Women Economists Take on Powerful Roles Guiding Governments
In a traditionally male-dominated field, women are becoming increasingly influential
But the rise of women in this traditionally male dominated field comes as no surprise to economists at Rutgers. Women in the university’s Economics Department have not only built distinguished careers as scholars, they’ve become policy advisors at all levels of government, guiding public officials on such issues as taxation, environment, health care and criminal justice.
“The women in our department are heavily involved in policy work,” said Chair Rosanne Altshuler. “The research they do addresses many of the pressing public policy issues of our time, and as a result, it has real value to government at the local, state and federal levels.”
Altshuler herself appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee on Capitol Hill and the Senate Budget Committee last year, just some of the many times Congress has called her to Washington for help sorting out the complex, controversial topic of taxation.
When President George W. Bush announced during his 2005 State of the Union address that he was creating a bipartisan panel to reform the “archaic, incoherent federal tax code,” Altshuler was tapped to be that panel’s chief economist.
At the time, however, she was already serving on the Joint Committee on Taxation, which provides tax analysis to Congress.
“I resigned from the Joint Committee - everybody understood,” Altshuler said. “This was a real opportunity in that it was potentially a fundamental reform of the federal tax code.”
Similar opportunities continue to arise for women in the Economics Department, including professors Jennifer Hunt, Anne Piehl, Louise Russell and Hilary Sigman.
The stature they’ve attained as policy experts reflects a larger demographic shift that is shaking up the field of economics: More women are pursuing advanced degrees.
In the early 1960s, 4 percent of doctorates in economics in the U.S. went to women. By 2008-2009, women’s share of doctorates in the field had risen to 35 percent, according to the American Economic Association.
The change on the ground is hard to miss, Altshuler said.
“It was not unusual for me early in my career to be one of the only women in the room at a conference,” she said. “That’s much less likely to happen now.”
The women economists at Rutgers typically found an area of specialization early in their career - sometimes unexpectedly - and then worked for years to refine and develop their expertise.
Her supervisor told her: “Louise, go figure out why these numbers vary so much,” Russell recalled.
Her interest piqued, she began analyzing all manner of healthcare spending in the public and later in the private sector. By the early 1970s she was seeing all too clearly the roots of the healthcare crisis that bedevils the nation today.
“At one point I said to myself: ‘Good grief, at this rate the health sector is doubling its resources every 12 years,”’ said Russell, whose expertise in cost-effectiveness analysis of healthcare spending has led to numerous advisory roles at the federal level, including co-chairmanship of the U.S. Public Health Service Panel on Cost-Effectiveness in Health and Medicine.
The results showed wide disparities of criminal history among the inmates, which fueled further research by her, and led to roles advising state and federal governments on issues such as sentencing guidelines and corrections reform.
“We tend to look at the population as if there are criminals and non-criminals,” said Piehl, who co-authored the book Prison State: The Challenges of Mass Incarceration. “We ignore the fact that there are those who dabble in crime, those who are career criminals, and those who got involved once for some particular reason.
“From a policy perspective we need to distinguish among those groups. Different polices might be needed to deter people with different backgrounds.”
Hunt, meanwhile, was known for her work studying European labor markets, with a focus on Germany.
“They had this great data set that followed (workers) over time and asked really good questions,” she said. “You could learn an almost infinite number of things.”
When the German government began an initiative to improve its public universities, Hunt was selected to serve on committees that make site visits to the universities, review their proposals and decide whether they are eligible for new federal funding.
“It’s our responsibility to carefully review their proposal and judge how likely is it they are going to improve,” Hunt said.
Despite such disparate specialties, these women are linked by their belief that economic principles are the best way to evaluate public policies.
Sigman, for example, had long been interested in environmental issues, and came to see economics as a way to measure the likely success of proposed policies and regulations.
“Economics is a very useful framework for evaluating practical choices,” she said. “It brings the most insight into how these policies are likely to play out.”
Applying economic analysis doesn’t mean the focus is on dollars and cents at the expense of environmental quality, Sigman said.
“The costs of a policy are easier to quantify, but economics isn’t only focused on the cost,” she said. “One of the things economics can do is show that environmental policies yield very concrete benefits - such as improvements in human health - that are worth the investment of resources.”
Sigman has served on an advisory committee of the U.S. EPA’s Science Advisory Board, a role in which she helped review EPA's Guidelines for Preparing Economic Analyses that established a framework for reviewing regulations and policies.
In addition to helping guide governments, the professors’ command of policy issues brings benefits to the classroom, where they help ground students in the intricate details of the issues, producing good citizens as well as scholars.
When Altshuler returned to Rutgers after serving on the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform, she shared with students the materials the panel had developed.
“It’s our job to cut through the rhetoric – and there is a lot of rhetoric out there,” she said. “So unless we educate our students to be informed voters, we’re not going to have the government we deserve.”