Women in Economics: Tisha Emerson

October 30, 2019

This 17-minute podcast was released Oct. 30, 2019.

Tisha Emerson | St. Louis Fed

“Economics is not synonymous with finance; we can talk about so many interesting topics, whether it be environmental issues and climate change,” says Tisha Emerson, professor of economics at Baylor University. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, senior media relations specialist at the St. Louis Fed, about her research on the gender gap in economics and how active learning techniques may lessen that gap.


Maria Hasenstab: I'm Maria Hasenstab and you're listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today I'm speaking with Tisha Emerson, professor of economics at Baylor University. Hello, Tisha.

Tisha Emerson: Hello, Maria.

Hasenstab: Thanks for being here today.

Emerson: I'm glad to do it.

Hasenstab: You studied economics at the University of Hawaii Manoa?

Emerson: Yes.

Hasenstab: And then you went on to get your masters and Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. How did you choose economics?

Emerson: Well, my intention was actually to study mathematics. And I had actually not had any economics courses in high school. And when I got to Manoa, I started taking some math classes, and honestly, it seemed a little bit too dry and I started to wonder about applications. So I took a variety of other courses. And in my second semester I found myself in an economics course, and it was principles of microeconomics. And I just was so captivated by everything that my professor talked about. My professor was James Mack and he was wonderful. And I felt everyday like I was sitting on the edge of my seat. I was just so engaged. And I saw how economics could use the math that I loved, so it had the reasoning and the elegance of the math and the logic, but then it also had applications to important real world questions. And so I think I knew almost immediately that that's what I was going to do.

Hasenstab: You published an article titled “The Gender Gap in Economics Degrees: An Investigation of the Role Model and Quantitative Requirements Hypotheses.” Tell me about that research and what did you discover?

Emerson: So this is coauthored work with KimMarie McGoldrick and John Siegfried, and it was published in The Southern Economic Journal. We were interested in why there aren't more females studying economics. Basically about one in three economics majors are women. And of course that's much lower than the ratio of total female graduates. So there have been a lot of questions I think for a long time about why there aren't more women in economics. And John, because he was a long time secretary treasurer for the AEA, he had some very interesting data, department level data looking at the rates of female majors in different departments across the US. And KimMarie and I had been working with some other data, and so we were able to put some of these things together, and we also did a survey of departments to get at what was their faculty gender ratio overtime, and what sort of quantitative characteristics and degree requirements did the different departments have. Because there has been a lot of hypotheses that suggest that either it's the lack of role models ‑‑ we call it the role model effect -- that the lack of role models in economics, female role models, leads in part to the low numbers of female majors.

There's also a suggestion that perhaps it's the quantitative nature of the discipline that maybe is either off putting to women or that maybe women just don't have the quantitative skills. We were able, with our data, to investigate both of these hypotheses, and we did not find any evidence to support the role model effect. That is there was not any correlation between the faculty gender ratio and the majors gender ratio. And with regard to the quantitative hypothesis, we actually found that degree programs that had higher quantitative degree requirements actually had higher rates of female majors. So we actually found evidence of quite the opposite. That women seemed, in some way, to be attracted to the economics degree programs where there were higher quantitative requirements.

Hasenstab: That's really interesting.

Emerson: Yes.

Hasenstab: Why is it important to have more women and underrepresented minorities in the field?

Emerson: I think that it's just the diversity of questions and viewpoints and experiences that different people bring. Whether it be males versus females, or different racial and ethnic groups, it could be different nationalities. Whatever the case is, I think we all just come with different types of questions based on our background. And the greater diversity that you have of people coming in, then you have a greater diversity of questions, and then also I think better ability to come up with various hypotheses to answer those questions.

Hasenstab: So thinking a little bit more about your research findings, did you have any insights on how we could encourage more women to pursue economics?

