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Economics professor is among experts presenting at American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference

Surekha Rao is recognized as a national authority on gender inequity and wage gap

Tuesday Feb 10, 2015

Surekha Rao, Ph.D., Indiana University Northwest Associate Professor of Economics, lectured at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2015 Annual Meeting in San Jose, Calif. in February.

Each year, the five-day conference brings together thousands of leading scientists, engineers, educators, policymakers and journalists to discuss recent developments in science and technology and its impact on society. Conference organizers invited Rao, along with colleagues Pär Omling of the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg, and Kathrin Zippel of Northeastern University in Boston, to present their insights on achieving gender equity from an international perspective.

The presenters discussed the challenges that continue to impede women in reaching their full potential and noted that international variations on this topic are significant. The discussion focused on factors that influence gender inequity, especially economic prosperity alongside education. The session explored, on a global basis, interventions that empower women, and exemplary practices, such as peer review and networking, that have achieved some equity in Europe and Canada.

Rao’s invitation to speak at the AAAS meeting came as a result of a decade’s worth of research that examines the wage gap between women and men in a wide range of disciplines and occupations in the U.S. and other developed countries.

Rao said her research on this topic began in 2005 with a controversial remark by Larry Summers, then-president of Harvard University, and an economist, who triggered an international debate with his assertion that there were fewer women in science fields because of their innate abilities.

The debate that ensued gave Rao, a fellow economist, some food for thought. She wanted to know whether this perception exists in other countries, and if it occurs in disciplines outside of academia.

In 2006, Rao began work on a joint paper, titled “International Perspective on Issues in Gender, Science and Economic Development,” which was published in the Journal AIMS in 2008.

Rao explained that a major dimension of gender issues in science and economic development is the barriers to economic opportunities for women. Using data from 50 countries, Rao and her colleagues found that achievement in education and high per capita incomes are important factors that lead to the growth of female professional and technical workers. Gender empowerment measures that capture the role of women in decision making in a society is necessary but not sufficient for participation of women in science and technology.

Rao’s talk at the conference addressed the question of wide gender inequity and wage gaps throughout the developed world and how more women in STEM jobs may be our best chance to begin reducing this gap. Nineteen of the top 20 occupations in the U.S. are technology-related, she says.

However, regardless of field, women still get paid less than their male counterparts, Rao said, even in disciplines that are dominated by women, such as nursing.

Rao said that on average, women get paid about 77 cents to every dollar that a man earns in the U.S., and when you look at the data state-by-state, Indiana ranks among the lowest. In Lake County, Ind., in particular, the news is bleaker still. Here, women get paid 68 cents on every dollar a man earns.

Rao said the biggest challenge lies in finding solutions to the inequitable gender wage gap both on the home front and across the globe, but that creating awareness and having  conversations on the topic is a positive step.

“It is a generational imperative that we have gender equity in all areas,” she said. “This is both a societal and a public policy issue. For example, we need to advocate public policy and create social awareness on such issues as a segue for healthy work environments that respect gender equity. There are also cultural obstacles we need to overcome, such as the confidence gap among women, which serve as barriers to getting jobs and promotions. We must encourage more women to pursue higher education, and it’s even better if we can encourage them to study subjects that give them higher paying jobs. The onus is not just on economists and policy makers, but on all of us.”

Rao obtained her master’s degree from the Delhi School of Economics in India and her doctorate from the University of New England in Australia. She has held visiting professorships across Europe, India and the U.S. and delivered invited lectures at several national and international conferences and universities in Italy, Belgium, India and the U.S. She is a past president of the Indiana Academy of Social Sciences (IASS).

Her expertise lies in a broad range of topics from Bayesian econometrics and forecasting to gender inequality and sustainability. She is a leading expert on India, and has been a spokesperson for promoting Indo-US economic, business and academic relations through her teaching, research and community activities.

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