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Speaking of the Economy
Speaking of the Economy - Maia Linask and Tatyana Avilova
Speaking of the Economy

Oct. 20, 2021

Widening the Economics Career Path

Audiences: Economists, Educators, General Public, Students
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Maia Linask and Tatyana Avilova share their career journeys in the field of economics and discuss what motivated them to organize the Diverse Economics Conference this November. Linask is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Richmond. Avilova is program manager of the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge and is currently studying for her Ph.D. at Columbia University.

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Yolanda Ferguson: I'm Yolanda Ferguson, economic outreach specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Thank you for listening to Speaking of the Economy. You can find past episodes of our podcast on the Richmond Fed's website and on Apple Podcasts.

Diversity has become an important topic in workplaces large and small throughout the United States. In our March 25 episode, we talked about the lack of diverse voices in the economics profession and monetary policymaking and its implications for both.

Today I am speaking with two women who have built their careers in the field of economics. Maia Linask is an associate professor of economics at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond. Tatyana Avilova is project manager for the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge, an initiative to encourage more undergraduate women to major in economics. She is currently working on her PhD at Columbia University.

We'll be discussing the Diverse Economics Conference, a three-day virtual event that Maia, Tatyana and I have been planning for next month, November 16th through the 18th. The Diverse Economics or DivEc Conference has been held for the past two years to create a space for meaningful conversation about the diversity of people, perspectives and careers in the economics profession.

Thanks for joining me.

Maia Linask: Happy to be here.

Tatyana Avilova: It's wonderful to be here. Thanks for having me.

Ferguson: An important part of the DivEc Conference is giving both seasoned and early career professionals a chance to share their career journeys. Maia, what interested you in economics and how did that interest play out?

Linask: That's a great question.

My interest in economics was, in many ways, an accident. It wasn't my college major. I worked in the tech sector after college for a while. Eventually, I started doing a master's degree in international relations and [it was] there I actually took my first economics course. I was just fascinated by international trade. I was interested in the institutions, in the agreements, in the policies, in the politics, [and] the impacts that international trade has. All of those aspects of international trade just somehow fascinated me.

The second thing that really drew me to the discipline was that, when I took those first economics classes, it just made sense to me as a way of thinking and a way of studying the world around us and trying to find answers to questions and solutions to problems. When students ask me, "How did you come to do economics?" I tell them, it really was an aha moment where I realized this is the way the world makes the most sense to me.

So, I talked to a few of my professors, they encouraged me. Then after finishing the master's degree in international relations, I started a PhD in economics. Once I completed that, I joined the University of Richmond as an assistant professor in the economics department.

Now I'm a trade economist and I get to study the things about international trade that I find really, really interesting, some of which have to do with foreign direct investment and its relationship to trade. The other part of my job that I really love is that I get to teach students how to think like an economist and how to appreciate some of the insights that economics can provide.

Ferguson: Tatyana, tell us about your journey.

Avilova: Sure.

My journey in economics started when I was an undergraduate student. Early on, I was undecided between majoring in economics and going into East Asian studies. The economics department at my college did not allow double majors so, unfortunately, picking both was not an option.

I had been primarily taking economics based on advice from my family because they thought it would be very useful to know. While the instructors in my principles and intermediate courses were really fantastic, the content of the courses was maybe not the most exciting that I had taken.

On the other hand, I had a longstanding interest in Japanese history and culture. At the end of my sophomore year, I was leaning towards majoring in East Asian studies and was getting ready to go over the summer on a language study abroad program in Japan. Then, the devastating March 11 earthquake happened and I was unable to travel abroad.

At a loss for what to do, I decided to email some economics professors in the department to see if any of them were looking for research assistants because I had heard that sometimes students can assist professors with the research that they do, although I didn't really have a good grasp for what that meant. At first, the professors who I emailed didn't have any opportunities, but they encouraged me to keep looking.

Ultimately, I was able to find some work as a research assistant with Claudia Goldin and Nathan Nunn. Being able to work with them on various research projects — from women's labor force participation to development in Sub-Saharan Africa — really gave me a revealing glimpse into the kind of work that economists really do that I hadn't gotten from my courses before.

That was really a turning point where I decided that I would major in economics. That decision eventually led me to combining my two interests of health econ and Japanese culture to do a Fulbright Fellowship in Japan and study work-life balance of nurses. Then when I came back, I ended up working as a project manager for the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge with Claudia Goldin. For the past few years, I've been working on my PhD at Columbia.

Ferguson: Thank you both for sharing your experiences.

Why is it important for women interested in a career in economics to hear stories like yours? Let's start with you, Tatyana.

