Women in Economics: Christina Romer, Janice Eberly and Shelly Lundberg
This 38-minute podcast was published Nov. 17, 2022.
“We've all experienced the: ‘I'm the only woman in this room’ … and it's a difficult situation,” said Shelly Lundberg, professor of economics at the University of California - Santa Barbara. Lundberg joins Janice Eberly, professor of finance at Northwestern University, and Christina Romer, professor of economics at the University of California - Berkeley, as they discuss their leadership roles serving for the American Economic Association.
Oksana Leukhina: Welcome to the St. Louis Fed's Women in Economics Podcast Series where we interview women who are making their marks in the field of economics.
I am joining this special episode to moderate a panel discussion with three prominent women who have served in leadership roles at the American Economic Association.
We are joined by Janice Eberly, senior associate dean for strategy and academics and James R. and Helen D. Russell professor of finance at the Kellogg School of Finance at Northwestern University. Jan served as AEA vice president in 2020.
We are also joined by Shelly Lundberg, the Leonard Broom Professor of Demography, and distinguished professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Shelly chaired the AEA Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession in 2020.
And finally, Christina Romer, the Class of 1957 Garff B. Wilson Professor of Economics at the University of California in Berkeley. Christina's currently serving as president of the AEA.
Thank you all for joining us for this special episode where we will hear a little more about your experiences as well as your leadership at the AEA
Janice Eberly: It's great to be here, Oksana. Thank you.
Christina Romer: Yes, it is really wonderful to join this panel.
Shelly Lundberg: Very pleased to join in.
Oksana Leukhina: Thank you so much. We launched this podcast series in 2018 to talk about this important profession and how we could encourage more women and underrepresented minorities to pursue education and careers in this field.
To begin, I want to ask all of you the following questions, so please jump in. Why do you think it's important to help diversify the field of economics? Why the need for more women and members of underrepresented minorities?
Romer: Well, I'll jump in. I think it's important both for the people in the field and sort of for the health of the field itself. So for the people in the field, I think we all know how isolating it can be to be the only woman in the room, and I'm sure to be the only person of color in the room is also something that can be very disorienting and unwelcoming. And so I think just getting more people from a range of backgrounds is just going to make everybody happier, it's going to make universities and government agencies work better. So I think that's important for people. But I think more fundamentally, I think economics is really important, that we have knowledge that's important for, you know, business, for running the country, for peoples' lives. Right? Sort of nothing matters more than a lot of these economic issues for peoples' lives. And so getting people with different points of view that can make the profession stronger, make research better, make government policymaking better I think is just incredibly important for the health of the field.
Eberly: Let me follow up on Christie's second point about diversity being represented in the impact that economics has on the world. Among many professions, economics has the potential to change lives, to change policies, to change the growth path of economies around the world. And our opinions and our impact, as objective as we try to be, is informed not only by the data and our models, it's also informed by our experiences and what we bring to our judgment, which is an incredibly important part of the field. So having diverse representations of that life experience and that judgment, whether it's gender representation, ethnic representation, racial representation, and also different points of view makes our impact on the world, both more legitimate because it's representing more of the world, but also better informed and hopefully has more positive impact broadly.
Leukhina: Thank you Christina and Jan. Shelly, would you like to add anything to that?
Lundberg: Yeah. I mean, first to concur to these terrific points, which I certainly do agree with. I think it's maybe commonplace, but it is certainly true that you get better science from diverse group of researchers bringing diverse perspectives. There is no question that my research would have been different were it not for the fact that I experienced my life as a woman and as the daughter of a couple, neither of whom had graduated from high school. And at that point let me mention an additional source of diversity, which we have economics is very low in, as a recent working paper pointed out, is diversity and socioeconomic status. Right? And my background is becoming vanishingly rare, and particularly so in economics, and I think that's another dimension of diversity that we have to keep in the forefront.
Leukhina: Thank you so much for making these very important points. I couldn't agree more.
