Why a lack of diversity hurts economics—and economists

Four economists from diverse backgrounds explain why diversity is essential, and what needs to happen to achieve it.

Howard University’s recent announcement that it will host the American Economic Association Summer Training and Scholarship Program (AEASP) comes at a time when the economics profession finds itself grappling with a decades-old problem: a lack of diversity.

Four economists from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, two each from Amazon and Howard University, recently shared their perspectives on the challenges and potential solutions.

From top left, clockwise: Gerald E. Daniels Jr., associate professor of economics and associate director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Howard; Jevay Grooms, assistant professor in the Department of Economics at Howard; Muthoni Ngatia, a current Amazon and former World Bank economist; and Henrique Romero, a senior economist with Amazon’s Supply Chain Optimization Technologies division.
From top left, clockwise: Gerald E. Daniels Jr., associate professor of economics and associate director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Howard; Jevay Grooms, assistant professor in the Department of Economics at Howard; Muthoni Ngatia, a current Amazon and former World Bank economist; and Henrique Romero, a senior economist with Amazon’s Supply Chain Optimization Technologies division.

Gerald E. Daniels Jr., associate professor of economics and associate director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Howard University; Jevay Grooms, assistant professor in the Department of Economics at Howard University; Muthoni Ngatia, a current Amazon and former World Bank economist; and Henrique Romero, a senior economist with Amazon’s Supply Chain Optimization Technologies division, addressed questions on why the problem of diversity within the economics field persists, what can be done, and how their life experiences have influenced their work as economists.

Why does the economics profession still struggle with diversity?

Muthoni Ngatia: The lack of diversity in economics becomes self-reinforcing when potential students don’t see themselves represented in the profession. It’s difficult to imagine yourself succeeding in a profession when you can’t find models in people with your lived experience.

There’s also an information barrier about what economics is, the type of work economists do, and how to prepare for a career in economics. Even in college, many of my classmates saw economics as a pathway to a career in investment banking or management consulting, which it certainly can be, however, there many more career opportunities available.

Jevay Grooms: There are many reasons. One that I found challenging, and almost prevented me from pursuing it, is very few people in the profession look like me. If you don't see anyone who looks like you in the profession, it could be difficult to imagine yourself in the domain. I also think there is a misconception about the scope of work economists do. As an undergraduate student, I didn't realize economists did work on social policies and disparities, the work that I do now.

Henrique Romero: The process of becoming an economist is long, arduous and rife with potential barriers to diversity. It takes a conscious effort to fight the inertia of the status quo at all steps along the way. For instance, economics departments mostly recruit talent from top PhD programs, which in turn tend to recruit PhD students from elite undergraduate institutions, which already suffer from a lack of representation. A forthcoming paper by Chetty et al. shows that at top-ranked universities, more students come from families in the top 1% than the bottom half of the income distribution.

What needs to happen to get individuals from more diverse backgrounds both interested in—and working—in economics?

Gerald E. Daniels Jr.: Outreach at every level of a student’s education is required to get more folks interested and working in economics. If a company, think tank, university, etc. has a sincere interest in diverse candidates, they should make a conscious effort to speak with and train the various candidates that they need. Therefore, if a company is searching for economists from underrepresented groups, create internships dedicated to universities that actively recruit and support these students. This approach can be extended to any diverse group. I would encourage anyone who needs help, to ask or hire folks like myself to support you.

Ngatia: More information about what economics is, the type of work economists do, and how to prepare for a career in economics. I think there’s a lot to be learned from programs working to get more diversity in STEM. Nurturing programs starting in high school and continuing into college can introduce a more diverse set of students to economics and how economists use data to understand and find potential solutions for social problems. Mentoring programs are also incredibly important to help students and economists throughout the pipeline advance.

Founders Library at Howard University is seen on a sunny day
Founders Library at Howard University is seen on a sunny day. Howard recently announced it will host the AEASP “in support of increasing the pipeline of underrepresented minority economists.”
Oscar Merrida IV

Grooms: I think the onus needs to be on the entire profession. It cannot just be underrepresented groups pushing for more diversity. All economists need to acknowledge the importance of diverse backgrounds and a diversity of thought, and see it as a benefit and not a threat. Race disparities, racial inequality, systemic racism, and systems of oppression need not be taboo words but rather, words that we, as economists, acknowledge play a role in societal outcomes. For too long, economists have taken the "I don't see race" approach in research and this undermines the fight to address systemic racism.

