Recipient of the Carolyn Bell Shaw Award for 2018, Rohini Pande, is the Rafik Hariri Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard Kennedy School and Co-Director of Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD). She serves as Co-Editor of the Review of Economics and Statistics and an associate editor at many other journals. Her work examines how institutions can be designed to empower historically disadvantaged groups. In particular, she is known for research on gender and economic development, conducting groundbreaking work on changing institutions to give women control over their own social and economic lives. She earned her doctorate in economics from the London School of Economics in 1999, and served as an Assistant Professor of Economics at Columbia University, and as an Assistant and Associate Professor of Economics at Yale University. She grew up in Delhi, with her mother a renowned journalist and her father a public administrator.

In an interview with SheThePeople.TV’s Ideas Editor Kiran Manral, she discusses gender equality in the field of economics, her research on women and microfinance, how gender biases in economics can only be removed at the institutional level, rather than the individual level and more.

Congratulations on the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award. Given that awards, especially in the field of economics are so heavily skewed towards men, how did you feel smashing the ceilings of both gender and race with this one?  How can we advocate towards more women making it to the nomination stage for awards, and hopefully up the male-female ratio to more equitable levels?

Thank you. I’m very honoured by the award, but in this case, I didn’t come up against a glass ceiling (with respect to gender, at least) because it is an award for advancing women in the profession, and all recipients so far have been women. But your point is well taken on the need to recognize more women for their achievements, in economics and elsewhere. This is a challenge, because bias is ingrained into the systems of academia at all levels. For instance, a study showed that men progress through the profession and gain tenure whether they author or co-author papers, but women are penalized for co-authoring, especially when the co-author is a man. The implicit assumption is that the research is the man’s work.

Bias on the individual level is very hard to counteract, but there are ways of structuring processes and organisations to weed it out – for instance by making hiring processes blind or using quotas to increase female presence in areas where they have been systematically excluded. This type of de-biasing is the subject of a book by Iris Bohnet, my colleague at Harvard Kennedy School, called What Works: Gender Equality by Design. Achieving the equitable levels in the prizes and awards that you envision will require de-biasing across the profession.

Women are penalized for co-authoring, especially when the co-author is a man. The implicit assumption is that the research is the man’s work.

On race, it does appear to be the case that the gender balance in international pools of economists is often worse than US pools. However, this disparity is less understood and we need to collect more systematic data on this.

Here is what Carolyn Shaw Bell Award Recipient Rohini Pande said in her acceptance speech.

As a young girl growing up in India, especially the India of that time, I’m curious to know the reasons behind you opting for economics as a subject of study, given that the primary streams that students were prodded towards were engineering and medicine.

You’re right. I went to medical school for three days but then decided I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor. Economics was the only non-science course I could get into given that only done physics, biology, chemistry, and maths in my class 12 exams. One of the good things about economics is that it’s a subject one can move into from the sciences at multiple stages. We see several male economists like Raghuram Rajan who transitioned from engineering via an MBA. It would be great to see more women take that path.

I read that Jean Dreze, the Indian developmental economist was one of your inspirations. Could you tell us more about how he inspired your career choice?

Economists can often take a distanced, theoretical approach to vital questions such as economic inequality. They describe the economy in terms of a representative agent and ignore heterogeneity. This can make it hard to use economics to understand power structures and inequality. Drèze is mindful of the experience of the individual and he advocates combining scholarship with action to bring about change, an approach he calls “jholawala economics.”

This has informed my work: more and more I find that politics are inextricable from economics. It is pointless for an economist to try imitate a biologist or physicist and take a distanced, neutral approach to research. Social science is about people, and economic research will often be put to work empowering one person over another. I try to remain vigilant that my research empowers the disadvantaged.

Social science is about people, and economic research will often be put to work empowering one person over another. I try to remain vigilant that my research empowers the disadvantaged.

Your mother is a renowned journalist, your grandmother is a literary icon in India. Was there ever a desire to follow in their footsteps, in the field of writing, either journalism or fiction?

I often lack self-awareness but I’m reasonably aware of my limited writing skills.

Rohini Pande
Rohini Pande

Growing up with the legacy of such path breaking women, did you feel more sensitized to the issues that women in India face due to the double whammy of caste and patriarchy?

On the caste side, I was certainly among the lucky, not the unlucky. But the advantage of coming from a family of working women is that I assumed that I would do the same. Even my mother and grandmother were of an elite caste, there were still restrictions on their mobility, but they migrated for education and this was enormously valuable to their sense of independence and career paths. My grandmother went to school in West Bengal which was very far away from her native Gujarat, and she was lucky to have parents that permitted that. Both she and my mother studied away from home. In contrast, I went to a college in Delhi that didn’t have a women’s hostel, so it wouldn’t have been accessible to women like my mother and grandmother. In India, we often focus on higher education for women but don’t think about the facilities being provided for them.

In India, we often focus on higher education for women but don’t think about the facilities being provided for them.

You arrived at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. How important do you think it is for young girls in India to see and read about women like yourself who have broken through traditional gender biases in fields like economics and STEM, and how can we encourage young girls to explore career options in these fields?

Careers in STEM are more rewarding, economically speaking, than most other fields that are more accepting of women. So when girls are inhibited from developing their skills in science and maths, they face another double whammy (to use your expression):  their spectrum of life choices is reduced, and so is their earning potential.