Emerson: Yes. I have done some work on pedagogy, so in particular I've always been very interested in classroom experiments. They're sort of like experiments in the natural sciences, but we are simulating different market environments. And through those, we are able to illustrate the concepts that we are teaching the students, but they get to live them out through the experiment and actually get to see what is happening for themselves. So I have found through some research that in principles of microeconomics, there is a gender gap that men tend to outperform women, but if you teach with a pedagogy that uses classroom experiments, that women make up much of that gap. So I really think that some pedagogies will be perhaps more attractive to people from different backgrounds, and that also, for racial and ethnic minorities, some of the gap between those groups and white students, some of that was made up also when they were exposed to a pedagogy of classroom experiments.

Hasenstab: So that's really interesting. Can you give me an example of what some of these experiments might be?

Emerson: So in some of the most basic ones we talk a lot about demand and supply in economics. And we're able to simulate a basic market where half of the class basically are buyers and the other half will be sellers. And we give each of them some private information about if you're a buyer, what is your value that you place on the product? And if you're a seller, what does it cost you to supply the product? And basically we imply what we call a double oral auction where the students are calling out prices that they're either willing to buy at or that they're willing to sell at. And we're able to show that our demand and supply concepts, that they will accurately predict the equilibrium price in the market and the quantity of the good traded that we actually see in the experiment which the students participate in themselves.

A lot of the other experiments that I use are derivatives of that. You can show the effects of price controls with a similar type of experiment. The students really love that one. I usually do it in labor market context, so they're able to see that when you raise the minimum wage, if it's binding, that this is going to cause considerable unemployment. It makes a particular impression on the students as they're standing in the unemployment line in class and they just really see what's happening. It's very different from me just explaining the concepts to them and maybe having them work through some problems, but instead to really see the market in action for themselves.

We also have a great experiment on externalities, so we show the effect of pollution and how even knowing that a byproduct of producing a certain good will be pollution. We all know that. We know that there are going to be costs imposed on everyone in the market, even those people who are not participating in the market for that good, that that information alone is not going to help us overcome the problem, but that we could overcome it through the use of various tools that we actually see the government use. For example, taxes or cap and trade systems. The students just really come away with a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the power of the various models that we talk about in that class.

Hasenstab: It sounds like an active way to get those students involved, too.

Emerson: Yes.

Hasenstab: It sounds like almost physically getting them out of their seats for part of it. Yeah.

Emerson: Yes. I use classroom experiments that are manually run as opposed to computerized, and so they are very much so getting up and moving around. I have used computerized experiments as well, because it still illustrates the same concepts, but I like the added bonus of the interaction between the students that my sense deep down is that the students have positive spillovers from getting to know each other, more positive views of the class, better able to identify other students to study with for study groups, work on homework together. I think that there are potential many positive additional benefits to having the manually run experiments.

Hasenstab: I want to talk a little bit more about your experiences.

Emerson: Sure.

Hasenstab: When you were in those college and master's classrooms, did you feel like a minority because of your gender or your race?

Emerson: So I'm from Hawaii and it's very racially diverse. So I didn't feel, in that sense, like a minority in my undergraduate courses, but as a female I did. So thinking back to my money and banking class in undergrad, my sense is that there were maybe 40 of us in that class and there were two females. However, we were the two highest-performing students in the class, so I wouldn't say that it bothered me. There wasn't sort of an underlying message to me that somehow women shouldn't study economics or couldn't be successful at it. I did notice that there weren't a lot of other females studying economics.

In graduate school there were more females and I went to USC, and so we did have a relatively diverse group, both gender and on racial and ethnic grounds. And so I don't feel like I particularly felt like a minority in any particular way, but when I moved to Texas, the population was somewhat different. I was the only female on tenure track in my department. I am actually only the second female to be tenured in my department. The first one apparently was tenured sometime back shortly after World War II.

Hasenstab: Oh, wow.

Emerson: So all of my colleagues and I, we've never met her. We just know that she was there from a history of the department. And I'm the first one to be promoted to a full professor. But I never felt that my colleagues were not supportive or that my professors along the way were unsupportive. I never had an economics course with a female professor, but that really didn't bother me. I would really like to say that all of my professors, whether it was Jim Mack who taught me my first economics course, or Sumner La Croix who was my IO professor, or Carl Bonham who was my money and banking professor. They were all very, very supportive and encouraging. My graduate advisers, Peter Rosendorff and Linwood Pendleton and Jeff Nugent, they were fantastically supportive. I felt that they were great mentors. And like I said, my department colleagues have been wonderful. And I have a number of mentors now in the area of economic education. Mike Salemi, for example, and Mike Watts who passed a few years ago. They were all phenomenal mentors. So I don't feel like I missed out for not having female mentors.