Romero: I was the direct beneficiary of AEASP, which provides intensive training in microeconomics, math, econometrics, and research methods with the explicit goal of increasing racial and ethnic diversity. The program seems to be effective at increasing the likelihood of participants to apply to —and attend — a PhD program in economics, complete such programs, and work in an economics-related academic job (Becker et al., 2016). Although I will forever be indebted to this program, I must recognize that programs like this are difficult and costly to scale and can only be one part of a much broader solution. Bayer and Rouse (2016) provide an excellent overview of the state of diversity in the profession and discuss some promising initiatives. A full solution will likely require more equal access to education, from pre-k to PhD.

Why are diverse perspectives important to economics? How does the lack of them hinder economics?

Ngatia: Economic models require assumptions about how individuals and communities behave, those models are only as valid as they are representative of the diversity of human experience. The way we think about how humans behave necessarily depends on the humans we interact with, so a lack of diversity limits perspectives that could inform economic models. Advances in economics, or in any science really, are made by challenging existing modes of thinking. Having the same group of people in the profession limits the set problems they look at, and the tools they use.

Grooms: We have seen what a lack of diverse perspectives results in. To name a few: mass incarceration, the over-criminalization of crack cocaine relative to powdered cocaine, redlining, the overrepresentation of Black children in the foster care system, segregated schooling well after Brown v. Board of Education, and the Tuskegee experiment. Economists help shape social policy, and if we strive to be inclusive in our policymaking, we much also be inclusive in our research.

Daniels: If we allow ourselves to assume that policymakers and researchers prioritize topics that relate to their lived experience, then a lack of diversity inherently produces a lack of prioritization of research areas impacting those not represented. This is clear in the lack of research on a host of topics related to racial, gender, and LGBTQIA+ inequities. Diversity is our vehicle for producing innovative work, and a lack of diversity hinders our ability to innovate efficiently. In addition, innovating with a diverse group of people helps us to address issues that affect everyone.

How has your work as an economist been influenced by your life experiences?

Ngatia: Growing up in Kenya, I always knew I wanted to work in a capacity that would improve people’s livelihoods. When I came to college in the US, I wanted to pursue computer science. I was convinced (and still am) that the digital revolution would change the lives of many in Africa and I wanted to be a part of bringing that about. However, the first time I’d ever used a computer was when I was 16 and came to the US on an exchange program. My first semester in college, I felt completely out of my depth in my computer class.

Economics helped give me a framework to understand some of the development challenges facing Kenya and much of sub-Saharan Africa.
Muthoni Ngatia

My economics class was the complete opposite. Whereas my CS class seemed abstract, economics—with a focus on decision making with scarce resources—made more sense to me. Economics helped give me a framework to understand some of the development challenges facing Kenya and much of sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps most importantly, I found an incredible mentor in Michael Kremer, one of my professors (and recent Nobel Laureate in Economics) who took a personal interest in me. Much of his research was in Kenya, and his work inspired me to see how economics could be a force for improving people’s lives.

Grooms: My work as an economist has always been motivated by racial and ethnic equality. I imagine a lot of this has to do with growing up a Black girl in a predominantly white society. As an undergraduate, I learned that economics could help solve — or bring to light — issues that impact vulnerable and historically oppressed communities, and I think that has been the underlining theme in my work today.

Romero: Having grown up in one of the most unequal countries in the world (Brazil), equity concerns are always salient to me. Luckily, this aligns very well with Amazon’s Customer Obsession and Earns Trust leadership principles. For instance, we will refrain from enacting changes that would improve the customer experiences of a group of customers at the cost of disproportionally degrading the experience of another group, even if the changes result in an overall improvement in short-term metrics.

In an effort to be a small part of the solution in increasing diversity, I have also devoted time to being involved in the hiring, recruiting, and development process at Amazon, from participating in over 150 interviews, becoming a Bar Raiser in Training, managing the Economist Mentoring program, to representing Amazon at university campus visits and diversity-focused conferences such as SACNAS.


