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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
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
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,
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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