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Women in Economics: Yvetta Fortova and Maria Arias

This 28-minute podcast was released May 20, 2020.

FRED Data Engineer Maria Arias (left) and FRED Manager Yvetta Fortova (right)

“FRED really is a public service. … We combine data from various sources, and we have tools available to our users to understand and modify and interact with the data, and ultimately we think that our product helps users telling a story about data,” says Yvetta Fortova, manager of the economic data tool FRED. She joins Maria Arias, FRED data engineer, as they talk with Andrea Caceres-Santamaria, senior economic education specialist at the St. Louis Fed, about their unique experiences moving to the U.S., studying economics and working in the field.



Transcript:

Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: Hello, I'm Andrea Caceres-Santamaria, and you're listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. I am here today with Yvetta Fortova and Maria Arias, who both work here at the St. Louis Fed on FRED, the Federal Reserve Economic Data. Yvetta is a manager of FRED and FRED family products such as ALFRED and GEOFRED. Maria is a FRED data engineer. Thank you both for joining me today.

Yvetta Fortova: Thank you for having me.

Maria Arias: Thank you for having us.

Caceres-Santamaria: Of course. I thought this would be a great opportunity to hear from both of you about your experiences as women in economics and learn a little bit more about the work you do for FRED. So, let's start with you, Yvetta. You studied economics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and went onto earn your MBA at Webster University in St. Louis, but you grew up in Prague. Did that play a role in your decision to study economics?

Fortova: Well, that's an interesting question. When I was in high school, my family situation changed and after my parents divorced, I had been given an opportunity to come to the United States and study here and I gave it a chance and I came to the United States after graduating high school. And for me personally, economics came as a natural choice, because at that time I didn't feel confident I could survive with my imperfect language skills and econ had enough math and statistics classes, which I liked, so I went for it and I particularly enjoyed the times that I spent at UMSL, specifically at the Economics Resource Center, which was great. It was a great place to network with other students and we had a nice group of students that helped each other to succeed in addition to a very encouraging faculty there.

Caceres-Santamaria: I'm glad you had a positive experience.  In some schools, they talk a lot about the economics classes being filled with a lot of men, did you experience that?

Fortova: For me, I personally didn't really pay attention at that time about being a woman in a man-dominated field. I think a lot has to do also with the fact that at that time I felt like the faculty at UMSL had enough women associated in faculty and they have been very encouraging throughout the whole program to making sure that whatever career path you're choosing and whatever your needs are, they were there to help. I actually throughout my study time I have found a female study buddy which helped me greatly to collaborate on assignments and take home exams and study together so really didn't have much of the gap of feeling like I was underrepresented.

Caceres-Santamaria: Maria you also studied at Webster University, economics in undergrad and then a master’s in management and leadership and you grew up in Costa Rica, right?

Arias: Yes.

Caceres-Santamaria: Awesome, so tell me how you ended up in St. Louis and then talk to me a little bit about how you chose to study economics.

Arias: I played a lot of soccer in high school and I heard about Webster from one of my soccer friends from high school who was attending Webster and so that's how I ended up in St. Louis. And my first exposure to economics was when I was in high school. I took an economics course as part of the international baccalaureate program and to me I didn't really think I wanted to study economics at that point. I always really liked math similar to Yvetta and statistics and when the decision to go to college and what program to apply to came up, I was thinking to go into a technical field, math or engineering or something like that but then I also had become passionate about economics from my high school courses and that's when I also tried to look for some econ programs so I did not know it at the time but econ actually involved a lot of math and I really enjoyed the program, as well.

Caceres-Santamaria: So, since you both are  from other countries, were there differing perspectives of women pursuing careers in economics, and in your experiences is the U.S. more or less open to women pursuing careers compared to your home countries?

Fortova: For me, there is certainly difference with careers. In the Czech Republic, there are many social benefits among which is also extensive maternity leave from work for up to four years which is a long time to be outside of work force. And while those leaves are available to either gender, women dominate in taking it and ultimately women are then more likely to become caregivers than bread winners and possibly work part-time jobs rather than full-time jobs. And I think that this impacts the way employers look at women and their career prospects. The situation in the U.S. seems to me better for women.

Caceres-Santamaria: Okay, well that's interesting, about four years maternity leave and how employers see that. Wow. And how about you, Maria?

