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Innovative Mini-mester Course Explores the Economics of Women and Men at Work

Kathy Castor speaking to class

U.S. Representative Kathy Castor held a lengthy back and forth discussion with the class about the culture of Congress, pay gap disparity and solutions to increase wages in Florida.

ST. PETERSBURG (May 31, 2018) -- The pay gap disparity in the workplace has been a source of contention and an issue that has received considerable news coverage in recent years. Though much progress has been made in recent decades and the gap has narrowed, women still earn only 82 percent of what men earn, according to analysis of median hourly earnings of full and part-time workers in the United States.

Earlier this month, nearly 20 USF St. Petersburg graduate students explored the historical and social context of this disparity as well as overall differences in labor market outcomes between males and females during a mini-mester course titled the Economics of Women, Men and Work. Taught by Economics Professor Rebecca Harris, the mini-mester course condensed a semester’s work of lectures, class discussion and coursework into five long days, totaling 45 hours. The innovative week-long course challenged students to examine varying perspectives, research topics such as the intersection of gender and race and listen to personal insights from local business and civic leaders who stopped by to tell their stories.

Both the structure of the course and the relevancy of the topic proved extremely popular with students who enrolled and earned three credit hours at the end.

“One of the many challenges of going to school while working full time is that you don’t often get to indulge in the academics like you can when you are a full time student. This one week course was perfect since I could take a week off work, fully immerse in a topic and receive full credits toward my degree,” said student Amy Cianci.

“The course sounded fascinating to me immediately. I’ve been interested in gender theory, the pay gap and women’s challenges in the workplace,” said student Emily House. “Because the course was so discussion based, I felt we were able to get deeper into the material and become more comfortable with one another by virtue of the condensed nature of the course.”

Dr. Harris, whose academic focus is on environmental economics and development and the economics of women at work, said she wanted students to learn both the overlapping and diverging decisions that men and women make.

collage of class images

Scenes during the week-long mini-mester course.

“Economics is the study of choices,” said Dr. Harris. “The course looked at the choices that women and men make, often interdependently, about work, family and free time.”

One of those stories told during the week was from Representative Kathy Castor, who stopped by on the final day of class. The four term Congresswomen, who represents Florida’s 14th district covering Tampa and parts of Hillsborough County, spoke about why she wanted to speak to students on this crucial subject and what it means to her.

“This is a unique place here, to have the Kate Tiedemann College of Business in Lynn Pippenger Hall; it’s a girl power thing,” Castor said, referencing the unique aspect that USF St. Petersburg’s College of Business and the building that houses it are both named after women. “And I was the first female elected to Congress to represent Pinellas and Hillsborough. Part of the reason I ran was to help lift up families and fight for better economic opportunities.”

In a back and forth conversation with students, Rep. Castor touched on the culture of Congress and lack of women on certain committees, examples of pay disparity like the women’s and men’s National Soccer Team members and the need to attract employers to Florida in fields such as medicine and defense that pay a higher wage to increase pay for everyone. She asked students what their major concerns were – with many answering the cost of higher education and health care – and answered student’s questions. She also told the class a major reason why she ended up in politics.

“I ran for office I think because I benefited seeing my mother [Betty Castor] do it. She was going to be a teacher, but then got involved in the League of Women Voters and Save Our Bay in the 1970s in Tampa. She and my father wanted to change things on the Hillsborough County Commission and so she decided to run in a field of a lot of men, and became the first female elected to the County Commission and then to the Florida Senate and then was President of USF. So I had that example as this being almost normal.”

Castor added, “I think it is really important for young people to be exposed to those sort of role models, and I have always loved public policy largely because of that upbringing.”

Other speakers like Ronice Barlow, senior vice president of Franklin Templeton Distributors, and Holly Duncan, principal consultant at Duncan Philanthropy Group, shared their own personal experiences in the workplace and beyond.

A central theme among many of the speakers to the class was the changing career landscape.

group photo

The class poses with Representative Kathy Castor after her visit.

“In the 1980s, close to 90 percent of all clients, financial advisors and asset managers were men,” said Barlow. “Clients were the financial decision makers and men out-earned women. Now, over 41 percent of women are making financial decisions alone, and women are the primary breadwinners in over 40 percent of U.S. households.”

The course also allowed for students to speak with each other on gender, pay and workplace issues. Students interviewed women and men on campus about their individual choices and experiences. They also examined their own personal stories in the context of the class theme, interweaving how issues pertaining to gender roles and the workplace played out in their lives.

Some students who are employers explained how they frequently worry about the choices staff are faced with, such as continuing to work with young children at home. Others said they have experienced the antiquated ways of thinking about how men and women should interact at work, and that this class allowed them to challenge many of those ways, hear other’s experiences and honestly discuss how to change the workplace for the better.

“Viewing my life through the lens of economic theories and applying lessons from our coursework have helped me to gain clarity about my place of business, my role within it and opportunities that I can challenge the status quo,” said student Shannon Kalahar.

“I learned that gender roles and gender equality are not the same thing,” said student Andrew Bustamante. “In many ways, the future of our workforce has to respect and appreciate gender roles while striving to provide equal opportunities in career advancement, pay and work/life balance independent of gender.”