Women in Economics: Una Osili

October 24, 2018

This 25-minute podcast was released Oct. 24, 2018.

Una Osili | Women in Economics Podcasts | St. Louis Fed

“There were times when you were the only woman in the room, and you had to bring your self-confidence, your belief in yourself, and the desire for excellence in your pursuits,” says Una Osili, the associate dean for research and international programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, senior media relations specialist at the St. Louis Fed, about the intersection of economics and philanthropy.

Osili, who grew up in Nigeria, serves on several national and international advisory groups. She speaks about the role of women in economics at the international level. “We were very concerned and wanting to look at ways of increasing the pipeline of women into the economics profession on the African continent—by exposing younger women to opportunities in economics, but also through mentoring and career development opportunities.”


Maria Hasenstab: Hello. I’m Maria Hasenstab, and you’re listening to “Women in Economics,” a podcast series from the St. Louis Fed’s “Timely Topics” audio channel. Today, I’m speaking with Una Osili, associate dean for Research and International Programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and, also, professor of economics and philanthropic studies. Hi, Una.

Una Osili: Hi, there. Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.

Hasenstab: Oh, thanks for being here today. You studied economics at Harvard as an undergrad, and then you went on to get your master’s and Ph.D. in economics from Northwestern University. How did you come to be a student of economics?

Osili: So, I became interested in economics at a very young age. I was in middle school and high school and grew up in Nigeria. And in Nigeria, in the 1980s, there was a lot of discussion about what was the right economic policy for a country that was facing declining oil prices and increasing needs, both social and economic. And many of the debates of the time were quite public, and many of them centered on the right monetary policy, the right fiscal policy, and even what exchange rate policies should be for Nigeria.

So, as a young person, I listened intently to those debates, not quite understanding, but being very curious about, what does it take and what kinds of policies actually help countries basically adjust to economic shocks and what kinds of policies help foster and enhance growth opportunities for developing countries? And what I realized at the time is that there really wasn’t a consensus on how to do that. There was a lot of discussion and debate, so that got me quite interested.

And then, when I had the opportunity to study economics more formally starting my senior year in high school, I found the topic quite interesting because it was a blend of social science and hard science, and certainly math was elements of both understanding the context. So, I could actually use a lot of the things I was interested in, but a sense of a science and a math-based background, so I found that combination really interesting. But, ultimately, what attracted me to economics was its applicability to real world problems, the fact that economists tended to work on problems that seem to affect, at the time, countries, households, and also people in their everyday lives. That was very compelling to me.

Hasenstab: Well, that’s really interesting that you were witnessing those real-life scenarios of economics as you were growing up. And then when you were at Harvard and Northwestern, tell me what it was like to be a woman in those econ classes. Were you a minority? Was it pretty balanced?

Osili: So, at Harvard, I would say women were well represented, maybe even 50 percent of the students. It wasn’t such an anomaly to be a woman in the field. Where I started to see gender emerge as an important construct was actually in grad school, where there were very few women in many of my classes. And each class at Northwestern didn’t have a lot of women, and so that was my first experience, really, being sometimes the only woman in a classroom or a seminar or a lecture hall. And it was a sharp contrast because I grew up in a family of five children, but four girls, and then my brother is the youngest, so I was used to being where women certainly were the dominant group.

So, being in this environment was very different. I had to draw on my own experiences growing up in a household where, certainly, my parents and my mother and father encouraged us to be our very best and strive for excellence. And I really had to draw on that. Because, certainly, there were times when you were the only woman in the room, and you had to bring your self-confidence, your belief in yourself, and the desire for excellence in your pursuits and not be intimidated by being the only woman and speaking up when you needed to, asking questions. Because I think the tendency—when you are the only woman or the only person that looks different to perhaps be less vocal and not to use your voice.

But instead, I think I really did try to remember the experiences I had, especially with my dad encouraging me to speak up and to use my voice. And I think both parents, my father and mother, but not to be intimidated by the fact that I was the only woman in the room. But to remember that, you know, I had something to say. I had a question. I had a voice, and I should use it. We were very fortunate to have some female colleagues, female professors who definitely encouraged female graduate students.

One example is Professor Becky Blank, who’s now a chancellor at the University of Wisconsin, was secretary of commerce under President Obama. She was phenomenal in terms of encouraging female graduate students, invited us for gatherings at her home, sometimes, and I was also fortunate to have one of my thesis advisors, Dr. Anna Paulson, who is now a vice president at the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank was on my committee, and I had great role models. The chair of my committee, Professor Chris Udry, who’s now back at Northwestern was also very encouraging.