The American Economic Association has taken steps to make this field more inclusive, more inviting, and safer for underrepresented groups. Specifically since 1971 the AEA has had CSWEP, the Committee of the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, which we said Shelly has chaired. And in 2019, the AEA upgraded its by-laws which actually made headlines. It included banning universities and other employers in the field from holding interviews in hotel rooms. That was just one of the changes the AEA was trying to make to help the field feel less hostile and more inviting.
I'd like to ask you as a group to please weigh in on the following. Tell us what you've personally seen or been a part of at the AEA as it's making changes. What do you think is working well? Is it enough? And most importantly, what more can we do to help make this field more inviting? Shelly, do you want to start?
Lundberg: I'm usually more comfortable chiming in at the end. However I can certainly do that. So I can talk about, you know, my experience chairing the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession forever. It was two and a half years between mid-2016 and through 2018. And I said no to this job several times. My predecessor Marjorie McElroy had an extraordinarily difficult time recruiting a successor, and at some point I just thought, “All right. If not me, then who?” Clearly it was difficult to recruit. And you know, I thought it would sort of be a bad job for an introverted perfectionist control freak like me, and in fact I was frequently miserable, but it was a tremendously satisfying experience. Mainly from observing the immense amount of time and energy that many people put into the, you know, astonishing array of activities that CSWEP organizes. So there's, you know, the newsletter CSWEP continues to be the main provider of professional development information in economics. Most of its services and its information are available to all economists, particularly young economists, regardless of gender, their team mentoring programs, you know, sessions at the annual meetings, other activities at the regionals, a summer fellowship program, administered jointly with CSMGEP, webinars, the annual survey of economics departments, which in recent years we've had just about 100%, or in many years 100% responses from PhD granting departments. And let me tell you, that requires many personalized e-mails and phone calls to chairs from the CSWEP chair. So it was a wonderful experience.
And a lot of what CSWEP does has been shown to be effective, the, , intensive cement mentoring program has received a randomized trial evaluation, has been shown to enhance women's careers. It seems strange in a way that having called being the Chair of CSWEP, leadership in the AEA since for much of its lengthy history CSWEP was sort of a gorilla insurgent organization, but that certainly has not been true in recent years. CSWEP has had a wonderful relationship with the AEA and is much better resourced.
But one of the things that I did is it was very clear when I was chair that young economists did not know about CSWEP. And given that, you know, most of our services are oriented towards young economists, this seemed to be a serious problem. They simply didn't know CSWEP existed. CSWEP had asked the AEA years before whether we could start a Facebook account, and were told no. So I thought what I would do is I would start my own personal Twitter account, and I would just Tweet out, you know, announcements and links to CSWEP activities. And a few years later, CSWEP got its own Twitter account.
I had sort of floated the idea while I was chair of using online resources better, having webinars to provide information about the job search process to young economists, but somehow the tech was simply too daunting and no one was willing to take it up. My successor, Judy Chevalier, and I think with a lot of input from Anusha Chari who is now the chair, pivoted brilliantly during the pandemic online, and started setting up extensive online panels, chats with journal editors which were amazing. And I think, you know, a tremendous amount has happened.
CSWEP was caught up in the middle of this recent major changes that the AEA has made in the direction of diversity because one year into my chairship, what I think of as the EJMR scandal hit, which was the publicizing of Alice Wu's honors undergraduate thesis at Berkeley, which did a textural analysis of Economics Job Market Rumors website and found that chat was astonishingly sexist, and it was publicized by Justin Wolfers in The New York Times, and that started a fire storm which engulfed the AEA. And we were sort of caught up in the middle of that and, you know, provided recommendations to the AEA and so on. And I'll let others talk about what the AEA did in response to that, but we were certainly, you know, intimately involved in it.
Romer: Let me pick up on some things that Shelly said. So first on CSWEP. I can remember as a young female economist that CSWEP newsletter was like a lifeline. Reading women's stories, reading advice. It was incredibly important, and it did make you feel like you were part of a community.
