Interview with Professor Karen Mumford

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Karen Mumford is a professor of economics at the University of York. She received her doctorate in economics from the Australian National University (ANU) in 1991. She has taught at the ANU, the University of Warwick and the University of York. Karen is the chair of the Royal Economic Society Women’s Committee and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA). In this interview with Caroline Elliott, she discusses her views on economics, her most admired economists and the changing profile of women in the discipline.

CE: Where did you first study economics?

I didn’t really know about economics as a subject when I was a secondary school student in Australia. As with many students without much clue, my school advised me to keep my options open by taking maths and science for my higher school certificate (equivalent to A levels). I really liked chemistry, didn’t mind maths, and found physics quite dull so I decided to try something different at Uni. I enrolled in an Arts degree at Monash University planning to major in Social Work. By the end of the first year I realised that whilst I was loving university, I wasn’t going to make much of a social worker. I transferred into the Economics faculty and have felt right-at-home ever since.

CE: What attracted you to the subject and what keeps you interested?

Personally, as an academic, I like the mixture of rigorous theory, empirical analysis and policy application in economics.I never find it dull. Economics has a very broad application base: economics graduates can easily find jobs in the civil service, the city, industry or education. Somebody once said to me about choosing to study economics: “If you want to make a difference, you can. If you don’t want to make a difference, at least you can make a lot of money.”

CE: Which economist has influenced you most/do you have an economist hero? Why?

As essentially a neoclassical labour economist, unsurprisingly, the greatest influences for me would be Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall and Gary Becker. Adam Smith introduced a range of fundamental concepts including the invisible hand; the link between education, skills and wages; and concept of returns from specialisation. The application of these ideas runs right through modern labour economics. Marshall showed us how to use maths to share our ideas concisely, taught us about diminishing marginal productivity, and explained how imperfect competition can create quasi-rents (short term profits) that can be exploited. Becker fine-tuned our understanding of the linkage between education and productivity. He also greatly broadened what is considered to be relevant research topics for economists, he showed how you could explain a range of everyday family outcomes (marriage, divorce, how many children to have) with economic models based on the work of Smith and Marshall.

My economist heroes would be Francine Blau, David Card, Ron Oaxaca and John Pencavel: these are all very strong applied economists who appear to have no difficulty with critical analysis, empirical evidence, or making relevant policy predictions in their work. They are all also very decent human beings who take the time to be good teachers and to help their junior colleagues.

CE: Did you have any particularly memorable economics teachers and what made them memorable?

As an undergraduate student, I took a brilliant course on Competition and Regulation offered by Professors Maureen Brunt and Alan Fels. They very clearly explained the theory of competition, causes of market power, and the need for regulation. Brunt and Fels were both playing founding roles in the establishment of the Trade Practices Commission (which later became the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) at the time. It was excellent to have Professors who were so directly involved in policy in front of our classes. Professor Brunt was the first female professor in economics in Australia, and she was also the first senior female economist I had had as a teacher; I hadn’t seriously considered being an academic before her lectures. I found her an inspiration and a revelation.

CE: Tell us a bit about the Royal Economics Society Women’s Committee and your role as Chair.

The Women’s Committee was established in 1996, I was a founding member and Denise Osborn was the first Chair. After a gap of some 10 years, I was very happy to come back to Chair the Committee myself in 2009. Members of the committee are drawn from academia, business and the civil service. Most are elected but some are co-opted or appointed (such as our PhD student rep).

Our aim is very simple: to promote the role of women in the economics profession.

We use a range of activities to try to promote women.  A major task is collecting reliable data on the relative positions of male and female economists. For example, each year we collect evidence on all the academic economists in the UK. We analyse this data, provide information on changes over time, and make sure economics departments know how they are faring relative to each other and to national averages. We also seek to raise the representation of women in economics by establishing and supporting networks (with particular concern for career entrants). We run residential mentoring programmes for young economists and organise regular sessions on topics like “how to attract research funding” and “how to get published” at the RES conference. You can find out more about our other activities from our web pages.

CE: With women such as Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde holding high profile positions (at the Federal Reserve and the IMF respectively), do you think this will encourage more young women to go into economics?

I do think so. Seeing successful people that you can sympathise with (Adam Smith again) encourages you to consider taking a similar path.

CE: A recent Wall Street Journal article stated that despite rising profiles of women in economics, women still trailed men in academia; do you think this is the case? If so, what can be done to encourage change?

The position of women in academic economics has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Let’s consider the highest profile academics, the professors. In 1992, I believe there was one female professor in economics in the UK (Denise Osborn at Manchester). There are now dozens of female professors, with examples in all the research sub-disciplines in economics. Nevertheless, women currently only make up some 12% of the UK’s economics professors so we still have a long way to go. A good way to encourage change is to promote economics to all secondary school children as an exciting and valuable course to study (which it is) and to always do what we can to stop unfair discrimination – sadly the latter is often easier said than done.

CE: If you hadn’t been an economist what career would you have chosen?

Well, I wouldn’t like to be a physicist or a social worker,I worked in a cake shop throughout my undergraduate days and I’d rather not go back to being a shop assistant especially not as the pay has shown very little improvement. I love dusty old libraries so maybe as an archivist in the Borthwick Institute.

CE: Which five people (dead or alive) would you invite to your ideal dinner party? Why these individuals?

I wouldn’t invite Adam Smith as supposedly he never spoke about his work or anything he felt he knew about. I think I would invite my economics heroes (above) and perhaps also Elinor Ostrom (she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics).

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