen that, of course, not just in economics, but in my career with a lot of women; and I agree following EconTwitter, it’s not discussed, and I find EconTwitter to be sometimes as ugly as hazing.

Sharpe: Yes. Right?

Suiter: So I don’t always approve of the behavior that happens there. So, how could we move this along? What other improvements could we make? How can we push this discussion, so we get to some of those things that you’ve talked about that are being left out and we talk about behavior more broadly and issues more broadly?

Sharpe: And I appreciate you asking that question, because there is CSWEP newsletter in which I kind of lay out 10 steps. And the state e-collective recently came out with a list of things that econ had done, and people were like, “Oh, my God. This is incredibly new.” Right? Like somebody hadn’t already said that. And that’s part of what I talked about with respect to erasure. But the things that I think that need to be done—and I’ve been saying this for quite some time—is, one, I think the profession needs to define diversity and inclusion, because without a definition of what the profession sees as diversity and inclusion, you can’t hold people accountable. And I often say to folks that an inclusive environment isn’t one in which we ask white men to be quiet so everyone else can speak. An inclusive environment provides a space for every voice. If you disagree, then disagree on the merits of the statement. Let’s not call people names. Right? Let’s not do any of that. You know, theoretically we all have Ph.D.s and have been trained, and so you should have the ability to articulate the flaws in a statement without making it personal. So, I think that’s one.

Two, I think we need more positive stories. I grew up in mathematics, and I have always been taught by women until I got to Stanford, and the Operations Research Department there was all men. But by that time, I was 26, so this motion that I shouldn’t be doing math or engineering, I was like, “Y’all should have told me that a long time ago.” But I’ve always been taught by women. And not women who I heard talk about how awful the profession was. Right? Either women or, I should say, or Blacks before I got to Stanford. I think that’s the other part. We need to change the narrative. You need more positive stories. It shouldn’t just be how awful the profession is. I mean, ask yourself, if somebody was asking you to go spend more time in education to be part of a discipline that’s racist, sexist—and if we talk about what’s happening in STEM—and pays you less, who would sign up for that? Like, no one. Right? So we need to change some of the narratives so that they can be positive.

And then I think that the final one is a more honest, full conversation. I want people to understand that this profession is what we make it and not continually put the responsibility to make it better on white men, because all of us do our part to either make it bad—make it a bad profession; and, therefore, it’s going to take all of us to be responsible to make it a better profession. I think those are the three things. Right? Define diversity and inclusion, better narratives, and then more honest conversations.

Suiter: And those are just, in my opinion, excellent suggestions. If you disagree, disagree with the idea and don’t attack the person. And I’m so glad that you talked about that, because I see that as a pain point for anyone who wants to join this profession, regardless of who they are.

And I love the idea of sharing more positive stories, because you’re right, who wants to come into a profession when all you hear about is how awful it is? And yet it’s a profession that—I tell young women, “If you want to change the world with policy, study economics.”

Sharpe: Absolutely.

Suiter: So—it can have a huge impact on people’s lives, and we want those discussions to happen, those broad, inclusive discussions that you talk about. So thank you for sharing those three very important ideas.

You mentor many people and you mentor women, Black women—lots of people. What types of things are you doing to draw underrepresented minorities, women of color, into the field?

Sharpe: I was thinking about that this morning too, right, because July is when everybody starts their new jobs, and so I was just thinking, wow, 20 years ago I went to UNC to be a postdoc. And that really is when my relationship with Sandy Darity started. And from that relationship, I then went to work at Duke to be the associate director for the ADH summer program. And then that was probably 2003. And in 2007, Sandy and I wrote a proposal for the Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics, which is a mentoring program for junior faculty, for people who may not be in academia but are interested in doing that. And these are things that I did before I had tenure.

With WISER, it’s my organization, so I have far more control. I listen to the questions that my students ask. I was listening to Fenaba Addo’s interview with you and listening to her talk about her plans and taking Sandy’s class, I believe, her senior year, and having someone listen to her questions and then encouraging her according to the question.

Again, in my CSWEP newsletter, I talk about this, that it’s important that we listen to the questions that our students ask and focus less on their grades, because a lot of times people aren’t doing well in a particular subject because they just don’t see themselves in that space. They don’t see how the things that are important to them matter, but if you encourage folks by their questions and not their grades, a lot of times you can see that turn around. And I’ve seen that.

So in WISER, this year I adjunct taught stats at the University of Richmond as well as Virginia Commonwealth University. So my interns currently are former students, who I would go into class and say, “Hey, you know, you’re looking for something to do for the summer, you should come work for me. You should come work for me. Hey, you should come work for me.”

And so I’ve always reached out to folks by their questions, by their concerns.

Suiter: Those are great examples of how you bring people into the field and suggestions for how others might do it as well. And I think internships with you would be a tremendously valuable experience for any student.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed?

Sharpe: Sure. I think that for me what’s important is that people are mindful of the erasure that happens to Black women, both in terms of the ways in which people do not cite our work—and I imagine that happens for all women—but the ways in which people do not cite our work, the ways in which the profession allows our work to be talked about and not assigned to us. I’d really like to see people change that. When the profession sees the erasure of Black women, that they will speak out against that and that it won’t matter who’s doing the erasure.

And the second is that people spend some time to know the history of Black women in economics and let that history go beyond Sadie Alexander, who’s the first Black to get a Ph.D. in economics. And I said Black. Not first Black woman, but the first Black. There have been a number of Black women since Sadie who have been doing the work to diversify this profession and who have a body of scholarship that should be cited. Those are the two things I’d like to see. Cite us and know us. Right? Know our history. Know the work that we’re doing.

Suiter: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. I hope that we can support that in our podcast series and in other ways.

I really appreciate you talking with us today and taking the time to share your insights about the profession, about underrepresented minorities and people of color in economics, so thank you very much.

Sharpe: Thank you for having me, Mary. I’m always delighted to talk about the work that I’m doing and my ideas for making the profession better.

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.”

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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