Avilova: You don't have to be interested in economics from the start in order to make it your career. This interest can be cultivated over time at your own pace.

Something that particularly was important to me is that you also don't need to give up on your other interests and things that are important to you. As I mentioned, economics is just a set of tools that can be used to study anything. Then, you can bring your own interests and passions to the research that you're doing.

Ferguson: How about you, Maia?

Linask: I think there are two pieces of my path to economics that might be especially relevant for students who are considering economics or who are already pursuing economics.

The first is that, as I mentioned, I didn't major in economics as an undergraduate. My undergraduate major was actually history and literature. I didn't take a single economics course until I started that master's degree, and that was after working for a number of years. So it took me a while to find my way to economics.

I like to think of that as sort of an indication that it's okay to be uncertain about your career path. Whether you're sure you want to do economics in school, or you're not quite sure whether you want to do economics but you don't know which career direction you want to take, all of that is okay. I wouldn't expect most people to know what they really want to do at the age of 18, or even 22. I certainly didn't.

So you try this, you try that. Eventually, you find a path that works for you. You find your way to what you really have a passion for. And really, there's no rush. It's not a race.

The second piece that I think is maybe helpful for people to hear relates to the fact that I didn't take a single economics course as an undergraduate. I imagine most people attending the Diverse Economics Conference might say, "But that's not at all relevant to me. I've taken economics courses." I think where it becomes relevant is that I didn't take economics courses because I didn't really understand what economics was. I didn't know that it was a set of tools, and that those tools could be used to address a lot of different questions.

I wouldn't want students who could be great economists to choose some other discipline just because no one tells them this is what economics is all about and this is what I can help you do. It's not just about traditional markets, like the market for cars or toothpaste. It's really a great tool for helping to solve some of the big problems we face today and for impacting the world around us.

Ferguson: I agree, Maia.

DivEc has been a platform for students to learn about internships and careers in the Federal Reserve System as well as get resume and interview tips from a number of career professionals. 

Ladies, what else motivated you to organize the DivEc Conference? What needs did you identify from a career development standpoint?

Linask: I definitely want to see more diversity in economics because it's really those different perspectives that help us find the best solutions to the problems that we face, whether those problems are poverty, climate change, crime, [or] anything else. Different people see different problems, as well as have different perspectives. If we don't have enough diversity in economics, we might not even recognize some of the problems that exists in the world around us and that economics could really help us solve.

So, it's important to increase diversity in economics. The question is, how do we do that? Well, there are a couple of things that we know that we need to do, and we try to do that with the DivEc Conference. One is to showcase the diversity of topics that economists can study. Another is to show the diversity of career paths that economics majors can pursue. And both of those are intended to show students that economics is not in any way limiting. They really can, as Tanya has said, pursue their passion with a degree in economics.

The third thing that's very important, and maybe doesn't get said often enough, is that we with this conference intentionally try to highlight the diversity of people and perspectives that is in the economics profession so that students can see economists who look like them and share some experiences with them. Because that's very helpful for students to know that there are people who look like me and who have had similar paths to me when they're trying to forge their own way in the profession.

Avilova: For me, the motivation to organize the Diverse Economics Conference relates back to the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge, or as we also refer to it the UWE Challenge. UWE is a randomized control trial or RCT. It started out as an experiment involving 20 U.S. colleges and universities. We worked with the econ departments at those schools to see whether certain interventions would be effective at encouraging more women to major in economics.

In spring of 2016 one of the students at Colorado State University, which was one of the schools involved in the Youth Challenge, Lauren Bouman, reached out to me with interest in organizing a conference where students and faculty from the UWE schools could network and exchange their experiences about what interventions had and had not worked. This eventually turned into the first UWE conference that was hosted by University of Virginia.

Over time, we held three UWE conferences at different schools which were relatively successful. What struck me about them is that the students always came away feeling energized about economics [and] about research and careers in economics. They were really eager to share what they learned at the conference with their peers back at their schools.

So it seemed like a natural step to organize this sort of conference but on a much broader scale — making it open to all students, not just those who participated in the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge — and also making the focus on diversity more broadly, of which gender representation is, of course, only one aspect. Thanks to Linda Hooks at Washington and Lee University, who made the introductions to the wonderful economists and staff at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, this is how I got involved in organizing this conference.

Ferguson: Okay. My next few questions will provide a taste of what people will hear at the DivEc Conference this November.

Based on your experiences and those shared by DivEc panelists over the last couple of years, what are common challenges, the most common challenges faced by women and other under-represented groups in economics at the start of their careers?