I think a really big factor in the evolution of the AEA's, you know, relationship with women, with underrepresented minorities was the 2019 climate survey. So on top of the furor over economic job market rumors, we did a survey of, all the members and what were their experiences. And it was not your experience as a woman, but also your experience as a person with disabilities, or a different sexual orientation, or being a member of an underrepresented minority, and that was really eye opening. I think a lot of people who hadn't lived those experiences didn't realize just how uncomfortable or even hostile an environment the economics profession could be. And so that's really started a lot of things, both you know, the elevation of committees like CSWEP, or the similar ones for underrepresented minorities, or LGBTQ economists. And I think those have, you know, expanded both the mentoring programs, a lot of kind of the information programs which I think are crucial.
One I'll mention is just the Best Practices committee and documents. I don't know how many people have looked at these, but a committee just did a lot of work saying, “How do we as a profession do better?” And it has everything from what should we do in the classroom, what should we do with colleagues, how should we behave in seminars, what should our hiring process look like? And that's just an incredibly fantastic document, so I put it up on the Berkeley website because I wanted my colleagues to see this every time they're thinking about how do you behave with a job market candidate? How do we treat everybody evenly or equitably? So I think that's been a really important sort of development, and I really want to highlight that, because it's so valuable.
But the other place I've seen it in my leadership role is really more in the culture even than any of these official things. I notice now, when we're thinking about a journal editor or when we're thinking about nominations, the first thing I write when I set up a committee is, “Please look at the best practices document, and please be sure to think broadly. Don't just go for the usual candidates. Think about who'd really bring value to each of these roles and who might you be missing.” And I think that's showing up. If you look at who's on the AEA Executive Committee, it is a remarkably diverse group. You get the names on the ballot, but it's the membership that's really saying, “No, we want a range of people leading the organization.”
Eberly: Let me follow up with just some of the threads that came through from Shelly's initial experience with CSWEP and some of the things that Christie sees now. One of the things I noticed that Shelly said was bringing in data from the very beginning, and then, applying a randomized control trial to the mentoring programs and some of the other programs. We're really using tools of economics to assess our own performance and also to bring data to there to try to systematize what so many people have experienced personally, and to bring it forward in a way that those who have not had that life experience can also understand. And that's part of why the climate survey was so impactful was it brought many peoples' experiences to the fore in a systematic and, dare I say, also a quantitative way that many economists can relate to. I was really struck by Shelly describing CSWEP as a gorilla organization – from a gorilla organization very much focused on people sharing their own experiences and trying to break out to something that is much broader in the profession and the community. And that's very important for our success going forward, because we need the next generation of men, women, underrepresented, but also overrepresented groups to be part of the solution.
I had an experience with a colleague where I was describing some of what was in the climate survey, and some of what was in Alice Wu's thesis. And he had not had this experience, and I know him well, and he really shook his head and said, “I can't believe that this happens to people.” And so I brought him the papers and the evidence and some of the other evidence on how it impacts women's tenure outcomes, and how co-authorship is valued differently between men and women. And he read the papers, and we had lunch the next day, and he said, “You changed my mind.” And that's what we need to do. We need to change practices as Christie emphasizes, but along the way we change minds, and hopefully we change peoples' experiences going forward. The allies are incredibly important as part of the solution.
Lundberg: I actually have a very small anecdote to relate in response to Janice's point, which is one of our main experiences at CSWEP is finding that you can make all this stuff available. All right? So CSWEP newsletters can give you best practices back 20 years. You can organize events at the meetings that are intended to inform people the current status of women in economics or disadvantaged groups in economics and what you can do about it. You cannot make them listen.
So one particular case of this is Marie Mora organized a panel discussion for CSWEP and CSMGEP I believe 2018 on tips for nurturing and mentoring underrepresented minority women. It was utterly brilliant. It was so good. I talked to people later who just said they were blown away by the information, by the strategies and so on. We tried to get department chairs to come to it. We provided lunch so that we could try to get them to come. We sent individual e-mails to our mailing list of department chairs and said, “Please, please come to this. If you can't make it, designate a senior faculty member and have them go.” The audience for that was 95% women, overwhelmingly minority women. I had no idea how many African American women are actually in economics. They were there. And you can't manage your audience. It is very hard to get these messages out in a compelling way. One of the sort of pieces of magic of the climate survey, which by the way CSWEP said, “You know, we've been hearing that you've had this climate survey ready to go for the last several years. How about if you implement it?” Is that it was so shocking, and you can sometimes get to ears that way, whereas you can't in mustering somewhat less shocking information.
