Marianne Bertrand’s entrance to economics was more a case of being at the right time with the right people, than it was a lifelong dream. But after spending a few hours speaking with her on a sunny afternoon, it is an anecdote that seems almost unbelievable, as it’s difficult to imagine her doing anything else. Throughout her career, she has conducted groundbreaking work that has changed the public perception and discourse around a variety of innately human-centric topics. The fateful conversation that led to her decision to pursue a PhD in economics forever changed not only the course of her own life, but the lives of many others.
At a glance
Title: Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the Booth School of Business at the Univeristy of Chicago
Current focus: Labor economics in the political economy
Best part of the job: Having the ability to affect policy
Childhood paradox: Wanted to be a journalist, but doesn’t really trust them today
Biggest mentor: Larry Katz
Winner’s remorse: Awards, while nice to receive, usually lead to worrying that she will disappoint people
Calling Biases by their Name
Professor Bertrand has never shied away from difficult topics, making it no surprise she has focused heavily on gender, harassment and discrimination, and the effects they can have in the labor market.
Her work on documenting the bias and discrimination in the hiring process has since been replicated all over the world. Together with her co-author Sendhil Mullainathan, they looked at data related to the number of interview requests applicants received based on whether their names sounded more African-American versus white.
“It was a really hard question,” says Bertrand. “But the much harder question is what do we do and how do we break this,” she asks. “And there unfortunately I think research has been much less useful.”
When our profession becomes more diverse, the kind of questions that we study becomes more diverse as well, which would be a great thing.
An Uneven Playing Field
Our interview with Bertrand marks the beginning of the Women in Economics project, which comes at a pivotal time. Not long into our meeting, she references a report put out by the American Economic Association just a few days prior. The results of the report, which analyzes the climate of economics for women and other minorities, shows what many already knew to be true – the number of women in the field has plateaued. While Bertrand admits that pointing to a unique reason is really complicated, she confirms that the trends are absolutely flat and attributes this reality to two key components.
“I think we have a pipeline issue and leaky pipes,” she begins. “There are too few young women that understand that economics could be something that would get them excited. When it comes to the leaky pipes, we lose too many women after they start PhD programs.”
But the problem of underrepresentation of women in economics is a bigger issue than just a numbers game to Bertrand. More diversity means more diverse opinions and ideas but it also means a more diverse set of topics that are even explored.
“There's no doubt that by limiting our profession to men, we are leaving a lot of discoveries on the table,” she says. “When our profession becomes more diverse, the kind of questions that we study becomes more diverse as well, which would be a great thing.”
Simplifying the Field of Economics
It’s not just about having a more diverse field, Bertrand also sees the need, today more than ever, to simplify economics for a wider population to make it more relevant and more accessible. In economics, like many fields within academia, publishing articles is an important part of the job. Bertrand, who has over 65 published or working articles to date, thinks that more work needs to be done in interpreting these works.
“All the work that we do ends up in journals and not being widely read,” she says. “Translation of this work that sometimes is technical into the mainstream media, it's a tough job to do that, but I think we really need more of that for our profession to be perceived as relevant as I believe it is.”
When the Student Becomes the Teacher
When you ask the professor about her own time studying to become an economist and whether she prefers life as a student or as an educator, she laughs and exclaims “Professor!”
An obvious reason one may prefer the role of an educator is the freedom in the selection process when it comes to choosing topics. For Bertrand, she focuses on subjects that she sees as important at the time and ones where her work could have some policy implications. Her main area of research today is labor economics in the political economy. One of her current courses, the Firm and the Non-Market Environment, is a perfect example of this balance.
“I think it’s hard to look at the US right now and not fear that the kind of policies that are being adopted are not in the best interest of the majority,” she says. “Lots of rules and laws look like they're deviating from what would we think would be an optimal outcome if we were about trying to maximize welfare.”
It's really about the functioning of democracies and how we maintain institutions that make these democracies function.
The course which is taught to MBA students at Chicago Booth looks at the effect that firms, and their strategies, can have on non-markets in light of environmental, safety or intellectual property concerns.
“There’s a process of influence that seem to be particularly important that make it difficult for some groups in society to be well represented,” she says.
By examining the roles of lobbying and money in politics and the rule of the revolving door, the goal of this class is to better understand the forces at play. According to Bertrand, this has been the most rewarding class to teach.
“It's really about the functioning of democracies and how we maintain institutions that make these democracies function,” she says. “It forces students to think more broadly about the role that they're going to have in society and how important the decisions will be.”
The Economists of the Future
Economics, like so many fields, is changing rapidly in the face of technology and connectivity, forcing it to become more interdisciplinary than in previous years. Bertrand thinks that economics is future proof but the skill set of the economists of the future is under major transformation.
“In the past, economics was a lot of math and a lot of theory,” she says. “I believe that there will still be math and theory but what’s changing right now is there’s just so much more data coming from everywhere. Data from the internet, data coming from people running experiments, large data, big data.”
While the field has not traditionally been a tech-heavy one, this new trend of including computational kinds of sciences into economics is not one she sees changing.
“The growing relevance of data in our field is going to be such that empirical skills, data skills, the traditional econometrics but also the machine learning and the computational science tools are going to become more and more prevalent,” she continues.
As we wrap up our conversation, the question is asked whether she has a key piece of advice that she gives to those looking to get into economics.
“Read the paper,” she says without missing a beat. “If the question is really how do you get good research done, I think the source of a good idea, the source of a good research project starts by reading the paper, understanding the world, understanding the problems, and start from there.”