Health Economist: We Need More Women in the Field

Maya Rossin-Slater, PhD

Health economists study wide-ranging and essential questions about the health care system, population health, and the causes and consequences of health inequities.

Yet the economics profession has a poor record of attracting and retaining women and people of color. Economist and Associate Professor of Medicine Maya Rossin-Slater, PhD, says that leaving these groups out of the profession is doing a disservice to our society.

While economists are often associated with studying macroeconomic issues such as unemployment and GDP, health economists like Rossin-Slater research the determinants of population health and the causal impacts of policies that affect health outcomes and health care costs. They often use large-scale data and methodology that separate causation from correlation to deliver findings that inform policies at the local, state, federal, and global levels.

Rossin-Slater’s research, for example, has investigated the long-term impacts of early-childhood access to the Food Stamps program on adult health and socioeconomic well-being. She’s looked at the impacts of paid family leave policies on workers, families, and employers, as well as the implications of the increasing number of school shootings in America on children’s mental health and on their educational and economic outcomes later in life.

“Economics is fundamentally the study of human behavior and how people make choices in the face of constraint,” says Rossin-Slater, a core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). “The questions that are posed and analyzed by economists influence so much of public policy. And we cannot make progress on some of the most important issues facing our society today without a diverse set of voices contributing to the research and discussion.”

Yet a report by the American Economic Association (AEA) found that only 14% of full professors in PhD-granting economics departments are women. When President Joe Biden named economist Janet Yellen secretary of the Treasury, she was the first woman in the pivotal role of chief adviser to the president on the country’s economic well-being.

“Economics is fundamentally the study of human behavior and how people make choices in the face of constraint”

As more women climb the STEM ladder, however, the share of women studying to become economists has remained flat for two decades. This leaves a field that impacts so much of our public policy dominated by the research and recommendations of men. So why aren’t more women pursuing careers in economics?

According to an AEA survey, many women economists have experienced harassment, discrimination, and outright abuse by their male colleagues. More than 9,000 current and past members of the association, both women and men, took part in the March 2019 survey. One hundred of the women reported that a male peer or colleague had sexually assaulted them, 200 were victims of an attempted sexual assault, and hundreds more said they had been stalked. Half of the women had experienced discrimination, compared with 3% of the men. And half of the women had avoided speaking at a conference or seminar to avoid possible harassment.

“Research questions are set by the researchers themselves, who are in turn influenced by their backgrounds and experiences,” Rossin-Slater says. “Women bring a different set of questions, priorities, and ideas.”

For example, she says, issues in maternal and child health are much more likely to be studied by women than men. “We have abundant evidence that the early life environment has impacts on health and economic outcomes throughout life and across generations,” she says. “So understanding the causes and consequences of early childhood health is critical for understanding a core driver of the economy: human capital. And women have made key contributions to that research.”

Women Helping Women

The field can be lonely and distressing, Rossin-Slater says, particularly for women and people of color. With support from her National Science Foundation CAREER grant and administrative help from the AEA Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, she held a one-day mentoring workshop — Successfully Navigating Your Economics PhD — for women and non-binary individuals studying to become PhD economists in academia, government, think tanks, the private sector, and large international organizations like the World Bank.

She teamed up with Jennifer Doleac, associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University, to hold the workshop on Nov. 20, 2020, over Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual setting brought 120 women and non-binary PhD students from around the world. They also recruited 48 mentors: early-career economists at universities, think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute and the RAND Corporation, and government organizations such as the Central Bank of Colombia and the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Women bring a different set of questions, priorities, and ideas”

The mentors shared ways to generate new research, how to find and work productively with advisers — and how to survive the challenges of graduate school. They covered topics like choosing career paths, networking on social media, applying for grants, and juggling parenthood with work.

“There is so much ‘hidden curriculum’ out there that is typically not taught in any formal way,” Rossin-Slater says. “Students are expected to somehow figure all this out on their own, and this is particularly challenging for students who are historically underrepresented in the profession and don’t have the access to networks and support that others do.”