As economists reflect on the lack of representation in their field, a Booth professor is collaborating with his peers to fight for change.
- By October 15, 2020
Amid national conversations on racial inequity, professionals across industries are reflecting on what they can do to promote diversity and inclusion in their own fields. That includes Matt Notowidigdo, a professor of economics at Chicago Booth.
“Representation in economics is appallingly low, even compared to other social sciences and STEM fields,” Notowidigdo says. “I don’t think it’s coincidental that around the same time as protests against police brutality, economists were talking about the fact that we have appalling representation of Black scholars. We need to start thinking about ways of dealing with that.”
He’s been particularly inspired by Kerwin Charles, dean of the Yale School of Management, a former professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, and Notowidigdo’s mentor. Charles, who is Black and grew up in Guyana, often spoke about the gap between economic theory and the lived experiences of Black people. The labor market doesn’t reward people based purely on education, skill, and hard work, as it theoretically should—there’s bias and discrimination. For Notowidigdo, working with Charles really hit home the value of diversity in the profession.
“Kerwin’s background and experiences are so different from mine, and that leads us to be a very productive pair,” Notowidigdo says. “He brought a perspective to our work that I never could.”
Earlier this year, Charles wrote a letter to the Yale community about the deep anger he felt over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. He argued that policies designed to reduce bias and discrimination are essential to improving labor market, housing, and financial outcomes for Black Americans.
“It’s a really terrific letter and from the heart. It explains how Floyd’s death aligns with the experiences of many other Black families he knows and it affects how he parents his children. And that moved me,” Notowidigdo says. “I wanted to start brainstorming with others about what I could do right now to encourage more representation and diversity in my field.”
“I don’t think it’s coincidental that around the same time as protests against police brutality, economists were talking about the fact that we have appalling representation of Black scholars. We need to start thinking about ways of dealing with that.”
Juan Carlos Suárez Serrato, an associate professor of economics at Duke, encouraged Notowidigdo to invest in the American Economic Association’s Summer Training Program (AEASP), which aims to increase diversity in the field by preparing talented undergraduates for doctoral programs. Suárez Serrato himself is an alumnus of the program and told Notowidigdo he believes it’s why he’s an economist today.
Notowidigdo reached out to Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, president of the Women's Institute for Science, Equity and Race (WISER) and co-director of AEASP, to discuss how he could make the biggest impact. He discovered that Sharpe had been working to develop a mentorship component to the summer program. While the economics profession has a number of mentoring programs for underrepresented doctoral students and doctorates, Sharpe said there are no mentoring programs for underrepresented undergraduates.
He understood the importance right away—after all, he had seen firsthand the impact of mentorship on career growth through his role as a mentor with another organization, Pipeline Grants. That initiative, from the Russell Sage and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations, supports early- and mid-career scholars who are underrepresented in the social sciences. He knew many of these scholars face a unique set of struggles, including a lack of resources for their research and unfamiliarity with the arduous publication process—a barrier he feels equipped to help mentees tackle.
Notowidigdo resolved to help get Sharpe’s new initiative for undergraduates at AEASP off the ground. Notowidigdo earns a yearly stipend as co-editor for American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, and he decided to commit a portion of that salary to fund the mentorship program.
“When the kids are done with the summer program, the question is, what do you do next? Do you go to grad school? Do you get a job? We don’t want to force them to take one particular path,” Notowidigdo said. “Mentoring is one way to make sure they don’t forget about their other options. It’s an additional step in the pipeline program, and I’m extremely excited about that.”
With the help of his donation, WISER will start recruiting mentors for the mentoring program starting in Spring 2021. Notowidigdo intends to be a mentor next summer and help recruit other renowned economists to guide new talent in the field.
In addition to supporting AEASP, Notowidigdo is donating the remainder of his editor salary to The Review of Black Political Economy (RBPE), an economics journal that publishes influential papers about race and the labor market. Notowidigdo got the idea from his friend and colleague Damon Jones, an associate professor at UChicago’s Harris School and a referee for the journal. Jones suggested they do something to highlight this important economic research that people aren’t paying enough attention to.
When Notowidigdo reached out to the National Economic Association, which manages the journal, he learned that there was a lack of funding to pay RBPE’s editors. He says that editors at similar journals often earn substantial compensation.
“I was shocked,” he said. “It’s really unfair that editors for this journal that focuses on economic outcomes for African Americans don’t get paid anything.”
“It’s really unfair that editors for this journal that focuses on economic outcomes for African Americans don’t get paid anything.”
While Notowidigdo says editing academic journals is important work that ensures groundbreaking research gets published, it’s taxing and not something he would do for free—and he doesn’t think anyone else should have to either.
“I take a lot of pride in publishing good papers about economic policy, and I’m really proud of the journal. At the same time, I’m doing this editing on top of my work writing research papers and teaching classes. Sometimes it means I have to work late or on the weekends to stay on top of it,” he says.
With his donation, the National Economic Association is planning to create an endowment to compensate the editors of RBPE, either with a stipend or by reducing course loads—a common form of compensation for academic journal editors.
“I’m really excited about that. In the short term, I think they’re going to have a better chance of recruiting and retaining good editors if they’re able to offer something that’s in line with what editors can get at other journals in the profession,” Notowidigdo says.
Notowidigdo acknowledges that he and many of his colleagues are uniquely positioned and privileged to be able to make this kind of donation, and knows not everyone is able to do so. He urges others with similar privilege to do what they can to champion diversity and inclusion not only in economics, but across industries and communities throughout the nation.