There’s no way around it: economics is a male-dominated field. But if Kristine West, PhD, associate professor of economics at St. Catherine University, has anything to do with it, things are going to start changing. Soon.
West, who earned a doctorate after a career teaching high-school economics, says the gender gap and lack of diversity in her program “was really apparent.” And when she took a closer look at working economists, economics professors, and students signed up for courses or majoring in economics — she was shocked.
“Even though 60 percent of all U.S. undergraduates are women,” West says, “on average, only about 30 percent of economics undergraduates are women. Men are 2-to-1 overrepresented in economics, and that’s just at the undergraduate level. It gets worse through graduate programs.”
For women of color, the gap is even wider. West adds, “In 2019, just 4 percent of economics PhDs were awarded to African-American women (1). That’s a really shocking statistic.”
West believes the gender gap can be chalked up to outdated thinking that has influenced the field of economics for decades.
“The dominant thinking in economics has been, ‘There’s no need for diversity. Competition is efficient and if competition leads to an all white or all male field, so be it,’” she says. “But when you think like that, you’re missing perspectives. You’re missing out on new ideas, and you’re missing out on good, sharp questions that challenge assumptions. And many of these assumptions are wrong.”
St. Kate’s economics department doesn’t look like departments at other schools. As would be expected at a woman-centered university, the majority of the student body identifies as female. But what really sets the program apart is its all-female faculty.
“That’s an anomaly,” West says. “It’s super unusual, and it’s a great asset for our students. We really are the leaders in that area.”
Also setting St. Kate’s economics department apart from those at other universities is the foundational work of two long-time faculty members: professor emeritus Nasrin Jewell, PhD, and professor Deep Shikha, PhD. “Together, they worked to build a department that values diverse voices and supports women — especially women of color,” West says.
While it felt rewarding to be part of an all-female economics faculty that teaches an ethnically diverse group of female students, West knew she needed to do something bigger if she wanted to influence real change in her field.
An idea came to her. With its international reputation and history as a leader in women’s education, St. Catherine University was the ideal place to launch the Minnesota Center for Diversity in Economics (MCDE), a new initiative aimed at diversifying economics through education, outreach, and activism.
West had a sabbatical coming up, and she decided to devote that time to researching the economics gender gap and setting a timetable for establishing MCDE.
“I felt like MCDE needed to be here at St. Kate’s,” she recalls. “I wanted to connect us to the national conversation about representation in economics, but I also wanted to think about what that national network was missing and define exactly how we could contribute to that conversation. St. Kate’s has so much to offer, and I felt like the time was right for us to step up and get this done.”
When Tarshia Stanley, PhD, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences, learned about West’s idea, she enthusiastically supported it and was excited to see what West and her colleagues could achieve.
“The MCDE is a perfect match for St. Kate’s,” Stanley says. “When we think about the University’s call to educate women to lead and influence, it is exactly what the MCDE is engaged in — not just at St. Kate’s, but in the field of economics in general. They are dedicated to making sure there is a steady flow of women into the field, and that’s so aligned with everything we do at the University.”
Birth of a Center
In fall of 2018, West emerged from her sabbatical year fired up about MCDE and the possibilities it presented for real change.
Thanks to special funding provided by a U.S. Department of Education Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP) grant, MCDE was able to hire Libby Kula '19 (economics and math) as a part-time program coordinator. With Kula’s help, West and her economics colleagues were able to give MCDE clearer definition, creating a visual identity and the tagline “More Voices, More Possibilities.”
Thanks to insights from Kula and other students, West’s founding concept of MCDE grew.
“Initially I was going to give the center a name that was more focused on women and economics,” West says, “But it was really the students here at St. Kate’s who urged me not to focus too narrowly on gender. Our students know that St. Kate’s strength clearly is promoting women, but also the intersectional approach of promoting diversity in women, and defining identity and diversity more broadly than, ‘We need more women.’ Our name had to reflect that.”
In order to promote true diversity in the field of economics, West believes that MCDE has to spread its influence wide, reaching beyond the St. Kate’s campus to middle and high school students and their teachers.
With that goal in mind, West initiated a partnership with the Minnesota Council on Economic Education (MCEE), a nonprofit that supports a statewide network of seven independent centers studying economic education. While the other centers are geographically focused on doing outreach in their communities, MCDE has a broader reach; the partnership helps them build connections with an established network of high school teachers around the state.
Kula helped write a memorandum of understanding for collaborations with MCEE that made the case for how MCDE’s mission sets it apart from the state’s other centers of economic education.
“The point made was that we’d go into high schools to prepare teachers to teach economics and to encourage more young women of color to enter the field,” Kula says. “We explained that we’d also work directly with students to explore different career paths and research areas within economics.”
The focus on diversifying the field of economics is about far more than optics, Dean Stanley says. Economics runs the world’s nations, and until a more diverse range of scholars can add their voices to the debate, key economic decisions will continue to be made by and for a select few.
“This is about bringing in a very diverse understanding and ability to answer the world’s problems,” Stanley says. “We’re not at our best when we don’t have a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds working to tackle the major challenges.”
Caroline Krafft, PhD, associate professor of economics, says that building a broad, diverse base in the field of economics will take time, but the end result will be worth all efforts.
