This Spring, the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics hosted its first Graduate Student Women’s Group Luncheon, a mentoring and networking event for faculty and Ph.D. students. We spoke with several of the faculty members who organized and attended the event about the new group's mission, and discussed some of their new research.
To increase women’s participation in economics, and in STEM fields in general, it’s vital we generate interest and foster participation at the very beginning of the pipeline – at the undergraduate level, and even earlier. During my graduate studies, women made up only about 10 percent of the students; today, we’re seeing closer to 30 percent. — Prof. Nancy L. Stokey
No discussion of women in the field of economics would be complete without a look at Nancy L. Stokey’s distinguished body of work. Stokey’s career began at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. During her time there, she was named the Harold L. Stuart Professor of Managerial Economics, and also served as the Department Chair from 1987-89. She then joined the University of Chicago Department of Economics in 1990, and continues to make many fundamental contributions in a range of areas, from micro- and macroeconomics to economic theory and finance.
Much of her career has been focused on studying economic dynamics; her book Recursive Methods in Economic Dynamics, with Robert E. Lucas, Jr., is considered essential reading on the topic. Similarly, “Information, Trade, and Common Knowledge,” (co-authored with Paul Milgrom) which established the paradox that information-based trade is not possible for rational agents with common knowledge, has been called one of “the pillars of modern finance” by the American Economic Association. Her pioneering work, “Rational Expectations and Durable Goods Pricing,” outlined conditions under which sellers of durable goods without commitment power are able to appropriate gains from trade. She also co-authored one of the first papers to examine the time-consistency of macroeconomic policy and demonstrate the importance of central banks following rules, “Optimal Monetary and Fiscal Policy” (with Robert E. Lucas, Jr.).
More recently, Stokey has focused on the reasons countries catch up or fall behind, finding policies that stimulate technology transfer are highly effective drivers of growth: “Investments in human and physical capital respond to returns, and those returns are high when technology is growing rapidly.” You can read more in her recent NBER Working Paper, “Technology and Skill: Twin Engines of Growth.” When it comes to advancing the role of women in her field, Stokey stresses the importance of early mentoring and support. “To increase women’s participation in economics, and in STEM fields in general, it’s vital we generate interest and foster participation at the very beginning of the pipeline – at the undergraduate level, and even earlier.” Encouragingly, there are many more women in economics programs today than when Stokey earned her Ph.D. at Harvard: “During my graduate studies, women made up only about 10 percent of the students; today, we’re seeing closer to 30 percent.”
Stokey is the Frederick Henry Prince Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago’s Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics. Last year, the American Economic Association named her a Distinguished Fellow, and she is also a Fellow of the Econometric Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. She has also served as editor of the Journal of Political Economy and co-editor of Econometrica. She holds honorary doctorates from Northwestern University and the University of Western Ontario. This spring, she serves as a panel member at the Nobel Symposium on Money and Banking, and will be a plenary speaker at this summer’s Society for Economic Dynamics gathering in Mexico City, and the Tsinghua Workshop in Macroeconomics in Beijing.
Our Faculty Discuss Their Research, and the Graduate Student Women's Group
Our goal is to provide graduate student women with professional development opportunities that they might not otherwise receive to help them be successful in the graduate program and beyond. We also want to facilitate interactions across classes and fields, so that the students become resources for each other. We had a student-led conversation about professional development issues, including transitioning from classes to research and preparing for the job market, and then facilitated a broader discussion about the past, present, and future of women in economics.
As Manasi wrote, we had a group discussion about how to transition from taking classes to producing research, how to manage time effectively (very important), and how to prepare for academic talks. In addition to Manasi and I, also Prof. Stokey, Neckermann, and Joensen offered their perspectives, so it was a learning opportunity for everyone. We also reviewed and discussed some recent data about trends in female representation in the Economics profession: how it looks like today and why it matters. Students were given an opportunity to ask questions and to hear advice from faculty, as well as their peers. It was an interesting and productive event. In terms of new research projects, I have a study on how strategic communication concerns prevent the effective diffusion of information about maternal health risk within the household (from wives to husbands) and reduce the use of family planning and raises fertility in Zambia. It’s not new in the sense that it’s been in the field for a long time, but we finally have all the data and we are examining it.
