April 21, 2007
The economics profession, long dominated by men, for the first time has given one of the discipline's top prizes to a woman.
The American Economic Association announced Friday that Susan Athey, a 36-year-old professor at Harvard University with professional interests ranging from deepest economic theory to Canadian timber auctions, had won the prestigious John Bates Clark medal, awarded every two years to the nation's most promising economist under the age of 40. No woman had won the medal in its 60-year history.
Some past recipients have been chosen to spotlight a particular avenue of economic research, but that wasn't the case this time. Colleagues saw the medal as recognition of the breadth, depth and impact of Prof. Athey's wide-ranging body of work. They also saw it as an important signal of encouragement to other women, both already in the field and considering economics as a career.
"I'm amazed and thrilled," said Prof. Athey. "It's hard to believe my name will be added to such a distinguished list."
Recipients of the John Bates Clark medal don't get a large financial award, but it has often been a harbinger of greater things to come. Of the 29 previous winners, 11 have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in economics. Others have played major roles in government: Both Martin Feldstein and Joseph Stiglitz have headed the president's Council of Economic Advisors, and former Harvard President Lawrence Summers did a stint as Treasury Secretary. Steve Levitt, co-author of the bestselling book "Freakonomics," was also a Clark medalist.
The choice of Prof. Athey is "a very good thing" for economics, said John Roberts, a professor at Stanford Business School in California who advised on her doctoral dissertation. "The fraction of the economics profession that's female is discouragingly low, and Susan has worked hard to do something about that." As of 2006, about 8% of all full professors in Ph.D.-granting economics programs were female, according to the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession.
Prof. Athey has been a rising star in economics since her doctoral dissertation -- on a new way to analyze how people respond to rising uncertainty -- created a stir on the academic job market in 1995, leading the nation's top economics departments to court her. She ultimately chose the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., but later moved to Stanford and then last year returned to Cambridge to join Harvard. She is one of a number of female economists who have risen to prominence in recent years. They include MIT's Esther Duflo, who focuses on field experiments and development economics; Amy Finkelstein, also of MIT, who does health economics; and University of Chicago financial economist Monica Piazzesi.
"You can point to multiple fields of economics where one of the very top stars is a woman," Prof. Athey said. "That's been a really exciting change in the last five to 10 years."
Prof. Athey said she first took an interest in economics in the early 1990s when she was a junior at Duke University, making money on the side selling personal computers to the government at procurement auctions. Robert Marshall, a microeconomics specialist for whom she worked as a research assistant, suggested she help him look into a flaw she saw in the auctions: The low cost of disputing the results appeared to be encouraging losers to protest an inordinate number of outcomes, which often enabled them to get pay