by Becca Lee-Simpson
With unique courses in feminist economics and political economy, the study of power and inequality is embedded in the curriculum and culture of CSU’s Department of Economics. Ph.D. candidate Sarah Small is among many scholars who are attracted to this feature of the internationally recognized graduate program.
After six years of rigorous study, qualifying exams, teaching, and research, Small is in the home stretch of the program and will graduate with her Ph.D. in Economics this spring. Now in her final semester, she does not sugarcoat the realities of grad school life. “Ask me about my experience in like a year and I’ll have more positive things to say,” she laughed tiredly.
Yet despite the stress of preparing for her final dissertation defense and being on the academic job market, Small reflects on her experiences as overwhelmingly positive.
“My experience at CSU has been as good as I think a Ph.D. program can be. Sometimes you hear horror stories about people being cutthroat, but CSU Economics is really supportive. The mentorship has been great. I made some of my best friends here, and I had more research opportunities than I ever anticipated,” she said.
Among those research opportunities, Small has served as a Research Fellow for the scholarly journal Feminist Economics since 2017, when Professor Elissa Braunstein became the journal’s editor. As an aspiring feminist scholar, working directly with the peer-reviewed journal has been invaluable.
“Through Feminist Economics, I’ve been able to connect with so many economists and see papers as they come in. Part of my work has been categorizing the submissions to the journal, dating back to 2004, to explore ways the journal is becoming more feminist. For instance, we’ve found an increase in the number of submissions from the Global South, elevating voices that have been largely excluded from the economics narrative,” Small said.
In her dissertation, Three Essays in Feminist Economics: Empirical and Historical Applications, Small focuses on how business ownership affects couples’ allocation of housework.
“Feminist economics points out things that masculine perspectives of the world have missed. When we think about the inputs into the entrepreneurial process, we often don’t think about the impacts at home. My work finds that when married white men own a business, they typically get to kick back in terms of housework because their wives take on a greater share. However, when married women own businesses, there’s no evidence that their husbands do any more housework. This inequality is exacerbated by race: Black women face even greater shares of housework when they start a business,” Small said.
Given her interest in feminist economics, it’s not surprising that Small’s research heavily overlaps with her teaching – and a desire to make the field more accessible to different groups of students.
A “socially conscious approach” to teaching
Like many graduate programs, CSU economics funds Ph.D. students through teaching assistantships and instructorships. One of Small’s greatest joys has been teaching first generation students and encouraging more women to join the economics major.
“I went to a high school where there was a lot of sexism and where I felt discouraged about learning math. In college, I had a supportive faculty mentor who taught me calculus, and there was a moment when I realized math could be cool when it’s applied in economics. If we’re trying to think about how x affects y – for example, how business ownership affects housework – you can use calculus to solve those problems. When it is applied to something you care about it, it makes such a difference,” Small said.
Dedicated faculty mentors took an interest in Small and brought her into the economics profession. As an instructor, she hopes to do the same for historically underrepresented students– in part by lifting up social issues that have a bearing on the economy.
“A lot of people hear ‘economics’ and think ‘numbers’ or ‘money.’ I think about race, class, gender, power, inequality, and the environment. For the last three years, I taught ECON 211 Gender in the Economy. Hearing students say, ‘Wow, this really changed my perspective,” has been really rewarding,” Small said.
Beyond specialized electives, Small and others at CSU are rethinking how to teach economics from a “socially conscious approach” from the beginning, starting with the basic principles courses.
“Dr. Anders Fremstad, Ph.D. candidate Teresa Perry, and I have been conducting research that asks, if we talk about power and inequality in foundational economics courses, will we attract a different group of students, such as lower income students, to the discipline?” Small said.
Why did you choose CSU for your Ph.D. in Economics?
“I applied to a lot of heterodox schools, but I chose to come to CSU honestly because the people were the nicest! Professor Alex Bernasek reached out to me as a fellow feminist economist, and she was so warm and kind. When I visited during the department’s fly-out day, it just seemed like a great environment.”
What is it like to teach as a graduate student at CSU?
“In general, I think we do more teaching at CSU than some other economics Ph.D. programs. Teaching can limit your time for research, but it gives you the opportunity to develop and teach your own courses, which I’ve found makes us competitive in the job market.”
Pathways to policy
Small came to CSU knowing she wanted to study feminist economics, and taking History of Economic Thought with Dr. Steve Pressman sparked a combined interest in history of economic thought. As a result, Small spent 2020-21 as a fellow at the Duke University Center for the History of Political Economy in Durham, North Carolina.
“My fellowship at Duke exposed me to a lot of different ideologies and gave me access to the Economist Papers Archives, which includes not only drafts of economists’ old work but also their personal letters and correspondence. I spent that year digging around in the archives of prominent feminist economist Barbara Bergmann, who hypothesized that women and Black men are excluded from certain occupations to reduce job competition and increase wages for white men. As a Jewish woman trying to get a job in the 1950s and 1960s, she faced a lot of discrimination herself, and was one of the first economists to tie the labor market discrimination model to wage inequality,” said Small.
Small’s research at Duke inspired her to pursue a more policy focused fellowship when she got back to Colorado. This time, she sought a Research Associate position at Root Policy Research in Denver, which she completed in December 2021.
“I was really inspired by Barbara Bergmann and felt like I wanted to be involved in more than just pontificating on theory. I started working at Root Policy Research on childcare studies in the Mountain West, finding a lot of people who work in hospitals don’t have access to childcare. When hospital workers can access childcare, they often pay significantly more for evening care. I want to keep looking into that at a national level to see if childcare cost burdens are higher among health care workers, especially in rural areas,” Small said.
As luck – and a great deal of hard work – would have it, Small landed two perfect opportunities to continue combining feminist economics with policy-focused research: she recently accepted a postdoc appointment at Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Work, and she will join the University of Utah as an Assistant Professor of Economics in fall 2022.
“I’m really excited to expand my policy focused work through this postdoc, working remotely with Dr. Yana van der Meulen Rodgers, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to join the faculty at the University of Utah. I’m so honored and excited to help maintain the feminist economics legacy their department has built. Full steam ahead!”
If you’re drawn to feminist economics, political economy, and socially conscious teaching, CSU may be the place for you. Learn more about our Ph.D. Economics program.