Why are there so few Black and Latinx students in our economics classes?

Feb. 10, 2020, 2:20 a.m.

We knew we were asking a hard question: Why are there so few Black and Latinx students in our economics classes? As two young women of color majoring in economics, we wanted to use data to answer questions such as “How do grades in introductory classes impact the decision of underrepresented minorities (URMs) to major in economics?” or “How does the diversity of TAs impact whether a URM decides to pursue economics?” We wanted to provide evidence-based recommendations to our department to improve representation in economics. However, we realized that when you don’t fit the mold — when you have darker skin, or an Afro hairstyle — asking a hard question is never just an academic endeavor. Asking a hard question is a call to action. The School of Humanities and Sciences denied us access to the necessary data and did not offer any support for this project. However, we hope that it will reconsider its response and work with us when we dare to ask such hard questions. 

Over the last few years, there has been increased attention to the ongoing racism and sexism within the economics profession, which are symptoms of the abnormally small number of minoritized groups within the field. Our desire to tackle some of these issues was first prompted by an op-ed in The New York Times by Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, in which they write about some of the issues that Black women face in economics. They indicate that in 2017, only 2% of bachelor’s degrees in economics were conferred to Black women. Cook and Opoku-Agyeman also highlight important initiatives that groups have taken to change this scenario, such as efforts by the American Economic Association and by the Sadie Collective. Beyond having more diversity in the classroom, further representation in economics will allow students with different experiences and perspectives to contribute to the creation of economic knowledge. As US Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard stated in 2017, “the quality of the economics profession and its contributions to society will be stronger when a broader range of people are engaged.”

During the fall of 2019, we decided that we wanted to make a contribution to the economics major, however small it could be. We wanted to make sure that, by the time we graduated from Stanford, we knew that future cohorts would be more diverse. For us, developing a research project seemed the best way we could contribute: we were both research-minded undergraduates convinced that any proposal to make economics more inclusive should be based on evidence. We understood that what kept us in the major would not necessarily work for other students, so we wanted to have a systematic approach to identifying ways to help minoritized students feel more welcome. 

We found faculty in the economics department who were eager to talk to us about our research project, give us ideas, and even supervise us. With their guidance, we were looking forward to using the appropriate methods and ensuring that the privacy of students and instructors was protected. In fact, we planned to deal only with de-identified data under the supervision of experienced faculty. To further ensure faculty and student anonymity, the data would not be from recent years and could be aggregated across classes. Privacy is a very serious topic for us, and working with faculty and administrators to ensure that everyone’s privacy is respected was and remains a priority.

However, later in the quarter, the School of Humanities and Sciences informed faculty that they did not approve of our project, meaning that we would not be able to access the data we needed. When we asked “Why are there so few Black and Latinx students in our economics classes?”, we thought the School of Humanities and Sciences would ask in return “How can we help?”. But they never asked us that. Instead, we received a hard no. They did not make any effort to work with us to address any potential concerns they could have, and they did not reach out to ask how they could support us with or without the data. 

This lack of support did not prevent us from using publicly available data to evaluate the scale of the problem in economics at Stanford. For our analysis, we used data that Stanford and other U.S. postsecondary institutions report to the Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS) on the number of undergraduate degrees conferred. (For federal regulatory reasons, IPEDS records the gender, race and Latinx ethnicity of only US citizens and permanent residents. Other students are simply recorded as non-residents. A new category of “two or more races” was added in 2010-11.)

Using the IPEDS data, we produced the graph below that shows the share of Black women in the entire graduating class each year and the share of Black women in the entire graduating economics cohort for the same year. Since the economics department is big, we would expect it to have the same share of Black women as the entire campus. For example, if for a given year 5% of the graduating class is comprised of Black women, we would expect that 5% of economics graduates are also Black women. However, the graph shows that most years the share of Black women in economics is much smaller. In 2015, Black women represented 3.04% of all graduating students on campus, but only 1.04% of all students receiving a degree in economics. In 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2017, no Black woman (as defined by IPEDS) graduated from Stanford University with a degree in economics. This suggests that our personal experiences and observations are deeply connected to a broader reality: Black women are extraordinarily isolated within the major. 

Graph 1: Comparison of the share of Black women graduating in Economics vs. in the entire class at Stanford University
Graph 1: Comparison of the share of Black women graduating in economics vs. in the entire class at Stanford University

In a second graph, we divided the share of Black women in economics by the share of Black women in the entire class for each year. This number tells us how much the economics major corresponds to the overall population of graduating students. In 2000, the gap was relatively small, and the share of Black women in economics corresponded to 75% of the entire class share of Black women. However, over the years, this gap has widened

Graph 2: Representation of Black women within the Economics Major at Stanford University. Representation of Black Women within Economics = 100 * (Share of Black Women in Economics)/(Share of Black Women in entire class)
Graph 2: Representation of Black women within the economics major at Stanford University. Representation of Black Women within economics = 100 * (Share of Black Women in economics)/(Share of Black Women in entire class)

The results from this simple analysis confirmed that we need to look more closely at what happens in the four years that precede graduation. The IPEDS data only shows the result of a complex four-year process. In an important effort to increase diversity in economics, other universities have been willing to share de-identified data with their students and faculty. At the University of Virginia, a student-authored paper used administrative data to answer important questions related to the performance of men vs. women in economics courses and TA role model effects. Yet these studies have focused on women in the major, which reinforces the need for more research on students from minoritized communities in economics. For example, if we find that URM students drop economics due to a feeling of isolation in the major, we would recommend changes to the Econ Peer Advisor program to focus on the persistence of URM students or encourage a greater on-campus effort to foster connections between older and incoming URM students in the major.

The persistent lack of Black women in the economics major tells us that the issue of diversity needs to be further investigated with more detailed administrative data. When the School of Humanities and Sciences denies adequate support to a project that could make the major more inclusive, it chooses to close its eyes to the marginalization of URM students in economics. We hope that this op-ed sheds light on our motivations and our frustration of not being able to advance this project. We ask that the School of Humanities and Sciences works with us to make this research project a reality. 

We know that we are asking hard questions. However, in the past months, we have learned that no matter how hard they are, they are crucial if we are to build an environment where students from minoritized communities can thrive. That’s why we will continue to ask these questions. Because we know that things can be different. A classroom of economics at Stanford University can — and should — have more students from minoritized communities. Perhaps one day, no young student of color will have to worry about whether they belong, or about asking the hard questions about diversity in their classrooms. Perhaps they will be asking new and harder questions, and, hopefully, the University will listen and support them. 

— Ana Carolina Queiroz ‘20 and Armelle Grondin ‘21

Contact Ana Carolina Queiroz at aqueiroz ‘at’ stanford.edu and Armelle Grondin at agrondin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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