Arias: Yeah so my experience is similar to what Yvetta said. In the U.S., I have seen a lot more women in general also have a full-time career than they do in Costa Rica where like Yvetta said, a lot more women end up staying at home and being caregivers instead of the main bread winners, but my mom actually has a career in finance and so from a very young age, I was also exposed to women, not only my mom, but other women, as well, who have had successful careers in finance and economics and other business fields. So at the time I didn't think a lot about it but looking back, I can definitely see that my perspective was that whether you were a man or a woman didn't really make such a strong difference to be able to have a strong career in economics or finance.

Caceres-Santamaria: Great, well that's wonderful that you were able to observe these women take on these jobs and that it was something that you now reflect on and kind of, you know, look up to. Yvetta, you're a mom, correct, if I remember correctly, a mom of two?

Fortova: Yes, I am a mom. I have two children. I have a son and a daughter and as I am trying to learn and gain more experience throughout my career, I also try to encourage my children to be more math friendly. And maybe that's just a bias from my side because I like math and I'm trying to be one of those parents who try to pass on the love for math to my children, but I'm trying to encourage them to try to study and focus on math because it is an important science for their life.

Caceres-Santamaria: Okay, are you trying to push them into economics, too, or inspire them rather, not push, inspire them?

Fortova: Yes, I will be open to whatever they're going to be doing in their lives as long as they are going to be good contributors to our society.

Caceres-Santamaria: All right, so let's see, you both have diverse backgrounds and now you work together on FRED and for listeners who are not that familiar with FRED, tell us more about it. It's an economic database but who uses it and why?

Fortova: FRED really is a public service. We have free tools and data. We currently house over 700,000 economic data series which is very impressive. We combine data from various sources and we have tools available to our users to understand and modify and interact with the data, and ultimately we think that our product helps users telling a story about data, understanding data, prefers them to make better choices that can be driven by data. And what we've seen from our user base, we see a lot of usage of our product by instructors and students, financial professionals, researchers, journalists and bloggers, or everyday users who just like to get on the internet and find the latest value for unemployment rate, for example.

Caceres-Santamaria: You both have presented and done presentations for various audiences on FRED and its capabilities and what are people most impressed with when they see your demonstrations of FRED?

Arias: I would say that something that people are impressed with is all of the different things that they can do with data on FRED. So for a first time user, it might not be immediately obvious but the fact that you can very easily change, say a series like "Total GDP" and changing to a growth rate so you can see the growth in GDP from last year or even from the previous period, it immediately changes the meaning of the data and it helps understand the data a lot more as well, so the fact that you can do that small change very easily with just a few clicks is something that users get a lot of value from.

Caceres-Santamaria: A lot of our listeners may be students and professors, tell me about how FRED is used in an academic setting.

Fortova: FRED is a great tool to teach data literacy. It can be utilized as an economic educational tool to explain concepts using real data. We have seen professors using our services in statistical classes, econometrics, macros, money and banking and many more and ultimately using the real data in academia can remove the abstract and theory based approach to teaching and that is the difference where the concept would stick with the students more than if they would have to just remember the theory.

Caceres-Santamaria: Do you guys apply some very hands on guides to how students can navigate the site or navigate a graph?

Fortova: We are fortunate enough that we are in a place that is also housed with economic educational team, which has a lot of expertise and background in teaching. And they are helping us to utilize and incorporate FRED product into interactive tools, into ways where students, other professors and teachers can utilize our product or see examples of how, for example, someone can use comparative advantage using FRED graphs or apply Taylor rule and all that is available via the St. Louis Fed website.

Caceres-Santamaria: Great, and also do you guys also with the FRED family products, GEOFRED, do you see a lot of academic use with that product as well?

Fortova: Yes, GEOFRED is actually different to look at the data. GEOFRED allows users to see data on the map and they can see cross-sectional comparisons. So for example if they look at the U.S., a state level map, they can see differences in a certain indicator across states, like Missouri or Illinois. One of the benefits of having this data is in econometrics and statistics because usually those are places that are looking from students for some kind of a project that is data driven, data based, and having a tool like GEOFRED allows students to find the data they need for their project and download the data for their own analysis and maybe creating their regression model or pulling the data into Excel and do further comparisons. So those are the examples where we really see GEOFRED striving.

Arias: The other nice thing about GEOFRED is seeing the data represented in the map sometimes helps show the differences between regions a lot better than if you're looking just at a graph where you can have fewer regions compared to one another and so sometimes it can make a stronger impression, seeing kind of how this data compares across different areas.