So, the faculty, I think, were very conscious of the fact that there weren’t as many female students and did provide tremendous support and encouragement, where the challenges often came and, certainly, you had to increase your own sense of confidence and belief in yourself because, otherwise, it was very difficult and you had to build a support group, which I think is also very important in grad school.

Hasenstab: Well, it’s great that you had those experiences and support coming to you, so you felt encouraged. What are your areas of emphasis in economics?

Osili: So, I started out very interested in macroeconomic issues as you heard. And as I studied economics more, I realized that especially for developing countries where I was really interested in, a lot of the interesting research was really at the micro level because there was beginning to be data available on households and their decision making, and also firms, companies, and their decision making processes, which was really the building block for a lot of macroeconomic models.

So, I started looking at microeconomics, started with macro and shifted more to micro during my time in grad school. And in doing so, started to figure out what area of household behavior I was most interested in, and it turns out I was interested in how households make decisions about a lot of their financial choices and ended up investigating remittances as my dissertation, which is money that migrant households sent to their families abroad, which is also interesting—it becomes a macro issue when you aggregate it out, so that’s what my dissertation was on.

Hasenstab: That sounds really interesting. You’re the associate dean for research in international programs here. What led you to your career?

Osili: That’s a great question. As I mentioned, studied remittances, and in my dissertation realized that remittances are often looked at as money that migrants send to their families. And part of my job in my dissertation was to literally unpack the notion of remittances and look at how much of it goes to family, how much is invested back in the country of origin, but, also, how much of it is used for community projects. And so, the interest in philanthropy was early on because I started to look at how much immigrants and migrants were actually sending back to their home communities, how much was going towards projects that advance the public good, and was very fortunate because my husband, who I met while I was in grad school, lived here in Indianapolis, and so it was a very natural place to start a career and to build a career.

So, I started with an affiliation, with, at the time, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which was the first academic center on philanthropy, bringing the economic perspective, what drives philanthropy, what are the economic factors that inform people’s giving to the work that I was doing. And fast forward the tape in 2013, the Center on Philanthropy became a school, the world’s first school on philanthropy. I was very fortunate to be a faculty member in economics, as well as philanthropic studies.

And last year, we had two projects, two global projects on philanthropy, but also that map global giving alongside other financial flows such as remittances to the school of philanthropy here, so we now have the global indices on philanthropy. And in that role, I was appointed associate dean for Research and International Programs. So, I am very excited to see that both of my interest areas, the global development area, as well as my interest in philanthropy have kind of come together in this position here at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Hasenstab: Talk to me about the intersection of economics and philanthropy. Not everyone might put the two topics together in their head, and, obviously, there’s a whole school here built around it.

Osili: What I think most people realize is that in the U.S., but also globally, philanthropy’s an increasingly important part of social and economic life, and when households make decisions about how much they should give, how much they should consume, and how much they save or invest for the future, those are all economic and financial choices. So, here at the Lilly Family School, we do several things in my role as Associate Dean for Research. —We lead a number of national and international projects on the trends in philanthropy.

One of our projects, probably the best known, is Giving USA. It’s literally the annual report on charitable giving. It’s the GDP of charitable giving. So, here, we are bringing the economics of philanthropy to bear. Because when you look over time, what drives Americans, so what drives trends in philanthropy are very much economic and financial variables: the stock market, consumption, household incomes, employment. And people give when they have the financial and economic resources to give.

They also give when they feel financially and economically secure. So, studying economics and the economic determinants of philanthropy is extremely vital. And today, there are many economists that are looking at charitable giving, examining and investigating what drives giving behavior because it’s definitely—there’s an economic component to that. Now, not all the drivers of giving are economic. There are also some noneconomic determinants of giving.

For example, our social networks—there may be psychological factors that drive our giving. And today, we have many scholars from different disciplines: economists, but also sociologists and psychologists and behavioral economists, who are running experiments to look at the factors that drive giving. I should say that economics looks at household behavior in a very comprehensive way. We look at consumption, and you could think of charitable giving as a part of your consumption. But it’s a part of consumption that affects other people, too, not just yourself.

And so, it’s a way of broadening the lens in terms of what are the drivers that affect how much we consume ourselves, but also the consumption decisions we make that have an impact on others in our own communities, and actually in the world today.

