World-class Economist

Blau '66 wins international prize
World-class Economist
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An ILR professor was the first to identify Fran Blau's talent for economics.

"Excellent paper. You should major in economics," read the note on her exam.

When a second professor mentioned her penchant for the field, Blau began to consider it as a career.

Cornell's Frances Perkins Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Labor Economics accepted the prestigious IZA Prize for Labor Economics at an event in Denver, Colo., last weekend.

"Her work has profoundly shaped the view of scholars and policymakers on the causes and consequences of gender differences in economic outcomes, and on policies for advancing women's labor market position and well being," according to the IZA, an international think tank in Bonn, Germany.

While teaching and leading breakthrough research, she and her husband, ILR Professor Larry Kahn, were also raising a son and a daughter, now 31 and 29.

"Combining work and family -- it is hard, sometimes. But, it can help balance life and give perspective," Blau said in an interview.

A joyous two-year-old child running to you with "Mommy, Mommy" after a few hours of separation, she said, can help diminish the frustration of a hard day at the office.

And, when that two year old is having a tantrum, it can be helpful to remember what went well at work. So, career and family often complement and reinforce one another, Blau said.

Few economists were working on gender issues when Blau started out.

When some questioned her research focus, it sometimes smarted.

Blau kept at it, though, guided by passion for the issues.

"You have to follow your interests. Only in this way will you do your best work," she said.

Persistence, Blau said, is also important.

"Regardless of whether you are a man or a woman or what field you are in, there will be ups and downs, successes and disappointments. The important thing is to persevere."

Recognition now "by people in my field who are familiar with my work -- it makes me so proud."

In The New York Times last fall, the Freakonomics blog cited Blau's achievements.

"She's smart, savvy, tackles important problems, and also incredibly generous in helping younger scholars and colleagues with their own research ..." wrote Wharton School economist Justin Wolfers.

"The topics that she's done important research on -- topics like gender differences, inequality, race, immigration, welfare, education, marriage, labor market institutions, occupational choice -- read like a virtual catalog of the central debates in labor economics," he said.

As the eleventh winner of the IZA award, "Fran now joins a virtual Who's Who of the great and the good in labor ... Fran is the first woman to join that list. In a field that is rarely encouraging of such views, she's an unabashed feminist."

Blau graduated from ILR in 1966, when men far outnumbered women students. Nationally, women received about seven percent of doctorates in economics when Blau was awarded hers from Harvard University in 1975.

After serving on the faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, she joined the ILR faculty in 1994.

Blau is known in her field for pioneering the use of micro-level data on the occupational level and for assessing the relative importance of potential causes for gender pay differentials, such as differences in qualifications between men and women, and labor market discrimination, according to the IZA.

Her research shows "that the overall gender pay gap has decreased, but the remaining gap is no longer mainly explained by differences in qualifications and skills. Instead, labor market discrimination and the fact that women are still primarily responsible for child care and housework duties lowers females' labor market attachment and limits their employment opportunities," the organization said.

Blau's work, it said, shows "A better integration of family and work is therefore one of the keys to achieving equity and efficiency in the labor market."

Related Destination: 

Policy Influence, Internationally: Blau receives top labor economics award for work in labor market inequality and other research