Women in Economics: Susan Feigenbaum

“I firmly believe that there is more ‘we’ and less ‘me’ among women, which leads to productive teamsmanship and the nurturing of each other and the next generation of economists, whether male or female,” says Susan Feigenbaum, at left in the photo above. Feigenbaum is a curators’ distinguished teaching professor in the department of economics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the St. Louis Fed, about how each woman’s decisions about her human capital affect both the individual and society. Choices with big implications include how much education to complete, whether to join the paid labor force and whether to have children. Listen to this 17 minute podcast to learn more about her.

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Below is a full transcript of this audio podcast. It has not been edited or reviewed for accuracy or readability.

Mary Suiter: I'm Mary Suiter and you’re listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the St. Louis Fed’s Timely Topics audio channel and I'm here today with Susan Feigenbaum. Susan, thanks so much for joining us today.

Susan Feigenbaum: My pleasure.

Mary Suiter: We want to talk a little bit about women in economics. And you're an economist and a mentor of mine, so I'm really pleased that you could join us today. So I'm going to start out just with a question. How did you decide, why did you decide to major in economics?

Susan Feigenbaum: As with most women in economics of my generation and earlier, I actually wanted to pursue a hard science. In my case, chemistry. However, when I met with the chair of that department in the first weeks of my freshman year in college I found him terribly intimidating and highly skeptical of my ability to succeed in chemistry. I eventually wandered into an introductory economics class to fulfill a general education requirement and found that I enjoyed the approach and was actually pretty good at it. I can't remember that far back whether I already thought like an economist or whether I was brainwashed sometime later in my training.

Mary Suiter: Well, I agree with you. I started out in engineering and ended up in economics, so I understand that. So along the way, I had mentors that helped me and you were one of them. So who mentored you in economics? Who brought you on?

Susan Feigenbaum: I was fortunate to have mentors whom I adored during both my undergraduate and graduate studies. One was an incredible teacher by the name of Professor Barney Schwalberg. He eventually chose me to be his undergraduate grader along with, as it turns out, the now deposed prime minister of Iceland, Geir Haarde. Professor Schwalberg instilled in me a love of teaching economics and of conveying the joy that comes in understanding economic concepts and applications.

My second undergraduate mentor was Professor Anne Carter who had recently come to my school as an endowed professor in economics from a research associate position at Harvard under the Nobel Laureate Wassily Leontief. Anne was never permitted to have a faculty line at Harvard despite receiving her PhD there, and that was because of the school's nepotism rules. Her husband was a professor in the psychiatry department in the medical school. Anne eventually offered me a one year research position after I graduated college because I was deeply uncertain as to whether I would succeed in a PhD economics program. As events would have it, one of my undergraduate classmates in economics had a dad who was a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin, Professor Burt Weisbrod. I began to read Weisbrod's pioneering work in the economics, education and health, and I decided I wanted to study with him. Burt became an important mentor who has continued to give me sage professional advice throughout my career. And in fact, the first time I met him I was incredibly impressed because when I called him Professor Weisbrod he immediately said, “Call me Burt because you will one day be a colleague of mine.”

My “Principles of Economics” textbook is dedicated to all three of these mentors. Barney Schwalberg, Anne Carter, and Burt Weisbrod for treating me like an economist long before I knew I was one.

Mary Suiter: Nice.

Susan Feigenbaum: I would be remiss if I didn't also mention mentors that I was blessed to have throughout my working career, especially Ron Teeples of Claremont McKenna College, who was the first person to offer me an academic position and was my coauthor on a number of highly placed refereed journal articles. And of course Sharon Levin who hired me at the University of Missouri St. Louis and taught me, among other things, the art of grantsmanship.

Mary Suiter: So as a woman in economics, how do you think gender shaped your experience?

Susan Feigenbaum: I happened to spend a year of graduate school in the economics department at UCLA as an Earheart Fellow. This place was totally foreign to my previous east coast and Midwestern academic experiences. There, people who could speak forcefully, be quick on their feet, and sometimes even draw blood from their intellectual opponent would win the day in any economics argument even when they were dead wrong. I observed that this brutal type of interaction always surfaced whenever male faculty debated with each other or with male graduate students. And I quickly learned that win, lose, or draw, this was a badge of honor that few women would ever earn, and as such, they would never earn the respect that came along with it. And so I learned the male mode of discourse, at least as it manifested itself at UCLA. In fact, after I made a few jabs back at one of my professors in class who had made some digs at my expense, he even offered me a research assistant position.

I've never forgotten my UCLA experience. And while I would much prefer the genteel dialogue about economics that reflects mutual respect, I have never hesitated whipping out my UCLA training in situations in which I believe that a male colleague is not taking my comments or those of a female colleague seriously. I trained with the best at UCLA and I'm quite confident that I can put any arrogant male in my profession in his place if the occasion arises.

I've experienced many years in which I have been paid less than my male counterparts, even at the height of my productivity. At various points in my academic career under the guise of sound economic reasoning, I have been told that I should give up my tenure line to a male, get paid less because I was married, because my husband was the primary breadwinner in the family after all, and because I was geographically limited as a dual career wife.

Mary Suiter: Thank you for sharing that. I think it's important that young women are aware of those issues and concerns in the field as they decide about the discipline and of economics and how far they want to go.

So given all of that and the struggles that often occur, why do you think it's important for women to be in the field of economics?

Susan Feigenbaum: First of all, as I just discussed, women tend to promote, on average, healthy respectful dialogue, which is truly necessary to push the frontiers of economic knowledge. I firmly believe that there is more “we” and less “me” among women, which leads to productive teamsmanship and the nurturing of each other and the next generation economists, whether male or female.

