Why Economics Needs More Black Women

Sometimes, big social movements start small. One or two people decide one day to change what they’ve always done. Someone speaks up. Someone refuses to move.

And sometimes, movements begin with a LinkedIn connection. That was the case when Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, a former undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, added Fanta Traore back in 2017 to ask about the American Economic Association’s Summer Program she’d attended.

LinkedIn messages turned into phone calls. The networking relationship evolved into a mentorship, and then a friendship.

Eventually, Opoku-Agyeman convinced Traore to join her at a large annual conference for economists in January 2018. When they saw each other for the first time, they immediately hugged. “It was like meeting an old friend,” recalls Traore, a senior research assistant at the Federal Reserve who will start Yale’s MBA/MPP program this fall.

Like many gatherings of economists, they were two of only a few Black women in attendance. But they were both surprised by a statistic they learned from a speech delivered by Rhonda V. Sharpe, the President of the National Economic Association: the rate of Black women joining economics had been declining since 1995. In 2018, Black women earned only five out of 1,197 doctoral degrees in Economics (0.5 percent) and four percent of bachelor’s degrees. Those anemic numbers have big implications for policy making: Out of 409 economists at the Federal Reserve Board, which governs the Federal Reserve system, only one is a Black woman.

How could that be? The two women wondered. And what can we do about it?

The Sadie Collective, an organization that they co-founded, is their answer to both of those questions. Its mission is to get more Black women into economics and related fields by illuminating the roadblocks Black women face before they enter the economics pipeline, and dismantling the many barriers—from individual moments of discrimination to systemic and structural racism—along their career path. And today, as we face both a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Black lives, and a national movement to stop police brutality and anti-Black racism, Opoku-Agyeman and Traore are also answering a related question: Why is it so important that Black women be represented equally in the field?

Over Zoom (what else?) in mid-June, I spoke with both of them about that question, how they got into economics in the first place, and how the issues we face as a country might be linked to homogenous decision makers in the economics field. We talked as protests continued to erupt across the country, and COVID-19 cases spiked. Our edited conversation is below.

Elizabeth Weingarten: What drew you to economics?

Fanta Traore: My entry into economics was predominately through my lived experience. I witnessed my mother becoming an entrepreneur. She went from having a chair in a salon to owning her own. Then she lost her salon during the Great Recession, and transitioned careers to earning a Bachelor’s then becoming underemployed as a Certified Nursing Assistant. Those experiences alongside growing up in New York’s vibrant immigrant communities in the Bronx, made me ask questions like: Why are some people richer than others? Why does my neighborhood look different from others downtown? Why are my parents always sending money back home? What is lacking back home that people are moving outside of their native countries to pursue opportunity?

Later, I was introduced to economics through a summer program I did at Princeton.

Working at the Fed now as a senior research assistant, I get to ask interesting macroeconomic questions about financial market development and its relationship with inequality, explore the state of cryptocurrency, the role of remittances in international finance, and my interest in development economics through the lenses of one of the world’s most prominent Central Banks.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman: My interest in economics was birthed very young, but I was unaware of what the field was for a very long time. My dad was interested in Ghanaian politics, and talked a lot about development amongst youth with respect to education.

[Growing up], while other people were watching MTV, I spent a lot of time watching TED talks and episodes of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but it took some time for me to recognize that I had a passion in this space.

In college, I spent a little bit of time as pre-med because every African immigrant child spends a little bit of time flirting with the idea of pre-med. I hated it, but also had the opportunity to be exposed to research. Eventually, I got put on a data project, which led me to change my major to Math and someone telling me to take an economics course at the same time. And I was like, wait a minute. What is this? This is dope. I’ve been looking for something that combines STEM and social sciences. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this? And what I then recognized, too, is that all my life I had been watching TED talks centering economists. I didn’t know what they were. I thought they were lawyers or something.

What aspirations did you first have when you first entered the field?

FT: My family is originally from Mali in West Africa. Initially I was very passionate about international development. My dad was always watching African politics on France 24, and watching that news with him made me passionate about wanting to better understand the African diaspora experience. I was especially interested in addressing disparities in Mali, which had led to my parents’ decision to come to America.