Leukhina: Sounds like I have my next lunch conversation planned out.
Romer: I just wanted to jump in. So this session is about women in economics, but I think one of the things that's been really valuable for the AEA has been the broadening the notions of diversity. The climate survey for example was not just about women. It was about everyone's experience along many demographic and professional aspects. And so the initiatives within the AEA have been very broad along a lot of these different lines. And I think that is really important to realize that, you know, for example one of the things that we've discovered is people at non-PhD granting institutions were feeling discriminated against or that they weren't valued. And so one of the things, for example, that CSWEP did was to expand their mentoring program to have a session for people not at PhD granting institutions to help those young female economists succeed in their jobs. And I think that's really valuable.
Now I'd like to find out how each of you became students of economics. Shelly, as we mentioned earlier, you are an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You earned your bachelor’s degree at the University of British Columbia, and a PhD from Northwestern University. What drew you to the field? Was there a mentor, an inspiring professor, or something else?
Lundberg: Nope. I started college without having any idea what economics was. We did not, in those days, have economics offered at the high school level in Canada. And I just saw that there was an introductory course in economics, and it sounded intriguing. And our courses there go from September to April, and so it was a long deep dive into Canadian edition of Samuelson. And I think my story is very common. I heard economics, and I thought, “Well, that makes sense. Obviously that's the correct way to think about social issues.” And then I was gone at that point.
Leukhina: Wonderful. So it was a happy incident that you discovered it.
Christina, you are an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. You earned your bachelor’s from the College of William and Mary, and your PhD from MIT. How did you become a student of economics?
Romer: Well, I think here I'm going to have a story not unlike Shelly's. I had always been interested in economic issues. I was in high school in the late 1970's when there were oil prices and inflation. These issues were front in my mind, but I kind of didn't even really understand there was a field of economics, so it's just these interesting issues. And so I had been planning to major in political science and go to law school. And luckily William and Mary as part of that political science degree you had to take a year of economics. And a little bit like Shelly, that first course just kind of, “Oh, my goodness. That people, one, have a way of thinking about these issues.” So I was really drawn to that analytical, empirical, kind of rigorous way of thinking, but also just the issues were so interesting and important, and I was hooked. I changed my major. Before I knew it, I was in graduate school. But it really did make me realize how important that first experience of economics can be. And so really, for almost the last 30 years I've been teaching principles of economics in part because it had such an effect on my life, it was a chance to try to provide that for the next generation of students. And so that first training I think could be very important.
Leukhina: Absolutely. I am always impressed when I talk to high school students how little they know what economics is all about, right? They think it's all about banking and finance, and it's so much broader. It's about just understanding human behavior. So I think it's so important to just spread that information as well.
So I'm going to go onto Jan. So Jan, once again, you are a dean and professor at Northwestern. You earned your bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Davis, and you earned your PhD from MIT. So same question. How did you land on econ?
Eberly: Some of the themes are similar to what Shelly and Christie have said already in that I started studying economics in college. It was the first place where it really was visible to me. And I went there because of some of the same issues that motivated Christie. There was a lot going on in the world in the late '70s and the early 1980s, the debt crisis and emerging economies, the oil price shocks. I saw the end of those. There was a U.S. embargo of Russia. So there's some similar things to what we're seeing now. And I thought at the time that I might go to law school, but as I saw these issues playing out I thought that the economic forces were more powerful than the rules. The rules were mostly responding to the economic forces. Sometimes fairly weekly. And so I really wanted to understand the economic forces, because those seemed to have the most impact on the world and on the people who I saw in some cases really struggling with the impact of a very deep recession in 1981 and 1982. So I became more interested in economics. And I went to graduate school.