Second, people often forget that the word economics is derived from the Greek word oikonomika. Its meaning is household management. Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, termed economics as a science of household management. Why is this relevant? Because it supports my core belief that economics is all about what each and every one of us does each and every day of our lives, and that in fact, it is most applicable to the decisions women must make, both in and outside of the household. These are the most important economic decisions for both the individual and society at large. How much education will a woman complete? Will she work in the paid labor force or solely within the household? Will she decide to marry? And if so, when? Will she have children? And if so, when and how many? How much will she invest in the rest of her household, including her children? And finally, what resources will this woman be permitted to control, given her legal and social environment? We know that is ultimately investment in human capital that grows an economy, and women are central to such investment decisions. Women understand the very essence of economics, asking really hard questions to shed light on determinants of individual and social well-being, which could ultimately nurture sound public policy.

Mary Suiter: Wow. I have not really thought about it from that perspective, and I appreciate that. That makes a lot of sense, and especially the human capital aspects of that, and the fact that women are making those decisions for themselves and often in consort with their children as they grow and develop.

So I know that you have a wide array of interests, but what are your primary areas of study?

Susan Feigenbaum: I began my career as a strong empirical researcher modeling and estimating behavioral relationships of organizations in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors of the economy. Very little attention is paid to the nonprofit sector of the economy. I spent a number of years working in the economics of science, specifically the replicability of economic findings, and I committed over a decade to writing an introductory economics textbook that captured my approach to teaching economics. At the time, it was the first textbook where the lead author was a woman. I've come to the conclusion that my greatest skill is in translating economics to the population at large in order to provoke them to take a deeper look at the world around them and to separate the wheat from the chaff, to understand, for example, that people can both be helped and hurt by government policies or by technological change, and that in fact, there truly is no such thing as a free lunch.

Mary Suiter: Okay. I'm going to back up a second here. You brought up your textbook. And I know that the approach to the textbook was really to emphasize retainment and retention of under-served populations, and of course that includes women. And so I wonder how did your approach differ and how did that help you as you tried to bring women into the field of economics?

Susan Feigenbaum: I believe that if early on students, not just women students, come to understand that economics is really about them and the decisions they must make every day of their lives, they are easily hooked on the economic approach. What this means is that the first high school or college course in economics must focus on economic choices most relevant to the student and use these as a framework to generalize to overarching economic principles and theories. So in effect, my approach has been deemed an inverted approach, going from the specific, the real life example, not something that is a caricature of real life, and building from that up to the general principles, rather than first introducing general principles and then proposing examples, many of which have no relevance in our students' lives.

I have generated a very large cohort of women economics majors by following this exact prescription, as well as minority students. I tell stories that resonate with my students about the choices we each make and why we often differ in the paths we take when presented with the same options. Why is it that they're in school and their counterpart 17 – 18 year old in the inner city may be out of school, may not have even completed high school? This is not about values. This is not about priorities. This is about the constraints that we each face and the opportunities that we each enjoy. It's the students who ultimately connect the dots, so to speak, and uncover the grander patterns in economic decision making.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that such courses are typically taught. Instead they are filled with abstractions, technical bells and whistles, and lots of math that must, by its very limitations, abstract from reality. Even when the course is taught by a woman, it is often a group of more senior tenured men who have set the course content and demand specific coverage as a prerequisite for upper level courses. We have not trained economists to use their words to paint the picture just as Adam Smith and other great economic thinkers once did. And until we do so we will continue to fail in producing large cohorts of females and minorities in the field.

Mary Suiter: I agree. I think that women want to know what it is they're doing that's going to make a difference in the world they live in, and they don't necessarily get that in the traditional introduction to economics course. And so your approach I would think would appeal to young women, and I wish more of them would have that opportunity.

Susan Feigenbaum: Yes. Most people when they hear I'm an economist will say, “That is the worst, hardest, most boring class I ever took.” And my response immediately is, “You didn't have a good teacher.”

Mary Suiter: That's exactly right. And it happens all the time. In a group of teachers or individuals, I'll ask them to raise their hand, if they've taken an economics course and their comments are always, “The worst class I've ever had.”

So along the way, you've mentioned some challenges that you've had and some difficulties. Did you ever feel that at some point things were really tough and you questioned the choice to major in economics or second guessed yourself?

Susan Feigenbaum: I think that the way that economists are measured in terms of productivity has narrowed exceedingly in the last few decades, and that most journal outlets now are predisposed to highly technical tweaking of our economics knowledge base. I think that the questions that brought me into economics, the economics of education, of public health, of investing in human capital, of the impact of first generation college education, those questions have been largely turfed to other divisions, other departments, whether it's public policy, whether it's schools of education, whether it is other schools that look at applied questions of that type. Gerontology, for example. Public health is another area. And that not only in academic settings, but I would argue in a number of settings that aspire to be academic, there is often a disproportionate emphasis on the sophisticated technical aspects of economics.

And so I will say when I look back, I believe I was in a golden age despite my challenges as a woman. I was in a golden age in which I could meld applied modeling and econometric analysis with big questions, if only to shed a minuscule amount of light on the issues at hand. I think that has become a very difficult road to hoe in our current economics profession.

Mary Suiter: That's unfortunate. I think that will challenge us in terms of bringing women into the field. And hopefully, these conversations we're having with women, we'll be able to shed some light on that notion and maybe bring some change.

So I want to thank you very much for being with us today. I really appreciate it. And it was great to hear your story. Thank you for sharing.

Susan Feigenbaum: Again, it's my pleasure.

Mary Suiter: “To hear more Women in Economics podcasts, visit at www.stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That’s one word stlouisfed.org/womeninecon.