Why There Are So Few Black Women Economists : Planet Money In 1921, Sadie Alexander became the first Black person in America to receive a PhD in economics. Then, she was functionally shut out of economics jobs, got a law degree, and became an attorney instead. A century later, economics has made notably little progress bringing Black women into the field. We work with The Sadie Collective to bring you three stories from three eras of recent history that show us how the field has changed, where it still falls short, and the unique joys of being a Black woman and loving economics. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

100 Years Since Sadie Alexander

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

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SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Hey, PLANET MONEY listeners. It's Sarah Gonzalez.

MARY CHILDS, BYLINE: And Mary Childs.

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JAMES SNEED, HOST:

The year was 1921, graduation day at the University of Pennsylvania.

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SADIE ALEXANDER: There were photographers from all over the world taking my picture. And I can well remember marching down Broad Street from Mercantile Hall to the Academy of Music.

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

This is Dr. Sadie Alexander. It's one of the few recordings that exist of her. And she was recounting a monumental event in her life and in the field of economics.

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ALEXANDER: It was a great occasion because I was the first Black woman in the United States to qualify and to receive the degree.

SNEED: We now know that she was the first Black person to get a Ph.D. in economics in the United States 100 years ago.

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ALEXANDER: All of the glory of that occasion faded, however, quickly when I tried to get a position.

MALONE: The glory of that occasion faded because Dr. Sadie Alexander was essentially rejected by the field of economics. She was completely shut out of positions appropriate for her level of education when she went and tried to get a job.

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ALEXANDER: My major professors in economics and so forth had combed not only the city, but the country, trying to get me placed. And they couldn't place me, and I knew I wouldn't be able to place myself. So I said to him, well, I think I'll go to law school.

SNEED: Sadie Alexander did, in fact, go to law school and went on to become a successful attorney.

MALONE: In the century that has followed, economics has made notably little progress bringing Black women into the profession. And there is a sobering statistic that I think really demonstrates this. So we know that in 1921, the number of economics Ph.D.s issued to Black women was one. It was Dr. Sadie Alexander's Ph.D.

SNEED: Fast-forward to 2019, the year that we have the most recent data for. A total of about 1,200 economics Ph.D.s were issued that year. The total number of those issued to Black women - just four.

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MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

SNEED: And I'm James Sneed. And to honor the anniversary of Dr. Sadie Alexander's Ph.D., we're going to look today at how entering economics has and has not changed for Black women.

MALONE: For this episode, we've teamed up with an organization called The Sadie Collective, named after Sadie Alexander, that is trying to address the problems preventing Black women from entering economics.

SNEED: We worked with The Sadie Collective to find three stories about entering economics at three very different times in history, stories about how the field has changed, how it still falls short and the unique joys of being a Black woman and loving economics.

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Economics is dope, quite frankly. Like, economics is too dope to not do.

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SNEED: Today, we have three stories from three Black women who are all at very different points in their economics careers.

MALONE: These are all stories about entering economics at different points in time. And our first story starts about 60 years after Dr. Sadie Alexander received her Ph.D.

SNEED: Dr. Cecilia Conrad has many titles - professor emeritus at Pomona College, CEO of the nonprofit Lever for Change.

CECILIA CONRAD: But I'm also a managing director at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

MALONE: You are part of deciding who is a genius now.

CONRAD: I do oversee the MacArthur Fellows program, popularly referred to as the Genius Grants.

MALONE: We should mention that the MacArthur Foundation is among NPR's funders.

SNEED: But Professor Conrad is here to tell us the story behind a piece of advice she got about 40 years ago.

MALONE: It is a simple, five-word piece of advice that she would come back to throughout her career - this advice.

CONRAD: Fill the board with calculus.

SNEED: Fill the board with calculus.

MALONE: Yeah. Here's the backstory. It was the early 1980s, and Professor Conrad had gotten her very first teaching job at Duke University. She was one of the few Black faculty members on campus.

SNEED: One of the first classes Professor Conrad had to teach was an Intro to Microeconomics class.

CONRAD: And in the Intro class, sitting in the front row, there were three or four young men - young white men - who were part of the same fraternity, I believe, who engaged in really what I could call a hazing process with me.