I remember the moment actually. It was because of my TA who was, himself, a PhD student. And I took a wonderful international economics course from Peter Lindner. And it was exciting and I spent probably too much time in the discussion sections with the TA. And at the end of one of these discussions, he said, “You should go to graduate school.” And so that's what got me started, and it was a terrific decision. I never regretted for a moment.
Leukhina: Wow. Thank you for sharing your stories. One way we can inspire the next generation of women in economics is by doing exactly that. Sharing our stories, the highlights, and perhaps some of the low points. So I wonder if perhaps you want to talk about some of the challenges that you have faced in your careers, and how you overcame them. Maybe we'll start with Shelly?
Lundberg: Well, I think I definitely had more than one near death experience as an assistant professor when I definitely thought, “Okay, this academic career business, this is clearly over for me.” But you know, the details would implicate individuals and institutions, and so somebody's going to have to take me out and buy me a glass of wine to hear that.
To begin with, I was the only woman in a first year PhD class of 25 at Northwestern. It was just me. And it was, in fact, very lonely. Graduate school was a lonely experience. And you know, hopefully that most young women don't experience quite that, but I think it's, as Christie said, we've all experienced the: “I'm the only woman in this room.” And I think that existing cohorts of young women run into it as well. And it's a difficult situation.
The other, to bring in the other form of diversity that I wanted to mention, is when I was on the job market in 1980 – so clearly I'm a previous generation here to these two – I had lots of fly outs, because that was a period in which every economics department was under pressure to check the box that said, “We invited a woman out.” And so I had 12 fly outs, and no idea how I was going to buy a plane ticket. None. This was an era when you had to have a job to have a credit card. My parents couldn't possibly help me with this, and it never would have occurred to me being who I was to contact the departments and say, “Could you help me?” So it was quite a bind, and I think we tend to forget that most people have lots more resources than people from backgrounds like mine, and it's occasional huge issue in ways that are difficult to proceed.
Leukhina: Wow. That's amazing. I had no idea this could happen. So they did not reimburse for fly outs back then?
Lundberg: They reimbursed them, but you had to pay for the ticket up front.
Leukhina: Okay, I understand. You had to book 12 of them. Yeah, of course. Okay. That makes sense.
Romer: It's funny, Shelly. I remember the same things. So at that point I could get a credit card, but I think it had a limit of $300. And so you're trying to go and buy plane tickets, and it's like, “What are we going to do?” I remember completely that experience.
I'm a little bit like Shelly. I don't have anything I'd call a near death experience. But you know, I think all of us probably have just the slights, the disrespect. One of my favorite ones is I remember doing a problem set in graduate school with a male colleague, and he said, “With my brain and your handwriting, we'll do very well.” It's like, where did that come from? But it's just those little things that dig at you that I think if you don't have support from somewhere else can be just devastating. Those things kind of build up over time.
I think the most important thing for my career was the fact that I moved to Berkeley pretty early in my career, and Berkeley was just an incredibly supportive environment. And I think that's made me really passionate as a senior faculty member to say, “We need to make this an environment that nurtures all young economists.” And I've often tried to think about, you know, you can try to read the Best Practices document and things, but I mean, this goes back to something Shelly said and Jan too, you have to change their hearts. And I think something that was really valuable at Berkeley is kind of George Akerlof was the kind of driving force, the heart of the department, and he was just an incredibly nice, supportive, nurturing senior faculty member and that just I feel kind of created an ethos that we were a department that helped people do their best. And I wish I could bottle that, but it does I think fit with something Jan said, which is allies are really important.
And I remember at one episode I was on a visiting committee for another department that was having some real problems on diversity and a hostile environment, and someone's description was, “The good guys have to step up.” And I think that is it's not enough to put in place kind of procedures and things. People have to step up and say, “This is not okay,” or call someone out when they see something bad happening. And I think that's just true of all of us, that we need to play a role in making sure if we see things that shouldn't be happening happen, we say something. I think that's incredibly valuable.