Caceres-Santamaria: Very true, very true. Thank you for sharing. What I'd like to do now is hear a little more about your specific roles, Yvetta as manager and Maria as a data engineer, so if you could tell me more about the work you're doing every day and how your experience studying econ helped prepare you for this type of work.

Fortova: I work as a product owner of FRED and I manage data desk which includes developing the applications in FRED, GEOFRED and ALFRED and organizing, publishing and disseminating the data in the database. And I would say there is not a day that wouldn't bring scarcity and opportunity calls on my table. On an everyday basis, I'm faced with requests related to our team, bank constituents, public, FRED stakeholders. And what helps me on the job is the acceptance that I may not know everything but having the skills to find the piece of information to make a decision is for me one of the keys to success. And I believe that is the skill that one can bring from college and that is the skill that I believe I have obtained from college as well.

Arias: Yeah, so as a data engineer, my main responsibility in the FRED team is to develop and maintain the pipeline that updates both the data and META data in FRED. For example, the way FRED works is we go out to the source’s website and collect the data that they have updated. We have to process it and then load it onto our database so it can show up on the FRED website and I'm in the team that develops that entire pipeline, as well, so that's both for the data and the META data so things like the titles and the units that can sometimes change so we want to make sure that we maintain that up to date, but then that we also have timely and accurate data updates so that the users can rely on the data that FRED is presenting to them as the same data that they would find on the source’s website updated in a timely manner. And then in addition to that, we also go out and help users understand how to use FRED better, so we hold workshops and presentations where we showcase the FRED products and we walk people through different ways of how we can use FRED and how they can apply it whether it is for their everyday uses in business or whether this is a teacher, how can you use FRED to teach your students better and things like that.

Caceres-Santamaria: So, going back, a little bit of a topic that we touched on earlier and more specifically about women in the field of economics, have you faced any challenges in terms of being a woman in this field?

Fortova: In college, I was an international student and that was a challenge on its own, especially because of the language barrier, but I believe that socializing with other students helped me overcome those barriers. And at the end of our econ program, we had a pretty tight group of friends. But I don't think in my workplace of challenging as being challenges because of me being a woman. I usually try to analyze the given situation and look at it as an opportunity for growth and think about is there a lack of communication skills or lack of being a good listener? Is this me who should be more aware next time or is that on someone else?

Caceres-Santamaria: That's very interesting. And how about you, Maria?

Arias: Yeah so for me, when I was studying economics, both in high school and the first few classes I took in college, were very mixed in terms of gender, so I didn't really feel like a minority at that point, but once I started going into more advanced economics and math classes, I was often one of a very few women or the only woman in the class, For me, because I also played soccer and played soccer with some coed groups of both males and females, I felt pretty comfortable forming study groups with my male colleagues. I feel like having those other social experiences where you're collaborating as an equal, like in a soccer team, with your peers helps you become more assertive and confident that even though you're a woman and there are mostly men around you that you are just as knowledgeable as they are. You're both learning this together and you're just helping each other to understand the content better and do better in the class at the end. Luckily in my career at the bank, I've been surrounded by a lot of women in the field as well, so before being in the FRED team, I was a research associate and I worked with several women economists so I've had a strong role model so to speak in the field and that's definitely helped me become more assertive and more confident also.

Caceres-Santamaria: Well, thank you both for sharing. It's really great to hear the positive experiences that you've had in the field of economics. And so in that case, kind of keeping that positive experience that you've had, why do you think it's important that more women and minorities enter the field?

Fortova: Having a diverse work force is important because our society consists of other species besides male. If we don't consider perspectives of women and minorities, I feel like we would be missing on those views and that can create issues when we need to solve problems or perhaps during policy making, so having more equally distributed representation of women and minorities in any field actually would equally utilize the need of our society.

Caceres-Santamaria: Very true, very true. Maria?

Arias: Yes, so I agree that diversity is very important in terms of decision making. Not only do we all have different experiences, we all come from different points in life, whether we're young or old, male or female. And we all make decisions based on our life experiences. So going back to the diversity in the field, having a broader diversity helps solve problems by looking at them from different points of view and having a different thought process to solve a problem can help come up with a better solution so I think that it's really important to have diversity not only in terms of males and females but also different minorities.

Caceres-Santamaria: All very true, yep, different perspectives definitely brings more to the table. So, we have a lot of women featured in this podcast series who have spoken about the important role of mentors. Do either of you have stories about mentors who have helped you succeed in this field?

