Gender, Inequality, and Wages

December 20, 2012

Francine Blau was one of the first academic economists to focus her research on the relative position of women in the labour market, and she is clearly among the best. This book is the ninth in the prestigious IZA Prize in Labor Economics series; each capturing the life work of that year’s prizewinner.

Divided by topic, with chapters based on Blau’s academic publications in specific fields, the collection covers gender wage gaps over time, changes in female labour supply, trends in well-being among American women, mentoring, racial wage inequality and immigration. A constant throughout her work is a strong emphasis on theory-motivated empirical research and the generation of policy-relevant prescriptions. The result is a detailed and multifaceted explanation of the gender wage gap, across time and countries. Blau shows that a major source of movements in this gap has been the change in occupational segregation and institutional settings but that, while the size of the overall gender gap has fallen, a persistent unexplained kernel remains. Furthermore, that kernel (reflecting discrimination) has begun to increase in size, posing a complex problem for policymakers.

While these papers are a great read for economists, they may prove to be harder work for those from other research areas. Blau does, however, offer timely introductions to each section, explaining where the literature was at the time of her research, how she contributed and where the work has advanced since. These insightful summaries, written in a non-technical manner, provide exceptionally useful portals into these research areas for non- economists.

In the book’s concluding pages, Blau provides fascinating snippets explaining her motivation and linking her research topics to events taking place around her. She grew up in Queens, New York, then one of the most ethnically diverse environments in the world, and she recounts empathising with fellow children who were fighting against the state-sponsored racial segregation of southern American schools in the 1950s. We hear how she entered graduate school at Harvard University in 1966, shortly after her 20th birthday, becoming one of only four female students in a class of 63 and with no female faculty members to use as a role model. Indeed, it would take her some years before she was to see her first female PhD economist, inspiring her to help set up the American Economic Association Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession and later to explore the positive impact of mentoring on tenure-track women. She also relates how her early work on immigration into the US in the early 20th century echoed her own family’s move to America during this last great wave of migration.

Blau’s overarching message is to focus our research on those topics that we find interesting, engaging and important. “I think what I intuitively realized is that you have to work on what you are interested in without being unduly concerned with the current status within the profession of your topic or approach. It is only in this way that you will do your best work…to be a successful researcher, you have to follow your interests,” she writes. A timely reminder to us all.

Gender, Inequality, and Wages

By Francine D. Blau

Oxford University Press, 576pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780199665853

Published 20 September 2012

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