Leukhina: Exactly. So just being proactive, right? So being proactive about promoting, especially that information. This is one point that I take from this discussion so far. I had no idea that it's not enough just to put information out there. You have to also engage our male colleagues and make sure they understand what's out there.
So let me just go to Jan to hear about your challenges and how you overcame them.
Eberly: I think we all have similar stories, so the little digs or the big digs and the challenges that you face overtime. We've all had the experience where you're interviewing someone or you're talking with someone and you ask questions, and they address all of their responses to your male colleague. I had that as an assistant professor talking about my joint work with a senior faculty member, and someone visiting, someone senior from another university addressed all of their questions and comments to my senior colleague. Never really made eye contact with me at all. And what would have been nice but would not have happened at that point was for my senior colleague to draw out that point in real time. And I know of a colleague now who's done exactly that. But they wouldn't have brought it up in the 1990s, at least the time I remember this happening, nor would I have complained about it. And now I see younger women actually bringing it up, or their senior colleagues pointing it out when it happens. As Christie mentioned, so being allies.
Also, social media makes things different now as well. I don't think trolls was a term in the 1990s, but there are many ways in which women are targeted in social media and/or websites in ways that have nothing to do with their work, which is how I would informally define a troll. And it's another area where we as allies and supporters need to step in and point out that your family background or appearance or accent or whatever way is being called out or being targeted has nothing to do with the quality of their work. And so that's a bright line that I think we can also try to identify and enforce going forward as allies and hopefully the next generation of leadership in the profession.
Romer: Something I just wanted to bring up, so obviously a lot of what we have been talking about, and especially when talking about the American Economic Association, we tend to focus a lot on academics and universities and colleges, but of course so many women and underrepresented minority groups in economics working government, working business. So a lot of the big tech firms are now some of the major people hiring our graduate students. And so I do think we have to be thinking about – you know, I know something about women in government and how that is. But the environment in a business situation. I think that's something that we really need to be thinking about and learning about their experiences to figure out other ways that the AEA can be helpful in promoting the careers of economists sort of no matter what they choose as their outlet.
Leukhina: Absolutely. Thank you so much for sharing your challenges and other experiences.
Is there anything else you'd like to share as women in economics?
Lundberg: I have one last thing I'd like to say, which is in the last several years, probably not surprisingly, I've talked a lot about women in economics. I've been asked to go to various departments and speak about it and so on. And one thing that is clearly true to me is that there is still a general belief that there is, in fact, no evidence that women are discriminated against or receive biased treatment in economics. Most economists believe that differences and outcomes come primarily from women making different choices. This is no longer true that there is no evidence. So Jenna Stearns and I published a paper in Journal of Economic Perspectives a couple years back surveying the evidence, which is now very extensive, using rigorous studies, using great data, attention to causal methods, finding that there is overwhelming evidence that women receive biased treatment in economics at various levels. So publications, tenure decisions, promotions in central banks. There's a lot of evidence, and our study is now outdated. There's a lot more than that now.
I think that we should attempt when we're in these kinds of conversations to leverage the incredible science that has been done on this area. Fifteen years ago it would have been reasonable to say, “Well, there's no evidence out there,” but there is evidence now. And the treatment of women in economics is biased. I suspect it's a combination, I think we know it's a combination of structural factors, many of which the AEA has been attempting pretty energetically to limit. The rest of it is implicit bias. What goes on in tenure committees and so on, and that's much more difficult, as we've said several times, to attack.
Leukhina: Yes. I would definitely like to reiterate. Shelly is referring to her 2019 Journal of Economics Perspective article with Jenna Stearns. Yes, so I am familiar with that article where you show a lot of evidence on the fact that women are consistently held up to higher standards compared to their male counterparts.
Well, I would like to thank you so much for sharing your time, Jan, Christina and Shelly. Your career and experiences are so inspiring. Thank you so much.
To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit www.stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You also can find every Women in Economics episode on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you like to listen to podcasts.
Once again, thank you so much, Jan, Christina and Shelly.