MALONE: At every opportunity, these guys would interrogate her - not, like, curiously - antagonistically. They would pile on if she ever made a mistake, like accidentally dropping a minus sign in an equation.

SNEED: And Professor Conrad says she was the kind of student who would have pointed out those kinds of mistakes to a professor. But this was different.

CONRAD: First few times it happened, I thought, fine. But then I started to just see that it was a pattern and that it was affecting the whole class dynamic.

SNEED: Professor Conrad says it all came to a head during one lesson in particular.

MALONE: Yeah. The class was discussing a controversial idea for a new market at the time. This was the 1980s. And the idea was a sperm bank where all of the donors would be certified geniuses.

SNEED: Yeah. This market was being peddled by a prominent eugenicist. And so the conversation turned to the fact that this genius market may contain no diversity at all.

MALONE: And Professor Conrad remembers how this front row of white fraternity brothers was surprisingly candid about a market that may breed out non-white races.

CONRAD: And so, you know, their attitude was, well, it's almost like a Darwinian kind of thing. You could just fall out, and that would be OK because society would be better off without you. Except they also said, well, but we do need basketball players.

MALONE: Wait, really?

CONRAD: Yes, which I responded by pointing out that there were Black people with many different types of talents, including being incredibly smart. But it was just clear that they thought this was funny. I rarely react rattled when I feel rattled. But I felt rattled. I knew that I needed to do something different. I needed to take them on in some way, but had no idea about how to do it and was also very conscious of the fact - and this is something that I think faculty of color confront quite a bit - that they were going to write course evaluations and that those course evaluations could figure into decisions about my future at the institution.

SNEED: Professor Conrad didn't feel comfortable talking to her more senior colleagues about this. She was worried they wouldn't think she was ready for the job.

MALONE: And when she asked her peers about it, they were baffled. They were all white, and, not coincidentally, this was not happening to them.

SNEED: One day, Professor Conrad was sitting in her office when someone knocked on her door. It was an older economics professor.

CONRAD: He came into my office and asked if we could talk and closed the door. He said he understood - what he opened with was, I understand there are some problems in your Intro Micro class. And I said, yes, there are some problems. I'm curious about how he knew that. But then he said, well, these three young men - they came to see me, and they said that they objected to being taught by an obvious affirmative action hire. That - I was a little stunned that they would be so blunt about it, but not completely stunned.

MALONE: This older professor tells Dr. Conrad that he explained to the students they were wrong, that Dr. Conrad was more than qualified to be teaching their Intro to Microeconomics class and then dismissed them.

SNEED: This professor then says to Dr. Conrad that he thinks maybe she's doing her job too well. She's teaching things too clearly to these guys.

CONRAD: And I paused because I thought, OK, too clear? It is the Intro Econ class. You're supposed to be clear. He said, well, what's happening is they think they know as much as you do and they can challenge you. I want you to, next class, fill the board with calculus.

SNEED: (Laughter).

CONRAD: Calculus is not a requirement for this class. He said, I don't care. You need to establish that you know a lot more than they do. I thought, OK. It's worth a try.

MALONE: At the very next class, Professor Conrad is supposed to teach the class, like, a pretty simple idea about optimization. And then she says to them, now, you may be curious to see the derivation of this simple idea. And so she goes over to the chalkboard, and she starts writing parabolas and equations and first derivatives all over the chalkboard.

CONRAD: And I filled the board with calculus. And it went really quiet.

MALONE: So it's like, you just hear scribble, scribble, scribble.

CONRAD: Yes.

MALONE: And, like, people's minds saying, oh, crap. Am I going to have to know this on the test?

CONRAD: Is this going to be on the test? Yes.

SNEED: Professor Conrad knew for sure it had worked during the next class, when one of those frat guys tried to start up again. But this time, his buddies wouldn't back him up. They deferred to Professor Conrad.

CONRAD: I had a bit of a smile, a small smile. I may have gone back to my office skipping.

MALONE: Professor Conrad has now taught economics at Duke University and Barnard College and Pomona College, where she is now professor emeritus. And she says that that lesson from the very first year at Duke has stuck with her.

CONRAD: I realized that I would have to do that, some version of filling the board with calculus. Because in almost any room, there's a moment of just establishing your credentials. You have to sort of work them into the conversation. Even though I had a Ph.D. from Stanford University, people are - they have a hard time accepting that there is this Black woman who is an authority.

