Black women have long been underrepresented in the field of economics, with less than 5 percent of doctoral degrees in the discipline awarded to African-American women between 2016 and 2017.
With representation still lacking, the Department of Economics at Spelman College is set to develop curricula and programming focused on addressing the scarcity of Black women Ph.D.s in economics, the historically Black, all-women institution announced last week.
The move was made possible by a recent grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit grant-making organization “dedicated to the advancement of scientific knowledge.” It’s unclear how much funding was awarded for the program..
Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., president of Spelman and a member of the Sloan Foundation board of trustees, underscored the impact of economists and economic theory on policy-making in the U.S.
“Policies that shape finance, labor, education, public health, the criminal justice system are deeply influenced by economists and their research,” Dr. Campbell explained in the college’s press release. “Yet, the number of African Americans with Ph.D.s in economics has been declining for several decades.”
She added that the Sloan Foundation grant “seeks to reverse this trend by building on Spelman College’s strong math and economics departments in a way that encourages more students to choose an academic path that leads to graduate studies, a Ph.D. in economics, [and] a voice at important policy making decisions.”
Additionally, Spelman officials said the funding award will be used to create economics-focused learning modules for its yearly summer bridge program, as well as launch an initiative providing financial support to students with an interest in economics graduate programs.
Dr. Elizabeth S. Boylan, a program director for the Sloan Foundation, said developing an economics module for the college’s Women in STEM summer program will afford Spelmanites “with portfolios enabling them to attain graduate degrees and become in-demand professionals in the field.”
To give students a real-world view of a career in economics, the grant will also be used to fund the creation of a “distinguished speaker series” featuring a Spelman alumna and other women of color professionals who hold doctorate degrees in economics, according to the college.
The lack of Black faces alone can be enough to discourage students from pursuing the discipline. Other factors, including the heavy mathematics needed to excel and the perception that econ is a “dry,” or “boring” subject, have also caused African-Americans to shy away from the field.
Though the number of Black students enrolling in economic degree programs has continued to dwindle over time, Spelman economics department chair and professor Marionette Holmes, Ph.D., said she knew early on that she wanted to pursue a career in econ.
“When I attended Spelman my father, who was a political science professor, suggested that if I really wanted to influence the landscape for African-Americans I should go into economics,” she said.
“He saw economics as a way to effect policy and make both a cultural and global impact.”