Hasenstab: You’ve already broached the topic of economics internationally. But I wanted to talk about your experiences. You’ve served as a member of several national and international advisory groups, like the African Development Bank, Social Science Research Council, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. From your experience, what is the state of women in economics internationally?

Osili: So, when we look at the U.S., we certainly see that women are underrepresented in the economics profession, especially in tenured positions and even full professor positions. When we look at other parts of the world, that picture is very much the same in some cases, there are even fewer women represented in the economics profession. Several years ago, along with a colleague professor, Elizabeth Asiedu, who’s an economist at the University of Kansas, we actually combined forces to start to look at women in the economics profession on the African continent because there was significant underrepresentation. Very few women in faculty roles, but also even on the policy side at central banks, at think tanks, at development organizations, very few African women.

And because we know that the perspectives that women bring to the discipline are so important, the topics that they’re interested in, the areas that they study, and the unique voice they can have especially on the policy front. We were very concerned and wanting to look at ways of increasing the pipeline of women into the economics profession on the African continent by exposing younger women to opportunities in economics, but also through mentoring and career development opportunities.

I think we’ve made some progress. There’s obviously a long way to go, but with many of the convenings that we’ve been able to bring together, female economists who then can be mentored by more senior colleagues around the world. And so, linking up female economists here in the United States and Europe with emerging scholars throughout the African continent using technology sometimes as the platform has been very exciting.

Hasenstab: So, looking at your career, what are some of the struggles that you’ve faced?

Osili: Well, now, looking back I think at each stage have been some challenges, certainly. I think in the beginning, as a graduate student finding the, path that I wanted to take, I was very fortunate as I said to have a very good committee that helped guide me through. Grad school can be very challenging, not just getting through your coursework, your qualifying exams, but also preparing for the job market, getting your materials together.

And so, when I look back, I think having good mentors, good support, a good support system, not just within the graduate school experience, but outside, having family members and friends who kept you going during that period. Now, as I have moved into the faculty system, I think in the very beginning, one of the big challenges for me was, we started a family quite early after grad school. I had our son probably the first year I was an assistant professor. So, I had the challenge of getting tenure, getting my publications, but also making sure that I allocated time to our son and to his needs as he was growing.

And I think that that is something that a lot of women in the academy more broadly face, not specific to economics, but in the economics profession you have the added challenge that often you are the only woman on the faculty, or maybe one or two women. And at the time that I started as an assistant professor here at Indiana University, Purdue University in Indianapolis, there was only one other woman that was on the faculty and trying to work out all the details like maternity leave and what the right policies were. Back then, they were not very supportive to women who were juggling children and families with work.

I think you got six weeks of paid leave. Today’s a lot more generous in terms of maternal leave polices. So, I had to quickly bounce back from maternity, back into the classroom and finish up grading my students’ papers. I think, also balancing the long lags in publications. It takes, you know, three to four years, sometimes, to get a paper published in a lead journal. And the intensity of that work, with the needs of a growing family. There, you also need a lot of support.

And so, I encourage young women who are engaged in raising families and publishing papers to get as much support as they can, whether that means getting assistance with childcare, having good mentors, role models at work who can help guide you through the process. And there, I think I was also very fortunate because I had a lot of senior faculty that were willing to read papers and give me feedback and guidance along the way.

Hasenstab: Well, those are really interesting struggles that you faced and some that I think a lot of people listening might be able to identify with. Why would you encourage women and minorities to enter the field, whether it’s early in their career or midcareer?

Osili: There’s so many reasons why the economics profession can benefit from more diversity, both, having more women in the profession, but also people of color. Looking back, I can say that I was part of a cohort that the American Economic Association had. They had a program at Stanford University that brought together students from communities of color to study for the summer at Stanford, and then actually help them with their application process.

So, I knew more about what a path in economics was like. A lot of students don’t really know what an economist does or what it is. In fact, one of the questions I get, especially from younger people is, “What is an economist? What do economists study?” So, I think why we do need—more people of color in the profession is because when we think about the topics of our time, whether it’s inequality or healthcare disparities or global development, we need more voices at the table to study that and to study those topics from different perspectives, so that we can find solutions to problems.

And what economics provides, and this is something most people don’t know, is a very useful toolkit, a range of tools, actually, to help solve problems. Economists know how to study problems. You’re trained to basically put together a research question and actually figure out how to solve it, whether that’s using data, using experiments, or through a theoretical lens. And increasingly, the complexity of problems that we face, both locally and nationally and globally mean that we need more perspectives to actually tackle those challenges.

