UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman is a research scholar in economics at Harvard, and she plans to one day pursue a PhD in economics. A couple of years ago, when Anna was still an undergraduate, she attended the big annual conference hosted by the American Economic Association, the AEA.
ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: When I arrived, I was like, oh, OK, this is fun. Like, it's a great conference. I'm learning a lot. And I was going to a lot of these Africa focus seminars, so I was seeing people who looked like me. And then I went to the Nobel laureate luncheon. So this is where they celebrate the person who recently just won the Nobel. And I think I was, like, one of three black people in the room. And I was like, what is this? (Laughter).
GARCIA: In the field of economics, women overall are underrepresented, and black economists overall are underrepresented. And since black women like Anna live at the intersection of these two identities, the barriers they have faced entering and staying in the field have been especially high.
OPOKU-AGYEMAN: I went to the conference, and I looked around. And I said, if economists have this much power to affect the world, why don't they look like the world?
GARCIA: I'm Cardiff Garcia. And today on THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY, a conversation with Anna and with economist Lisa Cook in which they explain how the economics profession excludes black women, what that signals about the profession itself and the quality of the work it produces.
Dr. Lisa Cook got her PhD in economics about three decades ago, and she is also one of Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman's mentors. And lately, Dr. Cook says, she and Anna have spent a lot of time trying to answer a simple question.
LISA COOK: Why are black women missing? There's something happening, and there's something that is deterring black women in particular from pursuing this major and this field, this career.
GARCIA: Here is an incredible data point from the American Economic Association. By the most recent count - this was in the year 2017 - there were 1,150 total economics PhDs awarded. Only seven of those went to black women, and that number has barely budged in two decades.
Now, in our chats, Dr. Cook and Anna cite a few reasons for this. The first is that there is a pipeline problem. For there to be more black women as PhDs, there first need to be more black female undergraduates taking economics and preparing for a career in economics. And for that to happen, there need to be more black girls in middle school and high school taking advanced math classes. And this is where the problem begins, says Dr. Cook.
COOK: What we know is that black girls are being under-recommended for AP calculus, and this is the gateway to doing economics as an undergraduate and certainly a gateway to doing it at the PhD level.
GARCIA: Anna herself remembers that this happened to her when she was in high school and then even after she got to college, when a lecturer questioned whether she'd be able to do the math required for an economics degree.
OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Someone literally asked me, are you sure you know about the mathematical rigor it takes to become an economist? - me, a whole math major.
OPOKU-AGYEMAN: What? And this was before I even knew this person. This person knew nothing about me. They just looked at me, and they said, I don't think you can do this. You should settle for a master's.
GARCIA: Dr. Cook notes that this pipeline problem for black women has hardly made any progress lately. And here there's a distinction to be made with black men, who are also heavily underrepresented in economics.
COOK: I mean, what we know is that between 2006 and 2015, the number of undergraduates who were majoring in economics who were black men increased by 44%. What we know about black women is that that number increased over the same period by 1%. And that's just jarring. It's like, you know, did aliens come and steal all these black women who would've majored in economics otherwise?
GARCIA: Another reason for the shortage of black women in economics is what they experience once they do enter the profession. Dr. Cook was on the committee at the American Economic Association that recently surveyed the professional climate within the economics profession, and it included long passages on the experiences of black women.
COOK: They are particularly subject to discrimination for promotion and pay. And we see this in the research - not just in the AEA study, but also in the research. We see that black women are not retained like their other peers. If they get an outside offer, for example, at a university, they're more likely to be let go.
GARCIA: The survey found that 62% of black women had experienced racial or gender discrimination or both. By the way, these numbers were high for all women, but black women had the highest, followed closely by Latina economists, who also faced similarly high barriers within economics. The survey also found that black women most often reported having to take specific actions to avoid discrimination or harassment - for example, by choosing not to attend a particular graduate school or not attending a conference or even changing what they teach in a class.
As someone who wants to get a PhD in economics, Anna further highlights the survey's finding that the published economics papers of black women and of other underrepresented groups are not often cited by other scholars.
OPOKU-AGYEMAN: The currency in academia and arguably even in policy and sort of economics research in a broad sense is research. Like, if you can't get published or if people don't cite your work or if people aren't acknowledging the contributions that you are making to the field, you can be effectively shut out.
GARCIA: Beyond the straightforward injustice of what black women in economics have to face, Anna and Dr. Cook say there are other reasons why their small numbers matter. For one thing, their underrepresentation can potentially influence policy. Take the Federal Reserve board. The Fed employs 406 PhD economists on its staff. Only one is a black woman. And of the 79 economists at the Fed who are officers and have positions of leadership, not a single one is a black woman.
COOK: That's alarming because that means that policies are being made - monetary policy that affects everybody - those policies are being made without significant input. And often, black women and minoritized groups are the canaries in the coal mine for an economy.
GARCIA: Here is one example of what Dr. Cook is talking about. Before the last big recession - the one that started about a dozen years ago - the unemployment rate for black and Hispanic Americans started rising earlier and more steeply than the unemployment rate for white Americans. And also, the problems in the housing market were disproportionately concentrated in black and Hispanic households.
And the Fed and other policymakers might have recognized these trends earlier, might have understood that they were signs of what was to come for the rest of the economy, if it had more diverse people working for it, highlighting them - people from those communities where the problems started. And Anna worries that a similar dynamic would also apply to the kind of research that economists do within academia.
OPOKU-AGYEMAN: And so I think the economics research that would result from a profession that represented the world would be just that - research that represents the world, that addresses the concerns and the issues that people within the world face.
GARCIA: To help make that happen, Anna has co-founded The Sadie Collective, which is named after the first black economics PhD, Sadie Alexander. And the group brings together black women at different stages of their careers in economics. And for her part, Dr. Cook says that those terrible findings from the AEA survey have actually made her more determined to find a solution.
COOK: I was in a bit of shock just reading some of the responses, and that deepened my resolve to say to people like Anna, don't leave. Don't leave. I'm still here. There are many of us still here. And people are asking how we can change.
GARCIA: Dr. Cook and Anna teamed up to write a New York Times op-ed on this topic a couple of months ago, and we'll have a link to it at npr.org/money. We will also link to the AEA professional climate survey into the research of other economists, like Dania Francis and Rhonda Sharp, that was cited in our chats with Dr. Cook and with Anna. Special thanks to Claudia Sahm, the director of macroeconomic research at Equitable Growth, for sending us the numbers about the Fed.
This episode was produced by Leena Sanzgiri, fact-checked by Jared Marcelle. And our editor is Paddy Hirsch. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.