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MALONE: Our next story starts 25 years later, around 2006. That is when Carycruz Bueno sat down in her first economics class. It was a class that she had to take in order to graduate.

CARYCRUZ BUENO: Intro to Macroeconomics - I was like, OK. I'm just going to do Economics. It's an important part. I need to do it.

SNEED: (Laughter).

BUENO: But I don't want to be an econ major.

SNEED: In her mind, econ was this ivory tower field far away from the real people on the ground.

MALONE: Yeah. And, like, when I took Macroeconomics, I certainly remember feeling like, this is very theoretical, very far away from the ground and very difficult. However, Carycruz started taking this class and was like, oh, wait. This is weirdly easy for me.

BUENO: And I would just be like, oh, yeah, that's super intuitive. In hindsight, looking back, it all makes sense that it was easy to me because I grew up in a business.

SNEED: Carycruz grew up in Orlando, Fla., where her parents had a travel agency. And the family would travel a lot to the Dominican Republic, where her parents were from.

MALONE: And so, you know, these macroeconomic topics would come up in class - like, for example, currency exchange rates. And Carycruz would be like, oh, that's like when I was a kid and I wanted to buy chips in the Dominican Republic.

BUENO: Like, if I wanted to get a snack, you know, I wouldn't just give them a dollar. I would have to give them, like, a 20 peso bill.

SNEED: Or the lesson on inflation Carycruz was like, oh, yeah, I saw that, too.

BUENO: Oh, one summer I could go get chips for 15 pesos, and the next summer I had to pay 25 pesos. It was due to inflation.

MALONE: It wasn't just, like, seeing these big concepts in real life. There was also something personal to all of this history. Because when Carycruz was in middle school, her parents put her in charge of helping customers send international money orders. And these were almost always remittances, which is to say people in the U.S. sending money back to family and friends in other countries.

SNEED: And there was this one guy in particular that Carycruz and her siblings still talk about. He used to come in there all the time, always covered in paint from the job and always showing up, like, right at closing time - 4:59.

BUENO: We were like, ugh, we just want to go home. We want to watch our 5 p.m. cartoons (laughter). And so in that days, you could send, like, a 10-word, 20-word max sentence to the people with your money. And so he would be like, OK. Tell them 200 pesos for Maria (ph) and 300 pesos for Mama and then 400 pesos for Uncle Jose (ph). But tell him not to use it for rum. And make sure that he uses some of that money to pay my bill that I left when I was there visiting at the bodega. He would list, like, five different people. And then me and my brother would just look at each other, acting like we're typing. We were like, Sir, this is only 25 words.

MALONE: And so sitting there in her first economics classroom, Carycruz started to understand that economics is, you know, that guy. It's international policies that create situations where it's more valuable for him to live in the U.S. and send money home to the Dominican Republic. It's exchange rates, and it's the inflation that makes his money worth more or less. It's labor and immigration and wages. It is all very real.

SNEED: At some point, Carycruz realized that if the economy was made of the people she'd met and the kinds of experiences she'd had, then the field needed people like her in it.

BUENO: It needs to be more diverse. It needs to be more representative of the people that we're talking about - the migrant workers that work on farms, the essential workers that work in supermarkets, restaurants and the hospitals, a lot of them people of color. If you've never lived an experience, if you've never even thought about these kind of questions, they just don't get asked. And if they don't get asked, they don't get research, they don't get funding, they don't become policies. And we don't see change.

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SNEED: Carycruz wound up majoring in economics and getting her Ph.D. And now Dr. Carycruz Bueno is a fellow at Brown University. This fall, she'll start as an assistant professor of economics at Wesleyan University.

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MALONE: After the break, a room full of Nobel laureates, an econ Twitter fundraising campaign and the future of economics.

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CHILDS: Hey, PLANET MONEY listeners. This is Mary Childs.

GONZALEZ: And Sarah Gonzalez.

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MALONE: Our final chapter comes from Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, who is the co-founder of the organization we're working with for this episode, The Sadie Collective.

SNEED: Anna is about to start her Ph.D. at Harvard's Kennedy School. And to some degree, the last few years of her life have been dedicated to creating the resource she knew she would need as a Black woman entering this field.