Arias: Yes, so of course my mom has been a strong role model for me for all my life, with her career in finance and not only her but also seeing her colleagues was a pretty strong signal for me looking back that, you know, no matter the challenges that you have in life or having to also raise a family, as a woman you can still have a strong and successful career. But then throughout my high school, college, and professional career, I have also had different mentors that have helped me succeed. In high school, one of my math teachers was a woman and this was a higher level math class and so it was very complicated but she was a very strong mentor for me. She helped not only me but the other students in the class which in fact a lot of us were women in that particular class room. She helped us overcome that barrier between thinking a problem is too hard to solve and slowly breaking it down to find a solution so math can be contextualized that way where you can break a problem down into smaller problems and slowly you can solve this big complex problem that you have and I feel like that's helped me throughout my school and my career a lot. When I come across a problem that initially you think is too hard to solve or you don't know how to overcome, then you can start looking at it from different angles or start with just one part of the problem and you solve that and move on. So that's definitely helped me overcome challenges throughout my career.

Caceres-Santamaria: It's great how you had the influence from family and then you had influence from your academic career and how that's played a long-term role. Yvetta, how about you in terms of a role of a mentor that you had, did it start in Prague or did you really have more mentors in terms of your professional and academic career once you came to the United States?

Fortova: I actually have no experience with a formal mentoring but in my school times, I tended to be inspired by other women. And I was really moved by a chemistry teacher when I was in middle high, then similar to Maria, I had a great math teacher who was also female during high school and then when I moved onto college, I started my econ program with Professor Susan Feigenbaum and over the years I've found a great value in having really UMSL faculty in my network. When I was done with the program, ultimately my econometrics professor, which was also a female, Dr. Anne Winkler, helped me as a reference to be considered for this position in the Fed. So, I kind of see a lot of similarities where I feel like in my own personal life, women have been definitely playing a major role in aspirations and looking after for my growth.

Caceres-Santamaria: Alternatively do you mentor other women to encourage them to pursue and grow in the field of economics?

Fortova: When there is an opportunity to share my perspective and using my thoughts about career journeys, I am happy to share that with people. When we do have interns on our team during summer, I try to have conversations with them about their career journey and where they are seeing the obstacles and try to give them some advice. But ultimately it is just the one perspective out of many, because your opinion forms on previous experiences and your opportunities and background and all that, so everybody I think should be taking all that information and carefully evaluating for their own needs.

Caceres-Santamaria: Very good and very valuable for people to know that. How about you, Maria?

Arias: Yeah so with my experience as a former research analyst at the bank, I have talked to several of the women RAs that have come after me about my experience in the department but also about their journeys as women in the field of economics and it's just good to have someone that you know that you can reach out to. I've been lucky to be surrounded by many different women who are actively pursuing careers in economics, like some of the economists at the bank or also some of the research analysts, in addition to of course Yvetta, who we work with every day. For me, it is not so much about having formal mentoring programs but having representation in the field and also knowing that there are other people who have been in similar situations that you can reach out to.

Caceres-Santamaria: Is there anything else that either of you would like to discuss today about women in economics?

Fortova: I would say if this is the time for the wisdoms, [laughter], I would encourage all women to not give up in their career and follow their dreams because your strengths and values would be recognized and would give you an opportunity to shine.

Arias: So I think that economics for me was not an obvious choice when I was looking for a field of study but for a lot of us out there who really like math, really like technical subjects, I think economics is a really great field to pursue and explore. And then I would also like to say that it's easy to get discouraged and it's very hard to stay confident when you're trying to pursue a career, when you're trying to get a degree, when you're trying to overcome difficulties, but I think that trying to be confident about what you know and not being discouraged when you don't know something, so knowing that there are resources and people that you can reach out to, to help you answer a question or solve a problem, I think that's also really helpful to remember. Like Yvetta said, it's about knowing where the resources are, that you need to solve your problem.

Caceres-Santamaria: No, that's absolutely correct. Thank you for sharing these words of wisdom and thank you so much for sharing with us today as well.

Arias: Thank you for having us.

Fortova: Yes, thank you for having us. It was a very nice talk and conversation.

Caceres-Santamaria: 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 and Stitcher, or ask your Amazon device, “Alexa, play Women in Economics from Tune-In.” Thank you once again to listening to our podcast.