Role models are important – my research has demonstrated this clearly. In 1993, India passed a law mandating that one-third of seats on gram panchayats be reserved for women. I conducted a study with coauthors Lori Beaman,  Esther Duflo, and Petia Topalova that examined what happened when villages were required to include female leaders. When villagers witnessed women holding positions of power,  that made parents raise their career aspirations for their daughters, and daughters for themselves.

We conducted surveys of parents and their adolescent children in 495 villages, and found that the gender gap in career aspirations closed by 25 percent for parents and 32 percent for adolescents in communities that had a female leader for two election cycles.

When villagers witnessed women holding positions of power, that made parents raise their career aspirations for their daughters, and daughters for themselves.

Not only that, but the presence of female leaders changed how girls lived their day-to-day lives: the gender gap in educational attainment was completely erased and girls spent less time on household chores.

It is possible that seeing women in STEM careers might affect girls’ aspirations in a similar way. So it is important for the increasing numbers of women doing good work in science to make themselves visible.

Read other Stories in the WomenOfTheDiaspora Series

As a woman in the field of economics, would you say you have faced any biases or inherent sexism given the predominance of men in this field? If yes, how do you think these need to be countered and dealt with?

Yes, I and other women face hurdles throughout academia, and again, the key is to de-bias the system rather than trying to change individual minds. In my acceptance speech for the Carolyn Shaw Bell award, I went into detail on specific steps that leaders in academia can take to de-bias the profession.

Yes, I and other women face hurdles throughout academia, and again, the key is to de-bias the system rather than trying to change individual minds.

Your work, extensive as it is, has focused on India and on women as well. Over the years, what has been your primary takeaway about the role of women in the Indian economy?

Women are largely excluded from the economy, and India is paying a price for it. A 2018 report by the research firm McKinsey estimated India’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) could rise an additional 18% or 770 billion US dollars over its business- as-usual GDP by 2025, if it raised its rate of women in the workforce. Surveys show that women want to work outside the home. One current focus of my research is on how giving women control over the money they earn can increase their autonomy, lead them to work more and make improvements in their quality of life.

A related question that my co-authors and I are exploring is how access to mobile phones figures into financial autonomy. India has a wide gap in mobile access: 71% of men own mobile phones, but only 38% of women do. Mobile phones are increasingly a tool for earning, so we are interested in finding ways of closing the gap.

Mobile phones are increasingly a tool for earning, so we are interested in finding ways of closing the gap.

In recent times, there seems to have been an increased focus on women in workspace, with regards to India. You have also done extensive research in this space, as well as experiments with micro-financing. Could you tell us a bit about this research, its findings and how microfinance has the potential to boost female entrepreneurship in India.

The case of microfinance is interesting. Back when microfinance institutions started operating in the 1970s and 80s, one of the first exciting discoveries was that you can give a loan to a very poor woman – which may be her first connection to any formal institution, indeed her first link to the larger world outside the home – and she will pay it back and take out another one. Some of the later research on microfinance lost sight of this benefit to women’s lives. It attempted to measure the power of microfinance to lift people out of poverty, and found that it usually didn’t. My research on microfinance with Erica Field and other co-authors is trying to change the conversation and examine the ways that microfinance can be tailored to improve outcomes for poor women – whether the improvements are financial, social, or something else. One thing we have found is meeting with the loan repayment groups (which are typically required as a condition for loans) increase women’s social networks. Women who take out loans together stay in touch and help each other out. Modest improvements in the lives of the poor such as this should not be overlooked. You can read more about my research on microfinance in this blog post.

How do we get more women into the workplace, and how do we help them stay there? What are the policies both at the governmental level and company level that can keep women from dropping out of the workforce, especially in countries like India?

What’s striking in India is the low levels of entry into the labour force among women. The key issue we face is how to get women working before they get married, especially in rural areas. The jobs are not in villages, they’re in the city, and you see men migrating for work but not women. If you look at a country like China, you see relatively high migration rates among women between the ages of 16 and 20, and you don’t see that in India. Labour force participation is highly linked to mobility, so just as with education, we should do more to solve these problems by creating safe places for women to live.

Labour force participation is highly linked to mobility, so just as with education, we should do more to solve these problems by creating safe places for women to live.

With the 2019 elections coming up in India, female representation in the political arena has been contentious and unequal. How do quotas help, and how has your research found that it impacts young female voters to become participants in the electoral process.

The research I mentioned earlier shows that exposure to women leaders increases women’s electability in the long run. This is because across all voters, both men and women, people become more likely to vote for women once they’ve seen they can lead.

And the quota-mandated presence of female leaders raised girls’ aspirations to lead. I am in favour of expanding gender-based quotas because they have been shown to work.

Finally, how important is it to have women economists at policy making levels at both governmental and global levels? How can including more women at the table substantially impact policies in a manner that keeps women’s issues at the forefront?

Bringing in more voices and more diversity will give better representations to policy preferences across the table. But women work on many issues, gender-related and otherwise. For instance, Gita Gopinath, who has just been appointed the first female Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, and I were both studying in Delhi at the same time. These were the years when quotas were being introduced, and I found that issue to be worth researching. Gita noted India’s structural loans under the IMF and got interested in international policy issues. Now she’s known for her work on exchange rates and international finance.

So women, like men, will work on the issues they find important. Penny Goldberg is the new Chief Economist at the World Bank, and she works on trade issues. Rachel Glennerster is the Chief Economist at the UK’s Department for International Development, and she works on poverty. The effect of having these women in these top positions is that younger women know they can play a vital role in deciding economic policy.

The effect of having women in top positions is that younger women know they can play a vital role in deciding economic policy.

Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV

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