Laura D'Andrea Tyson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

An Economist Goes to Washington: Conversation with Laura D'Andrea Tyson, by Harry Kreisler, 1/14/98
Photo by L. Carper

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Women in Economics and in Washington

Were there a lot of women going into economics at MIT when you were there? Or were there just starting to be more?

There weren't many -- many fewer than today. I think in the class of nearly thirty there were four women who started, one who dropped out very quickly. But three of us finished and actually the three of us are full-fledged practicing economists. I had gone to a women's college, Smith College, where of course there was no such thing as a "male discipline"; all disciplines were, by definition, female disciplines. When I got to MIT I was old enough, I guess, that it didn't bother me too much that my class was primarily filled with men. The issue really was that MIT was a much more abstract and theoretical approach to economics than Smith College had been, so I had to make a transition to a different kind of economics. Now many students in economics have to make that transition. The way you teach undergraduates in economics and the way you teach them in graduate school is quite different.

Was it hard starting out in economics once you had your degree because you were a woman? Was there any discrimination, latent or not latent, that you encountered?

I actually think in my own life, because of the timing, that I was helped on balance by being a woman. It is different. But clearly, I came into the graduate program and entered the job market for economists at a time when there was increasing attention being paid to the issue of getting women into the profession. When I was admitted to MIT, I was the first student ever admitted to MIT from Smith College. I think MIT thought they were taking a chance. They were going to see if a very good student from Smith College, a summa cum laude student from Smith College, could make it in that program. And so I feel that at several points in my life being a woman has been helpful to me in terms of attracting someone's attention -- "Okay, we'll take a chance." Now, with that of course you then have to make the most of the chance. You have to show people that yes, you can do it. I feel quite comfortable with that view. Even with President Clinton, when I met him I was of interest to him in part because he really wanted to have a diverse cabinet. But frankly, I ended up working well for him not because I was a woman but because of my abilities to deal with economic issues.

Are there down sides to being a woman? Tyson with Leon Panetta inthe Oval Office You know, it's just different. I will say, just as an example, we used to have White House meetings at 7:30 in the morning. And the way Leon Panetta ran the meetings, they tended oftentimes to be people jumping in. In general, women are less adept or less willing to just jump into conversations. I think they're more likely to do better in structured conversations. So that's an example of a negative. I think that it's still the case today that if you look at the press and look at how many times women are quoted versus men, that there is a tendency still to perceive power and wisdom more with men than women. But on balance I think it's been a positive in my life.

But in a way you're saying that even in an administration like the Clinton administration, which was very committed to filling roles with women, that there still are structural problems and once they're surmounted you're judged on your own merit. Is that a fair statement?

Well, I wouldn't say "structural," they're almost behavioral issues. I mean, men and women, I do believe, behave differently in some respects. There are these interesting books by Deborah Tannen on how women and men handle conversations differently and handle words differently. And meetings. She actually has some very interesting discussions about meetings, which I think capture very much the kind of difference that I mentioned before.

In the profiles I've read of you, one of the things that stood out from your early years was cheerleading and numbers.

Well, on the cheerleading thing I will only say one thing that I will never forget. It's a very interesting fact.

When I was just finished with graduate school, the National Science Foundation had a conference and they invited women who had gotten Ph.D.s in the "scientific" fields from the previous five to seven years to come to Washington and talk about their experience, what made them get a Ph.D. in a scientific and therefore male-dominated field. And these women did not have that much in common but I want to tell you that the majority, the vast majority of them had been cheerleaders. Now what does that tell you? I think it tells you that when these women had grown up it was still prior to competitive sports for women. There were no teams for women. So what women did who wanted to be competitive, wanted to be out there and involved with the school and part of the team, was cheerleading. So it may say something about my competitive nature, or it may say something about my outgoing nature, or it may say something about ability to associate with a team. I was considered a team player in Washington. And the numbers? Well I don't know. That's just something that I don't quite understand. I always enjoyed math, but not so much that I was willing to commit my entire life to it.

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