Three Women Speak to their Experience in the Field of Economics 

Maia Scott | May, 2022

Gwen Eudey, Gwyn Pauley, and Corina Mommearts are all economists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and all of them are women.  I spoke to each of them briefly to grasp an idea about how identifying as a woman has influenced their experience in a male-dominated field.  Through a short set of questions, I asked these economists to describe themselves professionally and personally, as individuals and as role models.  

Experiences and Changes in the Field 

The field of economics has certainly changed since Professor Eudey received her Ph.D. in 1987.  Professor Eudey shares some stories from early on in her career about how she was treated: 

“People asking me to do their typing, telling me I should pretend to be married so that people would be more comfortable around me,” which she interjects with, “I guess being married would effectively neuter me!”  Professor Eudey recalls spending a lot of time talking about her boyfriend, the tangible difference in the air when she brought him around, as if his presence really did render Professor Eudey less intimidating.  Professor Eudey continues, “and in one case an undergraduate senior economist actually asked me how I could think about getting a Ph.D. because ‘Who will make the dinner and watch the kids?’” 

 These stories may seem foreign to women beginning their economic careers in a more modern reality of the field; While society is still aware of traditional gender roles, such explicit conformity to them has become rare to witness.  Yet Professor Eudey recalls another detail from her earlier experience: when she was excluded from group lunches, the men rationalized her exclusion by saying it was because they did not want to be misinterpreted as a group of men hitting on an isolated woman.  Professor Eudey herself wonders if she may have been more successful if more senior women were invited to such lunches, participating more in the social side of work.  The exclusion of women from such social events, while not explicitly about work, certainly reinforces barriers between women and professional life.

Through conversations with Professor Pauley and Professor Mommearts, we see that while women have worked hard to earn more equality in the workplace and tales of such explicit discrimination have become less popular, discrimination can manifest in more subtle ways.  For instance, Professor Pauley’s graduating class was even mainly women, and she says, “I didn’t really think about gender until later”.  However, during one seminar given to her class by a woman wearing a professional tank top dress, a detail she recalls specifically, Professor Pauley realized just how few of her class seminars were delivered by women.  In this way, Professor Pauley says, “nothing traumatic happened,” but she can still describe the real tangible effects of female under-representation in the field of economics both on women and in the field as a whole.  

Similarly, noticing the lack of women in a room, Professor Mommearts says, “I feel my gender” in this male-dominated profession but says, “It’s fine,” perhaps acknowledging that things could be worse.  While in Professor Eudey’s time lunchtime was used to try to ‘fit in more with the guys’, Professor Mommearts shares how she does not feel the need to change who she is or her interests just so she can talk about sports during lunch–a common way one might imagine ‘fitting in with the guys’ might go.  

These days, Professor Eudey wouldn’t advise women to “go shoot pool or go get beer” with the guys in order to boost their success; instead, she notes how men are now expressing the need to get off work early so they can go coach their child’s soccer practice.  Women are able to be professional without assuming more ‘masculine’ hobbies, and men are able to retain their professionalism while expressing a desire to be more involved in family life.  So perhaps we truly are moving away from an idea of equality where women are still expected to conform to male-set standards.     

 On one hand, nurturing a family and a career is increasingly a question asked by both women and men.  On the other hand, successfully creating a balance between work and family is difficult for women in economics because of the lack of female mentorship.  Both Professor Mommearts and Professor Pauley have recently started families with children. 

Before starting a family with children, Professor Mommearts outlined the process she has gone through as a partner to someone who also has a career to establish and maintain.  Professor Mommearts had to face “collocation concerns” such as finding a suitable place to foster both partners’ careers before reaching the point now where she is expecting her child this spring.  These conversations are important hurdles for any couple starting a family regardless of gender.  Furthermore, Professor Mommearts had to ask how she considered all the possible implications childbirth may have on her professional life: questions about when to start a family and how to manage it with tenure.  The tenure process is generally as follows: an assistant professor is hired for a short amount of years; after which the school elaborately evaluates their research, teaching, and service to the school; and then the university decides whether or not to keep the professor.  Professor Mommearts described how there is pressure to “give it all to get tenure”, so she asked, “How old am I after I solve the collocation issues with my partner?” and then, “Do I wait until after tenure to start a family?” and, “How old will I be after I finish tenure?” and more.  These questions may not be exactly gendered, but perhaps women have a harder time answering them because there are few women around them to provide relatable and relevant thoughts.   

Ever since she began coming to work as a mom, Professor Pauley has considered more how her gender influences her work.  In addition to figuring out leave time, Professor Pauley describes how she is mindful of how she must navigate breastfeeding and pumping while in the office: when, where, how… Professor Pauley says that these may be small details, but they add up, and there are only a few women in the department to talk to.    