Hasenstab: It almost sounds like you were a trailblazer, whether that was your goal or just the end result. And even though you didn't feel like it negatively affected you, you are now obviously teaching lots of students who are seeing a female professor leading that classroom, having that experience that you might have missed out on. Is that important to you?

Emerson: It is important to me, and I am aware of that because I've had a lot of people say to me, “Well, you know, you're not the average person. And maybe it didn't bother you to not have female role models, but it could be important to others.” I would say that my approach is that I want to be a good mentor to all my students, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity or any other dimension. I just really want to be a mentor and support to them, and help them to really find what they're really called to do and what they feel is most interesting and important, help them achieve their goals.

I do have a sense, though, that my female students are maybe somewhat more drawn to me, but I don't know if that's based on gender or based on we all just have different personalities and it's hard to separate the two. I do have some male colleagues who have a lot of students that are very drawn to them as well, and I would say that in some ways we have kind of similar approaches to teaching, and so it could just be that. But I am aware of the importance of potentially being a role model to some women who are looking for that. I have many wonderful former students that I'm just so proud of them. They have done great things. And if I could be even a small part of helping them achieve that, then that would be wonderful.

Hasenstab: What about any successes in your career or personally?

Emerson: Well, I'm really very proud of the work that I've done in economic education. I would like to think, and a number of people have mentioned that some of the work that I've done on classroom experiments, demonstrating that they do lead to higher student achievement, I'd like to think that that has helped encourage more instructors to adopt that pedagogy. I'd also like to think that some of the other work that I've done on some other pedagogies has been helpful in just really encouraging other instructors to step out maybe of their comfort zone and try to embrace more active learning pedagogies that I do think are very helpful to students.

I did have a period where I served on the American Economic Associations Committee on Economic Education, and I really enjoyed the work there. When I was appointed to the committee, Mike Watts, who was at Purdue, he was the chair and he had a vision to start the CTREE conference, so the conference on teaching and research and economic education. And I was very honored that Mike invited me to help be on the program committee for the very first conference, and so I was able to serve on that for four years. And I think the conference has really been quite a success. It's an annual conference. We regularly have 200-300 attendees.

Hasenstab: Is there anything else that I haven't asked about that you'd like to discuss today that we want to share with our listeners? Other professors like yourself as well as current students and hopefully future students of economics.

Emerson: Well, so in terms of other instructors, I know that it can be very daunting some times to adopt new pedagogies, and I would just want to encourage them to try it. That you don't have to sort of completely change your teaching overnight, but try an experiment, try a cooperative learning exercise. I would also encourage instructors to really talk about the different ways that we can use economic models, the different types of questions we can ask and that different people are answering, because our students, they don't really understand that economics is not synonymous with finance, that we can talk about so many interesting topics, whether it be environmental issues and climate change. And one of the recent Nobel Prizes in economics was for (William) Nordhaus' work on climate change from an economics viewpoint. We can talk about law in economics. We can talk about questions of health economics. Economic development, so if you're interested in poverty or developing countries. The economics of crime. There are just so many interesting questions out there, and sometimes that might get lost in your standard principles class. But if you lose the students in the principles class, then they never make it to the other upper level courses where we do address these very interesting questions.

For future students, sometimes people expect that I'm going to suggest that everybody should major in economics. I don't think that at all. What I would like is for every student to find the discipline that makes them feel like I felt in my first economics class, that makes them feel like they are sitting on the edge of their seat and they cannot wait to hear the next topic their professor's going to cover where they don't feel like their homework is work, that they just are so enthralled by this. My hope is that students will not settle, but that they will look for the thing that makes them feel that way.

Hasenstab: That's great advice. Tisha, I want to thank you so much for your time today and for sharing your story.

Emerson: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Hasenstab: To hear more Women in Economics podcasts, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That's one word. Stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. Thanks, Tisha.

Emerson: Thank you.

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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