We discussed key aspects of the PhD experience, such as the transition from coursework to research, how to choose a supervisor, when to discuss a research idea with faculty, when to present your research - internally and externally – and how to interpret feedback. We also touched upon social and cultural norms [which can be] very subtle, but can have important consequences for how you are perceived as a researcher. The goal of the group is to provide useful information, resources, and support for the female graduate students. This is important as female faculty in Economics is scarce and networks tend to be gender-specific such that social circles, where such information would otherwise be disseminated are typically more accessible to male than to female graduate students. It’s a fact that the pipeline is leaky in the sense that female graduate students in Economics are less likely to transition to being assistant professors who again are less likely to become full professors. The reasons why this is are complex and not fully understood. I believe some of them are very subtle too and may not be easy to change.
This group can hopefully help in terms of providing valuable information and support to make the academic environment seem less bewildering and more welcoming to the female graduate students. There is almost surely talent lost in the leaky pipeline if we don’t encourage the most talented female graduate students to choose an academic career and provide them with the resources they need. I think we should also question whether the mechanisms we use to identify and allocate talent are the most efficient ones. I think we should select more on competence and less on confidence.
The event was a full success: a room full of women to talk and discuss; share their experiences in the profession and ask questions. Interestingly, it turned out that most of the questions were not gender-specific. The female graduate students were wondering about how to find co-authors, approach faculty for feedback, and about how to best manage time. Since research shows that women tend to have less self-confidence than men, meetings such as ours might be helpful to allow female grad students the room to openly ask their questions and build the confidence to approach co-authors and faculty. My research mostly focuses on behavioral personnel economics. I look at incentive design with a focus on non-monetary rewards (honor and recognition, meaning of work, etc.). I am also interested in studying how rewards for activity A spill over and affect worker behavior in activity B. In a current research project, we explore how incentives framed as losses rather than as gains affect employee’s subsequent, seemingly unrelated behaviors such as helping the principal, turnover, and employee theft.
For women in economics, there is no better place to be than the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics. Looking back from a historical perspective, Margaret Reid, a faculty member of the Department in 1951, was credited in Franco Modigliani’s 1985 Nobel lecture with contributing to the development of the lifecycle permanent income hypothesis, which states that consumption is affected not just by present income but by knowledge of one’s future income trajectory (on Reid’s contributions, see the Fall 1996 special issue of Feminist Economics). Gary Becker’s work proposed that household specialization in addition to expected lifetime earnings affects gender differences in society. Marianne Bertrand of the Chicago Booth School of Business and current American Economic Review editor Esther Duflo document the ways economists think gender differences persist in their joint chapter, “New Perspectives on Gender.” Some of these important areas include competition and risk taking, which are both important qualities socially expected of leaders. John List’s well-cited study of competition in a male-dominated setting and a female-dominated setting shows that environments where women are encouraged to take risks allows the gender gap in achievement, risk taking and competition to go away.
In my own work, I investigate the process by which female college students enter the labor market in Saudi Arabia, a country known for its culture of gender segregation and low levels of female labor force participation. What I have learned over the last year, meeting with firms who would like to recruit and retain more Saudi females into leadership positions, is that commitment from top leadership can increase opportunities for college females to take the positive risks necessary to break barriers to entry into the labor market - and eventually put them on a path to break glass ceilings. What is important is that organizations commit to the idea of an inclusive workplace as a business value, and can articulate its importance to their business. Our department is a place which values the most powerful arguments derived from rigorous scientific study. In today’s academic race for top talent, here there is no room for unconscious bias – or to be less than aggressive about creating a positive risk environment for both male and female undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty to become the leaders in their fields. To be less than aggressive on increasing the place of women in economics is to risk the biggest tradition of all, being competitive in the marketplace of ideas.