Even after majoring in economics, even after grad school with a masters in the field, Pamela E. Davis couldn’t bring herself to write the words “economist” on her vision board.
“It was pure impostor syndrome,” Davis remembers. “It wasn’t about the degrees and the skills; it was all the unwritten rules coming from a background that doesn’t make this very easy to navigate.”
Now an international economist at the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), she didn’t have a relative or family friend ready to show her the ropes of a job title that most people only think about in the most ethereal of terms.
Davis was born in Queens, New York and lived in Long Island, the daughter of an African-American father and Afro-Colombian mother who worked as a plumber and real estate professional, respectively. The hard work of her parents and the multiple summers she spent in Cali, Colombia with her grandparents helped establish her values, her focus on hard work, and her bicultural identity. But it did little to help her navigate the pursuit of a job she’s wanted since high school.
And while Davis says she received incredible support from her professors through her academic career—mentors who helped show her that women belong in economics—she didn’t see herself living a life in academia.
In her current role, Davis says she’s been blessed to receive mentorship from a Latina economist who has encouraged her development every step of the way. That mentorship has grown Davis’s confidence and helped her learn to navigate spaces that aren’t used to women of color in their ranks.
“There’s a daily struggle for equity in this space that’s just never going to be finished,” Davis explains. “One of the things I’m constantly reminded of is that without an active effort to foster diversity, over and over again, we lose the game. I meet people who tell me that I’m the first economist they’ve ever met, let alone the first Afro-Colombian or the first black woman economist. I don’t derive any value out of being the only one. I want there to be so much representation that it’s not some novel situation.”
Davis refers to statistics provided by the American Economic Association (AEA) that show that, from 2019 to 2020, less than 11 percent of master’s degrees and 8 percent of PhDs in economics were awarded to Americans who identified as Hispanic or Latino women, although they make up 18 percent of the total US population.
There are multiple ways Davis seeks to improve these numbers from the side of institutions looking to grow their ranks.
“For some people, it might be understanding the cultural nuances of a language as you’re translating questionnaires,” Davis explains. “For other people, it might mean being able to identify research questions that aren’t prevalent in the field and answer them. And for others, it might be aligning their values with an organization that understands how imperative representation is.”
But for ambitious professionals like Davis, who know what they want but don’t necessarily know how to get there, the economist says it is imperative to find mentors who invest in your success. Mentors provide encouragement during the hardest times of career navigation and can connect you with people who will help you understand those unwritten rules that often make the space seem so unwelcoming.
“I didn’t even know what an informational interview was,” Davis says. “There are things we’re not exposed to growing up that we have to learn about, and mentors can help you lead with your best foot forward.”
Additionally, Davis wants those looking at the field to consider internships that can help them figure out where their passions truly lie. Just because you have a skill in one area doesn’t mean it’s something you’re going to want to do daily.
Finally, Davis says that you must find value in yourself and your experiences.
“Everything that you have been through informs who you are and what you can bring to an organization,” the economist explains. “Just remember, you choose an organization or a job or a role just as much as it chooses you.”
Recognizing that value is also a key to combating imposter syndrome. Davis says it took her years to learn how to relax, to feel worthy of taking time for herself to rest and recharge. It’s a common experience of people from underrepresented communities who feel that the only way to find success is to never take their foot off the gas pedal. It’s draining, unhealthy, and, ultimately, unproductive.
Pamela Davis might be the first economist you’ve read about. She might be the first person of color, the first woman, and the first bilingual economist you’ve ever encountered. But she’s going to make sure she’s not the last.
Note: The views expressed in this interview belong to Pamela E. Davis alone, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government, the US international Trade Commission, or any of its individual commissioners.