Linask: That's a topic that my colleagues and I spend a fair amount of time talking about.

Certainly, from my experience and what I've heard from others, it's very tiring to always feel like you don't quite fit in. If you don't quite fit in, it takes more effort to get yourself to participate in the first place. And it requires more energy because you're always thinking about "How am I coming across?" For women, for example, in academia, at least, this often means that you're constantly thinking about how to ensure that you get the respect you deserve as a professional without coming across as too aggressive.

To give a concrete example, I was at a conference a number of years back. At a conference, people present their research to each other and they get comments, they get questions, all kinds of feedback which is all very, very useful for improving the research. At the end of this particular conference, after the last day of sessions, there was a dinner. After dinner, a number of people decided that they would gather at the rooftop bar of the hotel where most of us were staying. I knew that networking was a very important part of conferences. So I thought, "I'll go ahead and join them, it seems like a great opportunity for me." Well, after everyone had gathered at the rooftop bar, I looked around and realized, "Oh, there are about 25 people here and I'm the only woman."

That kind of thing just really makes you feel like you don't belong, like you're the odd person out. It makes it harder to go to the conference the next time. If you can convince yourself to go to the conference, it makes it even harder to actually join those people for informal networking because you know it's going to require all of this extra energy.

One thing that used to be more challenging is one would often feel a sense of bias. It might be in student evaluations, it might be in textbooks, things like that. But economists, in particular, are very big on data and evidence. If you didn't have evidence to show that there was bias, people would argue and say, "Well, show me the proof and then I'll believe you that there's some bias." Well, it turns out now people have really studied this using many of the tools of economics. We have good evidence of bias in textbooks and syllabuses, publication decisions, tenure and promotion decisions, treatment at research seminars, student evaluations, online discussion forums, and some other places as well.

That probably doesn't sound very positive. On the other hand, now that we know the bias exists, the challenges are a little bit different. Now we're faced with the challenge of having to change things. How do we go about moving the needle in various ways so that there's less bias in our profession and in our discipline? How do we set a higher standard for behavior at research seminars? How do we make sure that papers submitted to journals for publication are treated the same regardless of who writes them? How do we make sure that textbooks aren't written only for the dominant group, that they showcase people from lots of different races, genders, ethnicities, and so on? And, especially, how do we encourage more women, more people of color, more non-binary folks to engage with economics?

These things are challenges, but I see these as good challenges because they're challenges that can actually lead to positive change.

Avilova: Maia hit on some really important points.

The first point about the feeling of belonging particularly resonates with me. Feeling like you don't fit in somewhere can really create a huge barrier to your success. This is something that [came up] at the debrief session with students at the end of last year's Diverse Economics Conference. Students really mentioned that the lack of representation — whether it's in textbooks or among role models that they see — really makes a huge difference. Some hadn't even realized how much they had been affected by it until the lack of representation was pointed out at the conference by some of the speakers.

I think improving representation is important. Of course, it's going to take time. As we work on improving representation as a discipline, in the meantime faculty and mentors can help their students overcome difficulties by focusing on something that Amanda Bayer, who was the keynote speaker last year, highlighted in her address, and that's RBG — relevance, belonging and growth mindset. Relevance is about students perceiving material to be directly relevant to their lives. Belonging is helping students feel like they're socially integrated and making them socially integrated. Growth mindset — and this is something that actually come up several times in the conference last year — was that students should feel that their ability and economics is not fixed, but can improve and grow over time. I think if we can focus on that and help support our students, we can make change happen.

Ferguson: What has been the most useful advice provided by DivEc panelists on overcoming these challenges? One message I heard loud and clear was that students should be intentional with networking, not just people like them but people in the career they aspire to be a part of one day.

Avilova: I'll end with some advice that, again, comes from Amanda Bayer. This particular piece of advice resonated with my own experience, in particular. Amanda Bayer's advice was to keep learning economics and examining issues that are important to you and to be different, because uniqueness is what makes us powerful. I think it's important to remember that you don't have to compromise on your interests or who you are in order to be an economist.

Linask: I would say that one of the most important things I've heard isn't so much specific advice about career choices or career paths, but really a note of encouragement because there are so many challenges, regardless of what demographic group you're a part of. It's hard to figure out what career you want to do and find your way in that career.

I think one of the most important things I've heard in the DivEc Conferences is just reminding students that their voice matters and that they can make a difference. That's part of what the DivEc Conference is all about. It's helping students figure out, "How is it that I'm going to make a difference?"

Ferguson: Well, Maia and Tatyana, this has been insightful. Thank you so much for talking to me.

Linask: My pleasure.

Avilova: Thank you.

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