So, when I look ahead, my desire and hope is that we can get more perspectives so that whether it’s how to solve the problem of racial disparities, that we’re looking at it from different perspectives.

Hasenstab: You’ve touched upon mentors already including naming a specific professor. But who mentored you throughout your studies and throughout your career, and have you mentored other women in the field?

Osili: Yes. I’ve been very fortunate, because I’ve had mentors at every step of the process. And I actually feel like that’s something that I encourage people to do, and I’ve also worked hard to be a good mentor. , Both of my parents are college professors. My mother is an historian, and my father is a pharmacologist. So, they both mentored me in different ways. I think economics is actually a blend of the two, because it did help me to have this understanding of history and knowledge of history alongside the math and kind of science background that my father brought.

And so, in the beginning, they were very good mentors. And, in fact, when I worked on my doctoral dissertation and had to collect data, my parents went with me on some of my research field trips and data collection exercises, so they were very supportive. They were my first mentors, I would say. But pretty soon, the context I was working in was very different from anything they had experienced.

And then, at that point, the professors and faculty on my dissertation committee were very helpful. And I mentioned Dr. Anna Paulson, who’s a vice president of the Chicago Fed. She’s been a wonderful mentor in every step of the way. During my dissertation, she was in the middle of a big data collection project in Thailand at the time I was working on my thesis. So, she was able to share a lot of real-time feedback with me, which I could then implement when I was designing my dissertation and collecting data. Once I got tenure, I think my own emphasis has also been on, how can I be a good mentor? How can I learn to be a good mentor if I don’t already know how? And there, I was very fortunate because Dr. Elizabeth Asiedu, also at the University of Kansas, we had an interest in this notion of, how do we reach back and help other women who may be similar to us and having an interest in these issues.

And Elizabeth, herself, is such a wonderful mentor. I’ve learned a lot from her. One of the things I have learned from her is really thinking about what skills and talents and resources and networks you have and how they can be helpful to other people. And one of the things I’ve also learned is that at each stage you have something that someone else can use. And so, what I’ve done, very intentionally, is shared feedback with younger colleagues on their work, but also shared resources in terms of, let’s say, childcare or other strategies for success. “This worked for me. This might work well for you.”

… I also encourage people, as you move up, also think about how you can reach back and help someone else. I think I increasingly shifted more to thinking about not, “Who can mentor me? But how can I help others?” And that can be done formally as well as informally. I just, over the last few years, I started volunteering at the juvenile detention center here in Indianapolis. And when I shared that with my colleagues, they were quite surprised. They were like, “You don’t have time for that, Una.” And it’s once a month, and it’s certainly a big commitment, but I think it also informs the work that I do in the sense that it makes it so relevant to say, back to, why did I get into economics in the first place? And it really was to find solutions to the problems that face us globally, as well as locally.

Hasenstab: Well, and it’s an example of being philanthropic with your time, as well.

Osili: Exactly. Absolutely.

Hasenstab: Is there anything else that you would like to discuss about women in economics?

Osili: Yes. I think that what is encouraging is that there are more women going into the profession today, especially in graduate schools when you look at the numbers. The challenge often is that there’s a drop-off from the associate level to the full, and even from assistant professor to associate professor. When I look at that data, there is a part of me that’s discouraged, and I sort of think, “Wow, after all this time, we haven’t made as much progress as we should. And could some steps be taken to encourage or to reduce the attrition that’s taking place.” 

And several years ago, I was part of CSWEP Mentoring Program. CSWEP is the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. And they bring together senior economists with emerging faculty from around the country, and that is now part of the American Economic Association’s ongoing annual meetings. And I think what’s great is that I’ve kept in touch with a lot of those younger economists, and I see them really doing well in their career. So, I think the mentoring really helps, and we need to expand those programs.

One thing I can bring are the connections to different nonprofits and organizations who have been intentionally doing that. So, I think to solve the problem, all of us can do something. I think we can look at the enormity of the challenge and say, “Wow, we have moved the needle in terms of women in the profession.” But I think through our own individual efforts as well as through programs like the one CSWEP is running, we can actually start to make a difference. So, I say that, you know, although there hasn’t been as much progress as I’d like, I do think the initiatives that we have in place seem to be yielding results.

Hasenstab: Una, I want to thank you so much for your time. It’s been so great to hear your story in your words.

Osili: Thank you so much for having me. I’ve enjoyed it as well. Thank you. Thank you.

Hasenstab: To hear more “Women in Economics” podcasts, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That’s one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon.

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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