Applying Lessons from First-Generation Students to Women in Economics
By Fernanda Nechio, Research Advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
Early in my career as an economist, I got used to being the only woman in the room. Most, if not all, of my colleagues were men. This was true when I was a summer intern in an investment bank during college, and continues even now as an established PhD when I participate in conferences.
Unfortunately, my experience is not unique and seems to be an enduring peculiarity of our profession. About a third of all economics majors are female, and a little less than a third of doctorates in economics are awarded to women. These numbers basically haven’t changed since the 1990s. This contrasts with other male-dominated STEM fields where the number of women has slowly but steadily risen over the years.
The reason economics falls behind in this progress could begin very early on. When first deciding on their future career, young adults commonly resort to a pool of professions they can see in their surroundings, such as jobs of family members, neighbors, and close friends. This can be the first deterrent to a girl considering a career in economics. The lack of your “neighborhood economist” role model or a critical mass of female economists erodes the sense that this is a common career path for young women considering what to do when they grow up. Even later on, female students can study all the way through a degree program without ever considering being an economist, or even encountering one on campus. Moreover, the relatively few women who break that ceiling and decide to do a PhD in economics are faced with an environment that, at times, is seen as unwelcoming, as Princeton Professor Anne Case recently described in an interview.
Some of these hurdles are similar to those faced by first-generation college and graduate students, or “first gens.” College and graduate studies can be an overwhelming experience for first gens. They start their academic lives with very little familiarity and limited support from family members, who are also experiencing it for the first time through their children. Being unfamiliar with a new world can easily isolate a student from the numerous opportunities that universities offer. Choosing what to major in or which field to specialize in is much more challenging if a person does not have any background or role models to look up to.
In many ways, women in economics are similar to first gens. The career path has not yet become common, the exposure to the economics profession is limited, and the opportunities to get to know the field can easily be missed.
As a female economist and first gen myself, these challenges are quite familiar. College was an overwhelming experience, and the decision to major in economics was a brave step into to the unknown. I frequently felt detached and that I was falling behind my peers. When “you don’t know what you don’t know,” even asking the right questions is challenging. As a result, I had little guidance on curriculum choices and little information on opportunities and career paths. For example, I was not aware of teaching or research assistant positions, exchange programs, or scholarships of any kind. Almost by chance, I got a research assistant position — no one applied to a position that opened during the summer break, and the economics department contacted students with the highest GPA.
In retrospect, this first job opened the door to a sea of opportunities and information, which, in many ways, set the stage for my future as a researcher. Most importantly, it was my first opportunity to work directly with a group of researchers that cared not only about their projects, but also about the development of their students.
In my professional life, I gained enormously from the support of mentors along the way. They motivated and helped me seize opportunities, such as research projects, internships, and networking events that I otherwise might have missed. More importantly, my mentors served as role models, showing that their path was possible for me and providing a safe environment where I could openly discuss insecurities, challenges, and opportunities.
In the 12th Federal Reserve District, the Economic Research division is taking a holistic approach to changing the culture in economics as a way to create a more diverse and inclusive environment. For example, to counter a tendency in economics to “score points” by immediately and aggressively challenging any speaker’s point of view, Economic Research instituted a five-minute rule so that, when someone is presenting, no one is allowed to interrupt them for the first five minutes. In addition, we have introduced a mentorship program, pairing junior economists with senior ones who are not their managers. This choice of pairing is strategically designed to foster an open space for conversations without the fear that they will affect performance evaluations later on. Mentors have the opportunity to take classes to better engage in their new role, and therefore, they gain not only from the additional interaction with their junior colleagues, but also from the enhancement of their management and mentorship skill set.
Moreover, we increased our efforts to reach out to undergraduates and correct the view that the Fed may be a “boys club.” For recruiting Research Associates (RAs), we rolled out a campaign to better inform faculty and students across the U.S. about the inclusive work culture and diverse opportunities offered by the 12th District. These efforts included sending hundreds of letters to faculty, colleges, and universities to let them know we are committed to increasing the female and minority representation in our department. In addition, we significantly increased our participation in events that support minorities in economics, visiting local schools and universities to better inform and promote our mission. We formed a recruiting team that fully embraces our goals to promote an inclusive and diverse work environment, and we make sure that our commitment to these goals are highlighted during interviews. Finally, we also told our story: we are a top-flight research environment, we are committed to training RAs and preparing them to pursue PhDs or other paths they may desire, and our alums go on to great success in a wide variety of fields. As a result of these efforts, we have increased the diversity and size of our highly qualified applicant pool, and the gender balance of male to female research assistants went from 80–20 to 50–50 in the past five years.
Of course, reaching a gender-balanced employee pool is only the first step to a more diverse and inclusive work environment. To enhance equal opportunity and engage our minority employees, we need to ensure they know what questions to ask. In other words, reaching out and providing information and a space for honest conversations is key. As one example of such efforts, internally, we hold special events for Fed research associates preparing to apply for Economics PhD programs, providing a space for participants to ask questions and, most importantly, to build confidence that they can make a difference in the field of economics.
As emphasized by San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly, “diversity is essential as a value and a practice.” To help break the cycle and change the culture to have a more diverse and inclusive profession, it is important to be proactive. The responsibility goes beyond hiring a larger pool of economists from minority groups; we need to promote an inclusive and diverse work environment. As leading economists in our profession, we are responsible for growing the pipeline of a diverse group of future economists.
To do so, we need to reach out to girls and minorities at different ages and introduce them to the possibility of being an economist and the different career paths available in the field. Moreover, mirroring the increasing efforts of schools and other organizations to better engage and help first gens to develop cultural capital, we should apply similar efforts to our pool of minority students and employees — amplifying our efforts to provide information, support, and guidance and discuss opportunities and career paths. Finally, acknowledging the importance that mentors played in our own professional lives, we need to serve as role models and mentors ourselves.
The set of actions undertaken at the 12th Federal Reserve District and the significant improvements in gender balance suggest that we are moving in the right direction. Going forward, our efforts to build an environment of trust and a safe space for honest conversations will, hopefully, help shape the career paths of younger professionals and plant the seeds for them to play the same role as they mature in our profession.
Fernanda Nechio is a research advisor in the Economic Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Her research focuses on international finance, macro, and monetary economics. She earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, as well as a Ph.D. from Princeton University. You can read more of her work here.
Fernanda’s article “Applying Lessons from First-Generation Students to Women in Economics” was originally featured in AEA’s CSWEP newsletter.
 For example, the efforts by UC Davis and Vanderbilt University are summarized at https://firstgen.ucdavis.edu/student-resources and https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/teaching-first-generation-college-students/, respectively.