“We want to make sure economic decisions are made with the best information available,” she says. “When women and people of color are excluded from economic decisions and policymaking, that leads to bad policies. It’s important to have a good variety of perspectives.”
Spread the Message
One way to draw a more diverse mix of people to study economics is to let more young people know what economics has to offer.
“We’re really interested in getting more girls and young women, and more people in the community who really represent the community, to be aware of economics as a field while they are in high school and middle school,” West says. “That way, the pipeline of students arriving at college is full of people interested in economics and thinking about what it has to offer.”
West says that MCDE takes this targeted influx of students seriously, conducting outreach to teachers and students before they get to college. The Center’s partnership with MCEE paves the way for St. Kate’s faculty and students to visit schools around the state, spread the gospel of economics, and make the case for why a young person should consider giving the field a try.
“Students of color and girls don’t always see economics as an option, and many don’t understand the tools they gain by studying economics,” Cumanzala says. “It’s my job to let them know.”
Cumanzala attended the 2020 Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference for Economics and Related Fields, an event to connect Black women in quantitative disciplines. She returned with an idea for the MCDE: She appreciated the mentorship program she experienced with the Sadie Collective, and she envisioned a similar program for St. Kate’s economics students.
In March, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, MCDE piloted a virtual mentorship program designed to allow first- and second-year students to remain connected with mentors in the Economics and Political Science Department.
The MCDE team brainstormed how to expand the virtual model to reach the weakest points along the economics education and career pipeline. They were awarded a $14,000 grant from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota to kick off the new mentorship program, which they dubbed Cross-Generational Femxle Economists Mentorship (C-FEM).
Rather than pairing just two female or gender non-binary economists, each C-FEM mentorship team will include a high school student, a St. Kate’s introductory economics student, an upper-level St. Kate’s economics major, and an alumna who is a professional working in economics.
Drawing on their teams for support, high-school-aged participants will explore different economics topics and career paths through webinars and earn a certificate for each subject they master. The program is launching with St. Kate’s students and alumnae; the St. Kate’s students will benefit from mentoring young students into this pipeline and by building an identity as economists.
Fardowsa Abdinoor, MCDE program coordinator, joined the team in spring 2020. She appreciates the Center’s commitment to helping young women see the range of possibilities provided by economic study. “I am passionate about the work we do at the MCDE,” she says. “I want girls to know that economics is not only about banking and financing, but also includes different areas of economic study, such as developmental, health, environmental, and others.”
The efforts to spread the word about economics aren’t limited to high schools. The MCDE is also spearheading events and presentations designed to spark interest in economics among non-economics majors at St. Kate’s as well.
“What we’re actually hoping to do with MCDE outreach is attract more people — nursing majors, public health majors, science majors — and give them an opportunity to see how economics affects their fields,” West explains.
She hopes that these activities and events will help illustrate that economics can be more than a bunch of white men in ties sitting around a boardroom table.
“One of the arguments for why econ is not attracting as many women is because they don’t know the breadth of things that economics actually applies to,” West says. “We just have to help make the case, to say things like, ‘Did you know that economics can help you understand the economics of the environment?’ or ‘Did you know that public health has an economics component, and that taking economics courses will make you a better public health major?’”
Economics powers nearly everything in society, West continues. If women want to help make the world a better place, more of them need to get in on the action.
A Perfect Match
Katies often take a circuitous route to economics.
Rather than selecting the major for its earning potential, West says, they tend to find it through other degree programs, including public policy, women and international development, or environmental studies. Those programs require economics courses, and that’s when students learn how the field can be an engine that drives social change.
Take Cumanzala, for example. From her native Zimbabwe, she came to St. Kate’s planning to major in mathematics, but a first-year economics course titled “The Economics of Social Issues” swiftly turned her into a double major.
“I’ve always had a passion for solving the inequities I saw while growing up,” Cumanzala says, “but I didn’t know what tools I needed.” The course, which offered an economic perspective on current domestic and global social problems, inspired her and demonstrated how she can make a difference.
“That class really opened my eyes because we were talking about different inequalities in the world and how economics plays a role in them,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is the subject I should be studying.’”
Professor Krafft says she’s seen many students follow a similar path. “We have a lot of students who initially get interested in economics from a social-justice perspective. Economics helps you tackle tough issues.”
It may be that women are particularly interested in using economics for social change — or it may just be a good match with the St. Kate’s mindset.
“There’s interesting research showing that women and men tend to gravitate toward different questions within economics,” West says. “Women tend to gravitate toward questions about education, health, and public policy. Questions that use economics for the greater good. Men tend to focus on finances.”
An economics major carries a particular appeal for many Katies. “Economics is a practical set of skills that doesn’t prepare you for just one career,” Krafft says. “For example, you can work in government or become a corporate responsibility officer for a major corporation, ensuring your supply chain is free of child labor.”
Cumanzala, for her part, is heading to graduate school. She plans to earn her PhD in economics, and she credits her time at St. Kate’s for helping her reach that decision.
“The University’s mission is ‘educating women to lead and influence,’” Cumanzala says. “I personally believe that economics is the language of power. What better way to educate women to lead and influence than to teach them the language of power? I plan to access some of that power.”
1. Calculations based on 2015–2017 IPEDS data for four-year colleges and universities
by Andy Steiner, from St. Catherine University Magazine fall 2020 issue