Observing my family’s immigrant experience left me with a lot of questions: Why leave a place that you love so much? Why isn’t there opportunity back home? These are questions that economists ask and answer as well.

Observing my family’s immigrant experience left me with a lot of questions: Why leave a place that you love so much? Why isn’t there opportunity back home? These are questions that economists ask and answer as well.

AOA: I’m from Ghana. And this thread of international development was really what got me interested [in economics], too. A lot of the TED talks I watched were from Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Finance Minister of Nigeria. I love what she had to say about Africa waking up and having all this potential.

And I like what she had to say about young people. I’m really passionate about maximizing potential for young people. I entered into economics with that in mind. After I began studying it, I was introduced to this idea called human capital.

And let me tell you—that changed everything for me. I was just like, what, people study this? This is crazy. The idea of acquiring skills and knowledge and helping countries and institutions to do that really blew my mind.

In September 2019, the American Economics Association (AEA) put out a report on the status of minority groups in the profession that said, among many other things, that Black representation in the profession has decreased and that more Black women reported experiencing discrimination more than any other minority group. Around that time, Anna, you wrote about the report in the The New York Times, and did some other interviews about the findings. Over the past few days, I’ve been reading the #blackintheivory Twitter thread, where people have been sharing their stories about racism in academia that underpin those statistics.

What does this moment feel like to you compared with when that report came out last year?

AOA: We are in a reckoning of some sort. I’ve had energy that I haven’t had before. I have a different kind of boldness now with people in a way that I haven’t had in the past. We’re at a point right now where institutions and people need to make a decision: You’re either going to be on the right side of history or you’re not. There’s really no gray area here anymore. And if you’re going to be on the right side of history, that comes with responsibility that needs to manifest through sustained commitment.

You need to be able to say with your chest that you are going to support Black people and be against anti-Black racism. Especially in the economics profession, this race problem is 100 years in the making. The first Black economist, Dr. Sadie Alexander, faced the exact same issues that I’m facing. And it’s gotten worse to a certain degree. There was a period where a lot of Black economists were being educated, but then it stopped. And we’re still in that period where it stopped.

We are in a reckoning of some sort. I’ve had energy that I haven’t had before. I have a different kind of boldness now with people in a way that I haven’t had in the past.

FT: As far as how economics has been responding, there’s just so much work to be done. Honestly, I can’t praise the field in any way.

We’re grateful to be leading the Sadie Collective. However, this is extra work, unpaid labor that Black women have to do. I find myself doing so much organizing, and it’s taxing. And it takes away from what I am meant to be doing in my role at the Fed, which is analyzing cross border transactions, data, and telling stories about that.

We have plans to let the field know, and will continue to let them know, that you need to be doing more. And you need to be putting your money where your mouth is. For instance, there are historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) whose economics departments are severely underfunded. There’s a lot of opportunity there. That’s what associations like the AEA and other institutions in this space should be putting their money behind if they want to contribute to systemic change.

The difference between this reckoning and the one that we saw in 2019 is that our demands this time are non-negotiable. We’re tired and the onus of change needs to be put back on institutions who have the power to transform the progression by putting their resources behind efforts to diversify the field.

The difference between this reckoning and the one that we saw in 2019 is that our demands this time are non-negotiable.

For decades, economics has had a tremendous amount of influence over our policies, practices, and the way that we understand and predict human behavior. How would you begin to describe the connections between the homogeneity of the economics field, and the systemic racism that underpins our institutions and policies in this country?

AOA: It’s the source of it. I’ll be honest with you. Black people are protesting in the streets for their life and at the same time putting themselves at risk because of COVID-19. Literally, protesting for your freedom is a health risk. That’s crazy.

But as a White person, you can ignore this. You don’t even have to worry about the protests if you don’t want to. So not only are you now protected from interacting with other people, you don’t even have to worry about the freedoms that these individuals are talking about. That’s what we call White privilege.

When we talk about how those two things are linked, that is why the deafening silence of economists is so loud. Y’all are out here shaping economic policies that have fundamentally deprived communities of resources and funding and development. And you have nothing to say about this? It’s convenient to talk about race and discrimination and bias when it gets you tenure, but when it comes down to it you don’t want to say anything. That’s wild to me.