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Are you passionate about conducting research to drive real behavioral change and inform front line managers and leaders in making more effective decisions? Would you love to see your research in practice, impacting Amazonians globally and improving the employee experience? If so, you should consider joining the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Organizational Effectiveness and Science team.AWS is a dynamic, growing business unit within Amazon.com. Since early 2006, AWS has provided companies of all sizes with an infrastructure platform in the cloud. Today, AWS provides a highly reliable, scalable, low-cost infrastructure platform in the cloud that powers millions of active monthly customers from start-ups to multi-national corporations to governments.In this role, you will lead the research strategy to evaluate, diagnose, understand, and surface drivers and moderators for key, global research streams. These include (but are not limited to) productivity, innovation, decision-making, and Amazon culture. You will dive deep to understand what research should be conducted, develop hypotheses that can be tested, and use both quantitative and qualitative research to deliver actionable insights to AWS leaders. For example, a recent research project has looked at how Amazon’s organizational culture spreads throughout the organization by looking at employee-, team-, department-, and country-level characteristics.The ideal candidate must be self-driven, possess a high degree of ownership, have strong business acumen, excellent communication skills, planning/project management skills, and thrive working in a fast-paced environment. This role requires dealing with a high level of ambiguity and feeling comfortable operating in a space with little direction for solving hard, complex problems. Candidates should be comfortable with nested modeling to assess the impact that variables at the team- and organizational-level has on individual-level outcomes. Experience with applying machine learning to develop classification models as well as forecasting models is a plus, but not essential. There is no opportunity in this role to outsource work to others, so candidates must be comfortable taking on a several activities (i.e., identifying data sources, attaining data via SQL, shaping and analyzing the data, and writing up and communicating the results).The successful candidate will also have a demonstrated track record of:· Knowing Your Customers. Understand their priorities, what they are saying, and more importantly, what they aren’t. Deliver and drive value for them.· Innovation. Appreciate what exists, identify why it works. Then rebuild it or build something totally different that derives even MORE value and a better customer experience.· Judgment. Take different perspectives and business needs, develop a solution that works, move the ball forward. Be able to support your opinions with sound reasoning grounded in the business.· Systems Thinker. Understand all the connections and integrations points through the entire talent management lifecycle.· Thinking big. How do we build it bigger, better, faster? What aren’t we thinking of?· Research driven. We seek to be the most scientific HR organization in the world. We form hypotheses about the best talent management techniques and then set out to prove or disprove them with experiments and careful data collection.· Prioritization. There will be a constant flow of work, both tactical and strategic. Determine what gets done first and why, while managing a plan for what to do with everything else.· Building relationships. Partner with AWS HR COE teams, HR Business Partners, Business Leaders, and corporate COE teams. Share best practices, partner on solutions, and move the organizations forward together.· Consulting. Utilize past experience, deep knowledge of processes and policies, and knowing what’s going on across our organization to create custom solutions and localize as needed.· Communicating. Share your ideas, listen to others, follow-up, and follow-up again. Use the language of the business and avoid “consultant speak”.· Resourcefulness. If you don’t know it, that’s ok. But you should know where to go for the answer or how to find out.· Bias for Action and dealing with ambiguity. Sometimes it is not clear how we are going to get there. Can you help carve a path? How fast can you do it? What are the tradeoffs? Take risks and be willing to try new things, fail fast and iterate.KEY RESPONSIBILITIES:· Manage full life cycle of large-scale research programs (i.e., develop strategy, gather requirements, manage, and execute).· Conduct experiments, analytics, and compute behavioral process models for a deep dive understanding of systemic and individual level drivers; combine quantitative and qualitative data to inform research.· Conduct organizational analysis to uncover talent and org effectiveness insights and build talent and organizational effectiveness solutions (both scrappy or long-term) and mechanisms with the objective to help the business increase talent leverage and improve organizational speed and execution.· Partner closely with our Analytics, Employee Survey (“Connections”), and Diversity and Inclusion teams to identify opportunities for integration points and address specific talent needs leveraging talent data and themes.· Partner with AWS Analytics team to automate organizational health reporting and innovative tools to uncover organizational insights to drive strategic talent and organizational discussions.· Measure and assess the impact of tools and resources introduced to the organization. Continually evaluate solutions for quality, business impact, scalability and sustainability. Conduct post launch evaluations to understand successes and improvement opportunities while establishing methods for sustained adoption.· Evaluate research initiatives to provide bottom line value, ROI, and incremental improvements over timeIf you have an entrepreneurial spirit, know how to deliver, are deeply technical, highly innovative and long for the opportunity to build pioneering solutions to challenging problems, we want to talk to you.