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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the November 13, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Economics and Feminism

Economics is fundamentally a male field," says Francine

Blau, a prominent economist. Of course, the study of economics

is associated with numbers, and women traditionally have shied away

from mathematics. Still, Blau points out, there are now far more female

mathematicians than there are female economists. "It’s puzzling,"

she says, suggesting that perhaps the fact that economics combines

math and business is enough to keep women away from the discipline.

Blau, a professor of industrial and labor relations and labor economics

at Cornell, speaks on "Reflections on Feminism and Economics"

on Monday, November 18, at 4:30 p.m. at Robertson Hall on the Princeton

University campus. Her talk is part of a lecture series marking the

20th anniversary of the founding of the university’s Program in the

Study of Women and Gender. For more information, call 609-258-5430.

When Blau was an undergraduate at Cornell in the mid-60s, few women

were considering demanding careers. "It was very lonely,"

she recalls. At a time when she was mapping out a career in economics,

her classmates, by and large, were prepping for marriage. Many have

gone on to pursue careers, she quickly adds, but, in the main, that

was not what was on their minds back then.

In the early-1970s, when Blau was earning a Ph.D. in economics at

Harvard, the percentage of female economics professors stood at about

5 percent. The following decades, she points out, saw an enormous

surge in the percentage of female doctors, lawyers, executives, veterinarians,

and professionals of nearly every sort. But a few disciplines remained

largely male, economics among them. "Now 13 percent of economics

professors are women," says Blau.

The positive is that the pipeline is filling up. While only 8 percent

of full professors in the discipline are female, that number goes

up to 16 percent for associate professors, and 22 percent for full


Economics, like any research-oriented field in academe, is not easy

for a woman who also wants a family, Blau admits. It can require compromise

and flexibility, not to mention a spouse willing to pitch in and take

on his share of household and child-rearing chores. It is rare for

each spouse to find his and her first choice position in the same

city, for instance, she says. One half of a couple with a preference

for living within driving distance of one another might have to settle

for a number two or three choice. Blau knows a number of economists

who have not found even this compromise to be workable, and who have

commuter marriages. One of these unions even features residences on

separate continents.

Still, Blau has raised two children while climbing ever higher in

her field. In addition to her primary position at Cornell, she is

a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in

Cambridge, Massachusetts, director of the Institute for Labor Market

Policies at Cornell, research fellow at the Center for Economic Studies

in Munich, on the board of editors at the American Economic Review,

and on the advisory board of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

She has written a number of books and articles, many with her husband,

Lawrence Kahn.

She has been able to combine family and work, she says, because she

and her husband took an egalitarian approach to child rearing, each

taking on enough of the load so that the other could continue to progress

professionally. A measure of her success as both mom and an economist

is that her daughter, due to graduate from the University of Chicago

in the spring, is also planning a career as an economist. Her son

is pursuing graduate studies in environmental management.

Thirty-five years after she went through college with female classmates

bent on majoring in marriage, Blau says her children "take it

for granted that women will have careers." This is a huge change

in a short period of time. One reason it is important to have a strong

female presence in economics is that there is a good chance that they

will take an interest in documenting these changes.

A good part of Blau’s work has been in the field of gender and economics.

Among her books are "Women, Men, and Work, and Gender" and

"Family Issues in the Workplace." An upcoming article is "Understanding

International Differences in the Gender Gap."

Interest among economists on issues of gender in the economy and in

the workplace was nearly non-existent when Blau entered the field.

She has tallied up articles in economics journals on gender issues

and found just seven articles on the issue between 1967 and 1971.

However, between 1997 and 2001, there were 156.

In the early years of the feminist movement, the emphasis was on studying

workplace discrimination, but now, Blau says, the emphasis seems to

be shifting to questions of balancing work and family. Blau’s experience

adds urgency to finding a way to make managing the two doable for

women. While she says she would have missed out on a great deal had

she not been able to raise children, she also says her life would

be far poorer had she missed out on the rewards of work.

Blau managed to move to the top of her field while raising children,

but the instant resonance that made a new book a runaway best seller

demonstrates that this is one tough balancing act. I Don’t Know How

She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother is the fictional

diary of an English financial analyst’s increasingly frantic attempts

to satisfy clients and bosses while at the same time attending to

the needs of a pre-schooler and a baby. While the book is witty, it

is making working mothers wince in recognition of the sleep-deprived,

manic, duplicities so many working mothers still live three decades

after the feminist movement began opening doors to the executive suite.

Documenting the progress of this struggle, in part, is what economics

is all about, and Blau hopes that women increasingly will see the

field in all of its aspects, and will consider a career as an economist

in academia, government, the non-profit sector, or industry.

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