FT: Look at the data—Black women are being disproportionately represented as essential workers on the front lines [of fighting COVID] right now—like my mother, she works at a hospital. Everyday I’m constantly worried about her. Or, I had a babysitter growing up who died as an essential worker during this pandemic due to being a home health aide. Black women are disproportionately represented in that field and these stories of fear and loss are not unique to me. There’s a bigger picture.

So why are we disproportionately represented in certain spaces, but in economics we can only get five economists (five Ph.D. graduates) a year? There’s definitely a correlation there and that’s where institutional racism comes in.

Joelle Gamble just published a piece about the assumptions that exist in the economic profession that uphold racism.

The exposure that people get in intro to econ classes is to consider “all things equal,” assuming racism doesn’t exist and society is perfect. That’s what people are trained on. We need a more nuanced approach. We need a diversity of thought in economics as it relates to appreciating interdisciplinary research and also looking at behavioral economics. And not thinking of these as watered down versions of economics. That’s another problem. The ones who are upholding these systems are so particular, and they call it being “rigorous.”

Like, “oh, we’re like just being rigorous.” If you’re not being anti-racist in this moment, you’re upholding the systems we operate in, which by the nature of their design are racist and that’s because they work in your favor.

That is why the deafening silence of economists is so loud. Y’all are out here shaping economic policies that have fundamentally deprived communities of resources and funding and development.

How could having a field that’s more representative of Black women change or add complexity to some of our basic assumptions about human decision making?

AOA: I love this idea that Janelle Jones has coined, Black Women Best, the idea of prioritizing Black women in the economy. You shoot for Black women, you affect everybody pretty much because we’re the most marginalized group. That is then reflected in how you include decision makers in high level institutions that are making decisions on behalf of all of us.

When you include more communities in that decision making, more communities will be uplifted. It’s really that simple. What happened with the financial crisis of 2008 was that you had Black and Brown economists shut out from important conversations happening in the Federal Reserve system. And then Black and Brown communities disproportionately faced the brunt of the economic downturn. Black women lost the most jobs out of any other group from 2009 to 2011.

FT: Because there wasn’t a diversity in perspectives during that time, they weren’t able to catch the predatory lending that was happening in Black and Brown communities. And the ripple effect was that affected economies across the world.

In the data I’m looking at now in the international finance realm, we’re still seeing the impact of the Great Recession in other economies. If we had paid more attention to Black and Brown communities, maybe the damage would not have been so large and global.

There’s also the intersectionality that Black women bring to the table. We’re facing the racial gap and we’re facing the gender gap. And if you have women who have that nuanced perspective at the table, then we’re addressing all of those problems simultaneously too.

AOA: Black women make up the majority of the Black labor force. They work the most hours. And over 70 percent of Black mothers are breadwinners. You can’t afford to ignore us. It doesn’t make any sense. Yet you have these non-Black folks not considering any perspectives aside from their own. And that’s why we end up in economic situations that ultimately fail Black folks.

Right. And now we’re facing down what could be another recession, or depression, because of COVID-19. How would our reaction as a country been different, do you think, if more Black women were in charge, or more represented in decision making roles?

FT: I could see sick leave being a priority. A lot of these jobs [predominantly filled by Black women] aren’t unionized, and so they aren’t protected. Or offering people the opportunity just to stay at home. A lot of Black women will continue to go out there and work because they have to take care of their kids. As Anna mentioned, the majority of them are breadwinners. I think that is a way we could have protected a lot of people from getting sick, or sicker.

What are the questions that are inspiring you most right now?

AOA: I’m really interested in workplace diversity and there’s a lot of work to be done, especially with respect to professional signaling and how that impacts marginalized groups. I am just really interested in helping to generate empirical research around that subject, which is complementary to the work we do with the Collective.

FT: I have a lot of questions about how we can expand more of our work, reach further down the pipeline and get younger people thinking more about economics. How do we get more young people thinking about the field? What role does the Sadie Collective play in economic inclusion at large? What does it look like if we expand to the African diaspora? The Black population across the world is huge, and the Sadie Collective’s work is broadly relevant.