Two months ago, University of Michigan research exposed significant female underrepresentation in economics. Top women economists convened at the Ford School Wednesday afternoon on the topic to confirm such discrimination and harassment at the highest levels of government. They also, however, lauded their peers’ work therein. The Education Policy Initiative of the Ford School of Public Policy’s panel titled “What female economists learned bringing research to White House policy making” featured a discussion with three panelists, all of whom were influential female economists with extensive experience in academia and public policy.
The discussion was led by Susan Dynarski, the co-director of the Education Policy Initiative and a professor of economics, education and public policy at the University of Michigan. The other two panelists were Betsey Stevenson, an associate professor of public policy, and Sandra Black, an economics professor at the University of Texas, Austin. Stevenson and Black both served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers from 2015 to 2017. All three are research associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The panelists discussed a wide range of topics, focusing in particular on Stevenson and Black’s time at the White House. Stevenson and Black explained their roles during President Barack Obama’s administration and how their academic experience informed their work.
“One of the core functions we do is link the academic research to policy — to take that research and put it in a form that the president and policymakers can understand,” Black said.
Stevenson and Black also discussed the difficulties of driving effective policy at the federal level, noting economists generally hold more centrist views than other policymakers working in Washington, D.C. Their ideas faced opposition at some points from congressional Democrats, who wanted them to advocate for more interventionist economic policies. The dynamic in the field of economics was different with Obama, the pair said, praising Obama for his thoughtful leadership and attention to the academic research they used in their work.
“Even when we lost (a debate), the thing that was important to me was to know that the views we were putting forward at CEA were being heard,” Stevenson said. “And that was one of the things that the president was amazing about; he clearly heard them.”
Stevenson spoke about efforts to increase the national minimum wage while she was on the CEA. Obama was unable to make progress with Congress, but he worked with the CEA to raise the wages for some government workers, relying heavily on academic research showing increased productivity with higher wages.
The panelists also touched on the difficulties of being women in the largely male-dominated field of economics, including sexual harassment and discrimination. They discussed ways to combat such discrimination, and Stevenson said she believes the situation will improve if more women choose to study economics.
“We have a cultural shift that needs to take place,” Stevenson said. “And one of the few ways to get cultures to shift is to change the people in the culture, so I do think that improving the pipeline and getting more women into economics is an important part of this.”
Stevenson and Black said the gender dynamics in the White House were notably better than in their previous workplaces. Stevenson noted in particular there was a wide range of representation in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and economic status, which she said helped greatly with crafting policy and opinions.
“There was a lot of diversity, and that meant that there was a different dynamic,” Stevenson said. “There wasn’t a feeling of a dominant group. There was a feeling of a diverse group. And you’re forced to interact in a more inclusive way once you’re in a really diverse group like that.”
Rackham student Hanna Zlotnick, a research assistant for the Education Policy Initiative, helped organize the event and read audience questions to the panelists. She also co-authored a paper with Stevenson about gender representation in economics textbooks.
Zlotnick said she believes events like these are a critical way for students to learn about the work of people in their field.
“It’s really important because a lot of people, especially at the Ford School, might not have the exposure to how the work they’re doing in the classroom and the work their professors are doing is really impacting the real world,” Zlotnick said. “And all of these professors have come from the position of both academic research as well as being in policy work right at the White House. I think it shows people that your work is influential. It might require reframing your work so that the general public can see it. … But it is really valuable work, and there are a lot of people who really care.”
Zlotnick also expressed her happiness with the sizeable crowd that came to see the panel, comprised of both University students as well as those outside of the University.
“It’s great that the general public came,” Zlotnick said. “Sometimes these events only have Ford students or undergraduates from other programs. I always think it’s nice when Ann Arbor community members come because they’re taking advantage of an opportunity to hear from people who are really involved in this field.”