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West believes the gender gap can be chalked up to outdated thinking that has influenced the field of economics for decades.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.
Professor Emeritus Nasrin Jewell, PhD (left) and Professor Deep Shikha, PhD (right).
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.”
Libby Kula '19 (left), who helped launch the MCDE is now pursuing her PhD in applied economics. Fardowsa Abdinoor (right) is the program coordinator for MCDE.
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.”