In Professor Mommearts and Professor Pauley’s case, having other women in the department who have started families during their time with the department would be empowering.  But also in general, having role models is instrumental, especially for underrepresented groups.  It helps gauge options and opportunities.  

The Role of Role Models and Influence of Mentors

Recently, Professor Mommearts was able to engage with more women in economics by attending a women in economics conference last January by the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP).  She describes it as an emotional and learning experience, bonding with other attendees and remembering the stories that people talk about.  When I asked how she believes she has grown as a person due to working in economics, she explained how attending this conference was very impactful: the ability to hear stories from other women that you don’t usually get to hear, made her think about and reflect on her values, both professionally and personally, and this process has been very inspirational and helpful for Professor Mommearts.  It encourages and affirms her in her journey to “make it all happen.”     

This conference allowed Professor Mommearts to realize what is asked of women from a female perspective.  There, she was able to get a women’s perspective on everything: how to have mentors, how to find people to work with and receive feedback on that work,  how to talk to the media, how to get research out there, how to negotiate effectively, how to say no.  This sort of networking and space to practice softer skills is the sort of guidance women may be less likely to experience on a consistent basis because of the lack of senior women surrounding them.  Furthermore, with this space specifically dedicated to women’s voices, Professor Mommearts was able to learn and speak on concerns that directly pertain to women’s experience in the field: sexual harassment and maltreatment in the workplace such as microaggressions.  It is a powerful experience to share a space with those with like experiences, where explanations or justifications for one’s experience are no longer tiresome because they simply are not as consistently demanded.  People who are privileged to be in the majority most of the time do not as acutely or explicitly understand this freedom and the empowerment it can offer. 

When I asked Professor Pauley about her thoughts about role models for women in the field of economics, she quickly motions to the plethora of research done on the effectiveness of having role models that also share one’s identity.  For example, Professor Pauley references a study that brought women in to talk to Economics 101 students, which found that engagement increases the probability that women continued in economics.  She is currently working on how UW-Madison’s department can replicate and incorporate this idea that increased visibility and presence of individuals from underrepresented communities can increase introductory students’ likelihood of continuing in the field.

It is important to increasingly diversify each successive generation of students.  Individuals will study, research, and promote questions and issues influenced by their own personal backgrounds and experiences.  Therefore, if we are to broaden and deepen our understanding of the world and each other, and then the influence on such a world as economists, we must encourage and embrace the communities we have thus far marginalized.  Each path is different.    

 For Professor Eudey, she is inspired by the people around her who also love what they do.  As an undergraduate attending UC Davis, Gwen Eudey initially hoped to work for the State Department, but ever since switching her major to economics and later receiving her Ph.D., she has received support from a dissertation-writing fellowship from the Federal Reserve Board, held multiple academic positions at Georgetown University, University of Pennsylvania, and of course, UW-Madison.  Furthermore, Professor Eudey has worked as a forecaster, consultant, and now facilitates the tutoring program from the Business Learning Commons.  

For Professor Mommearts, after participating in internships and growing her affinity for research, Professor Mommearts did what most of us do after college and asked, “What now?”  She found her answer in work with multiple think tanks and working as a research assistant in work regarding retirement policy.  From there, she discovered that people can pay attention to research, and that research matters.  After “grueling but fun” work for a Ph.D. and a one-year fellowship postdoctoral at the National Bureau of Economics in Massachusetts, she is now a Public Economist.  For Professor Mommearts, discovering the connection between research and policy through economics matters.

For Professor Pauley, undergraduate engagement in economics meant she was able to use ideas and complex models to help people.  Her graduate focus continued this idea by focusing on health and labor economics because she was not looking at institutions but people, leading to her postdoctoral focus in how public policy shapes the experience of vulnerable individuals.  Currently, she is looking into ways policy can encourage dentists to see more individuals on Medicaid and thus improving the dental visiting care for medicaid patients.  Professor Pauley discovers passion for economics through her desire to use policy to help others.  

For me, the people around and ahead of me matter and inspire me.  The student organization at UW-Madison Women in Economics (WE) currently provides a space for women studying economics to socialize with each other, learn from each other, engage with professionals in the field, and gain access to professional development.  It is important to have a community and see upperclassmen starting careers, so these formal systems of support can be encouraging to students in underrepresented groups.  In addition to more structured support systems, Professors Eudey, Pauley, and Mommearts contribute to the simple but potent power of role models.   For all of their students, these three women hope we remember how to think on the margin and how hard humans are to model, so we should always challenge what we believe in order to base our evaluations and beliefs on logic and facts, and in this way, we can use economics for good in this changing world.  But for the women in their classes, perhaps these lessons are made more meaningful coming from fellow women in economics.