Honoring Women in STEM: Katherine Zipp

Associate Professor, Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education

What is your area of expertise and what is your research focus?  

I use economic models to develop policy insights for environmental issues including the impacts of natural disasters and water pollution. Much of this work is tied together by findings that policies that fail to properly consider economic responses can have unexpected effects and be counterproductive. Because the topics I work on are inherently interdisciplinary, my work typically engages multidisciplinary teams. 

How did you end up in STEM?  

I ended up in economics through a series of random events. I wanted to be a math major and went to the math open house the first week of college, where the department head discouraged me from taking any math classes. At the last minute, I signed up for an environmental studies course and found my passion. As an environmental studies major, I had to substitute environmental economics for a policy course due to scheduling. My environmental economics professor inspired me to use an economic lens to think about environmental problems and encouraged me to take more classes.

What hurdles or challenges (big or small) did you find as you pursued your career in STEM? What challenges do you face today?  

I want to acknowledge that I have been incredibly privileged as I pursued a career in academia. My parents are both academics who have always supported me and offered insider information into the inner workings of academia. I have been fortunate to have had supportive mentors throughout my career. I would say one of the issues that I am still grappling with is being taken seriously. People will address male colleagues as Dr. and me as Ms., they will ask who my advisor is, and condescendingly explain basic concepts to me.  

Why is it important for women to be in STEM and specifically your field?  

Economics is kind of a big deal. It is not just the supply and demand curves from Econ 101. Policy decisions rely heavily on economic analyses; economic activity is the most common measure of a country’s well-being; the evaluation of policies is often based on economic cost-benefit analyses. And the choices of policies to consider, the metrics being used, the objectives that we strive to meet are determined by the economists in the room who are overwhelmingly white and male. It has been shown over and over again that economics has a sexism problem and that it is more severe than in the sciences, with a persistent gap in the promotion of women compared to men that cannot be explained by productivity differences and little to no gains in the percentage of women getting a degree in economics over the past few decades.   

What can be done to recruit more women into STEM?  

I think we need to first acknowledge that there are institutional problems leading to a lack of women in STEM and economics and that resources need to be devoted to solving this problem. Creating a sense of belonging for women in STEM could go a long way towards this goal. I had great math teachers in middle and high school and if I had felt more welcomed into the math department in college, I would’ve tried to be a math major. If I hadn’t had such great economics mentors – some women and some men – I never would’ve been an economics major.  

What advice would you give to girls and young women going into STEM?  

First, your voice matters. If you don’t like the way economics undervalues women’s work or ignores women’s needs and contributions or overemphasizes market solutions and underemphasizes equality, then you are empowered to change it. For example, Alice Wu, an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, found rampant sexism in the anonymous online Economics Jobs Market Rumors forum which provided statistical evidence that the free market was not solving gender discrimination on its own. This ultimately led to code of conduct for economists and alternative forums being created. Second, you are not alone. There are resources to support women in economics such as the Penn State Women in Economics Society, the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, and many more.