Inside the Conference for Black Women Economists

Ninety days after 2018 came to a close, white women have finally earned as much as their white, male counterparts earned by December 31. Today, Equal Pay Day, marks the occasion—and prompts many of us to take action toward closing the stubborn wage gap. For women of color, the occasion is even further delayed: Black women must work until August 2, an entire 234 days into this year, to earn what they deserved by New Year’s Day.

Closing the wage gap requires more than changing the dollar amount women see in their paycheck. It calls for rewriting the entire financial system perpetuating this inequality—and shifting the mostly white and male field of economics that drives the research, analysis and development of fiscal policy and practices.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman and Fanta Traore’s Sadie Collective, the first international professional organization for and by Black women in economics, hopes to make that shift possible.

Sandile Hlatshwayo (first on left) of the International Monetary Fund and Kehinde F. Ajayi (second from right back row) of the World Bank pose with attendees from University of California, Berkeley at the first-ever Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference, organized by and for Black women in economics.

“We are forcing the economics community, in a broader context, to acknowledge the existence of Black women—African, African-American, Afro-Latinx, Afro-Caribbean and biracial women—economists,” Opoku-Agyeman explained to Ms. “Our economic lives—which exist at the intersection of class, gender, sexuality and race—must be accounted for in research, analysis and policy. The economics field can’t silence us by dismissing our issues because they don’t fit into the confines of traditional economic models.”

Opoku-Agyeman presenting Diane Herz—vice president, director of human services and chief diversity officer of Mathematica Policy Research—with a plaque of appreciation for hosting the first Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference.

Sadie T.M. Alexander was the first woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in economics, from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1921.

“My mother refused to accept society’s idea of womanhood as homemaker,” her daughter, Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, told Ms. “She came from an economically privileged background and wanted to use that privilege to fight for the civil rights of her people from all economic backgrounds. And she did.”

Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, Sadie T.M. Alexander’s daughter, at the conference.

Between 1919 and 1923, Alexander served as the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. After being denied the right to practice or even to teach in the field of economics because of her race, she became the first woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1927—and the first African American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. Harry S. Truman eventually appointed her to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights; she also served on President Kennedy’s Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Having a professional network matters—especially when it comes to the fight for equal pay. “Underrepresented communities lack professional networks in most fields,” Pauline Sow, a member of the undergraduate student organization Promoting Achievement and Diversity in Economics (PAID), shared with Ms. “A contributing factor in the wage gap is having a professional network to uplift and connect you with a continuous flow of high level professional opportunities.”

But centuries after Alexander’s own fight for the opportunities she deserved, Black women remain devastatingly underrepresented in economics. In 2017, only 32.9 percent of Ph.Ds in the field were granted to women; out of a total of 43,452 degrees awarded in economics between 2015 and 2016, only 15 went to Black students, and only five to Black women

Chantel Smith, a doctoral student in economics at Howard University, was the only Black woman in her major program during her time earning an undergraduate degree—and she had only white and male professors. “I didn’t think economics was something Black women could pursue,” she told Ms. “Instead of going to graduate school, I had a family and became a teacher. At 45, I am thrilled to finally be surrounded by a community of Black women economists who encourage me to finish a career I began so long ago.”

Smith spoke to Ms. at the first-ever Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Conference, the economics conference organized by and for Black women. Opoku-Agyeman, who will join the Graduate Research Scholar Initiative for Economics at Harvard University this fall, and Traore, a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Board, convened the inaugural event in February.

“We need to follow Alexander’s example of developing carefully collected data from communities where policy will be implemented,” Willene A. Johnson, president of development finance company Komaza, Inc., encouraged attendees, “as well as develop sound economic theory to dislodge accepted models of analysis and policies that contribute to the systems of poverty, and powerlessness in many communities of color.”

It’s been nearly one century since Alexander earned her degree in economics—and Opoku-Agyeman and Traore are hoping the economics community at-large will make way for the next wave of women leaders. “Allyship and support from the economics community have been pivotal to our success,” Traore told Ms., “and will help us as we expand our team, host a bigger conference, become a nonprofit and in the future establish chapters across the United States.”

“We will face resistance to our ideas,” Johnson reminded young Black women economists. “The greater threat comes from our capacity to analyze economic structures and policy that would shift the balance of power and wealth in the world. But we must remain ever conscious to fight to loosen the constraints that limit agency and the full exercise of our talents.”

Watch: Highlights from the Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference


Catalina Sofia Dansberger Duque is a interviewer, writer and speaker. She focuses on people who have chosen to breathe life into challenging situations and live a life filled with love, joy and passion despite overwhelming stereotypes. Catalina is a Communication Manager for the Humanities & Social Sciences at UMBC. She has contributed to Huffington Post, UpWorthy and Gay Family Trips, among others.