MALONE: Anna went to undergrad at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And during that time, around 2018, she attended an economics conference and sat in on a Nobel laureate lunch.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: I sat there, looked around. And I said, why is this room beige?

(LAUGHTER)

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: There's too many beige faces in this room and, like, a speckle of brown. And I thought to myself, these are people who are advising presidents, advising business leaders, tech leaders. These are the people who are making the analysis that will justify the decisions that need to be made about our society. And they don't look like the society that they're making decisions for.

MALONE: At that conference, Anna met another young Black woman named Fanta Traore.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: And we started having conversations about, what does it mean for us to be in this space? And, you know, an idea came into my head. Call it God. Call it my gut. And I was like, what if we just congregated all the Black women in economics in a place and we just talked (laughter), right?

SNEED: Anna and Fanta eventually decided to try and put together their own conference. They were both in their early 20s. Fanta was just out of undergrad, and Anna was still in undergrad.

MALONE: And Anna says they didn't have the reputation to get sponsors or money of their own to do this. So they turned to, in my opinion, the most underappreciated corner of the internet - economics twitter, econ twitter.

SNEED: And Anna just tweeted something like, hey, economists. We're trying to do this conference for Black women in economics. We need funding. And econ Twitter responded.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: They funded it. They just donated small bits and cash. People gave maybe $10, $500, $200. And we got about - I think it was around $14,000 in total.

MALONE: Whoa.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah.

MALONE: The first Sadie Collective conference was held at a small think tank in Washington, D.C. in 2019. It was a one-day conference. And Anna says it's sold out in days.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: And there were people calling us. They were like, can I come? Can I - and we were like, we literally don't have room. And people still showed up because, you know, Black folk, right? We're still going to show up.

SNEED: That's a good problem to have.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah (laughter). Right. And I think for me, it hit me - I don't know why it hit me at this moment. But we had lunch, and I was running around because that's what I do when I'm (laughter) planning something. And I came back, and all the lunch boxes were gone. And I said, oh, my God. There's a lot of people here. (Laughter) That's kind of, like...

SNEED: (Laughter).

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: ...When I realized. And I said, people came. And this is very real. There's Black women here. There's young Black women here. And they're going to connect with each other. They're going to get jobs. And someone said it smelled like cocoa butter and success.

SNEED: (Laughter) I love that.

MALONE: The Sadie Collective has now held three conferences, and they do not have to fundraise on Twitter anymore. There are real sponsors and real partners.

SNEED: And over the last decade or so, a number of organizations like The Sadie Collective have been established to bring more diverse talent into economics.

MALONE: But, you know, the reality is that Anna is still entering the field now - like, starting her Ph.D. program - when each year, just a handful of Black women - literally enough to count on one hand - are getting their Ph.D.s in economics.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: It's discouraging for sure. But at the same time, the work needs to be done. And economics is dope.

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OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Like, quite frankly. (Laughter) That's just what it is, right? Like, economics is too dope to not do. So...

SNEED: (Laughter).

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: ...I'm not going to not be my dope self because you're uncomfortable. Go to therapy. Figure that out.

SNEED: (Laughter).

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: That's not my problem, right?

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MALONE: If you would like to learn more about The Sadie Collective and their efforts to bring more Black women into economics, you can visit their website, sadiecollective.org.

SNEED: For more about the life and work of Dr. Sadie Alexander, keep an eye on the PLANET MONEY feed later this summer for an episode with Dr. Nina Banks, who has spent years recovering the work of Dr. Sadie Alexander.

MALONE: You can always reach us by email. We are at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok - @planetmoney. I think we're technically part of econ Twitter, James. I don't know.

SNEED: Yeah, I (laughter)...

MALONE: Right? I think that counts.

SNEED: We're economics nerds.

MALONE: Yeah.

SNEED: Today's episode was produced by Dave Blanchard and edited by Brittany Luse. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer.

MALONE: A very special thanks this week to Dr. Valerie Wilson, Dr. Bridget Terry Long, Dr. Willene Johnson and Olusayo Adeleye, and also to the Temple University Library, where those Sadie Alexander recordings come from.

SNEED: I'm James Sneed.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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