Conversation with Barbara Petrongolo


For International Women's Day we spoke with Professor Barbara Petrongolo, to explore what led to her career in Economics, and what she thought could be improved upon to welcome more women into the field of Economics.


What led you to a career in Economics?

Barbara Petrongolo

I was drawn towards scientific disciplines like maths or statistics and at the same time I was interested in questions that are typical of the social sciences. The combination of these interests made economics a natural choice, and even more the choice of specializing in labour economics. Major events in people’s work life determine their economic fortunes and their happiness (or unhappiness). Often an individual’s career shapes their identity and their sense of worth for society.


Why aren’t there many women in the field of economics?

After decades of progress, the number of women in Economics has indeed been relatively flat for some time, and there is no unique or simple explanation for this. Perhaps women tend to be interested in different topics within economics – for example they are over-represented in fields like development, labour or health – and the image of economics that percolates to young people who enrol in university may still be biased towards fields like finance or macroeconomics. But some recent studies have also found evidence that women in economics may be held to higher standards than men in the publication process, or receive less credit for team work when it comes to tenure decisions, or even face more hostile questions during seminars. Thus one may not discard the hypothesis that there remaining biases against women in the profession. In addition, gender-neutral parental leave policies if anything seem to have exacerbated gender inequalities, as women mostly use their leave for childcare, while men devote more of this time to their research.


What motivates you in your work?

Doing research on topics that I genuinely care about and constantly learning from my co-authors, colleagues and students.



What do we need to change for women to take up space in the field of Economics?

We should be able to better describe the discipline of economics to young people who are making choices about their careers, so as to attract a healthy variety of interests and talents. As a profession, we should also constantly raise awareness about potential biases (explicit or implicit) against minorities and teach people how to recognize, condemn and redress them. I’m sure that, before the recent movement for gender equality, many economists would not even acknowledge that there could be biases against minorities. Several economic Societies and Organizations now have in place committees that do an excellent job at monitoring and promoting gender equality. Currently, women are largely over-represented on those committees, and having more men on board would send a very welcome signal that gender inequalities are not primarily a women’s issue, but instead a matter of misallocation of talent in the profession.


What has the last year taught you?

Health issues aside, we should be aware of our privilege – as academics – to be able to work across pandemic crises and lockdowns. Surely we have also learned how to make the most of online interactions, seminars and teaching. Once organizational change has taken place, it will be hard to unlearn it once the pandemic is over, and we will probably travel less than in the past and work from home more. But we will need to learn to strike the right balance between working remotely and nurturing a lively research environment in the office and at conferences. Otherwise we would miss out on informal face-to-face interactions that are most conducive to learning and to the generation of new research ideas.