Women in Economics: Heidi Hartmann
This 21-minute podcast was released Oct. 4, 2023.
“Economics does provide a very powerful tool for changing public policy,” says Heidi Hartmann, founder, president emerita and senior research economist of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, who currently serves as a distinguished economist and resident at the Program on Gender Analysis in Economics at American University. Hartmann talks with Maria Hasenstab of External Engagement & Corporate Communications division at the St. Louis Fed.
Maria Hasenstab: Welcome to the St. Louis Fed’s Women in Economics Podcast Series where we interview women who are making their marks in the field of economics. I’m Maria Hasenstab, your host. In this episode, we speak with Heidi Hartmann who founded the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Heidi currently serves as a distinguished economist and resident at the Program on Gender Analysis in Economics at American University. She has served many other notable roles in economics, and since this podcast is a product of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, I also want to acknowledge that you, Heidi, are a research fellow at the Institute for Economic Equity here at the St. Louis Fed.
Heidi, thank you so much for joining us.
Heidi Hartmann: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
Hasenstab: Heidi, I’d like to hear more about your current work, so let’s jump right in. Let’s talk about your role at American University.
Hartmann: Well, that gives me a chance to do independent research with the support of the library and occasional students. And so it’s a very valuable perch. I currently want to summarize the huge amount of academic research that has come out on paid family leave, paid sick days, paid medical leave. We really haven’t had a large amount of research except for the last five, maybe 10 years, and it’s fantastic. When we first started working in this area, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, there was almost nothing.
Hasenstab: Well, that sounds so interesting. We just mentioned you’re the president emeritus of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which you founded in 1987 as a way to bring social science research findings to bear on policy issues that affect women of all races and economic and social backgrounds. Tell us, how did you come to create this institute? And you were the President and CEO for more than three decades. Tell us about leading that institute for such a long tenure.
Hartmann: Well, some story that goes back a way, I mean, even when I was in graduate school in economics at Yale University, it was a time period when so many organizations and institutions were starting. For example, Florence House started the Feminist Press then, or at least had the idea for it, People in URPE, the Union for Radical Political Economics, started Dollars and Cents, which was trying to improve economic literacy among the general population. There were lots of projects like that, and I thought, “You know, it would be fun to have a feminist think tank.” But if you asked me what a feminist think tank actually did, I’m sure I would have had very little idea. It was just kind of words that sounded good.
So, after I got my Ph.D., I taught for a couple years. And after doing that, I really had a feeling that I did want to get more into the real world. So I moved to Washington, D.C. I worked for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights where a psychologist, Sandra Tangri, was starting a research office there, which I don’t think they had had before, and it was going to be looking at genders as well as race and ethnicity.
I did that for a couple years, and then I heard about this great project at the National Academy of Sciences where they’re going to be looking at something I hadn’t really heard of. And it’s a concept called comparable worth, or equal pay for jobs of equal value. So this is where someone might say, “Gee, secretaries have a lot of skills and responsibility and so on. In skills and responsibility, they’re equal to truck drivers. Yet truck drivers outearn secretaries. Why is that?” For one that was very famous, they found in a public wage scale, because those are the only wage scales that are truly public like city civil service, state civil service. They found that parking garage attendants who were almost universally male made more than child care workers who were almost universally female within this state government. And that just seemed shocking to people. So this whole concept started to gain ground then. That was in the late ‘70s through the ‘80s. There were lawsuits, there were strikes, there were all kinds of things trying to bring it to the floor. And it actually had come from World War II when women were organizing to get more equal pay. They were doing the jobs that men had left, and they were still doing the women’s jobs, and why should the pay be so unequal between those two kinds of jobs? So, it’s a concept that I think is going to come back now. I’ve heard more young women talking about it as they’re more and more familiar with the labor market, working more in the labor market than virtually any other generation, and they have more education, and they’re pretty close now to young men in pay. But there’s still a lot of things that aren’t right, and one of those things is child care workers, social workers, what’s going on here? Teachers, what’s going on here? So, I think that concept of comparable worth might start to come back.
So I worked on that for a couple of years at the National Academy of Sciences. I stayed there a few more years, and I realized that I was getting a lot of experience in writing proposals, in developing research for public policy, because the National Academy of Sciences is essentially an advisory group. It’s a private group, but it’s essentially advisory to the Federal Government. They put together experts to study issues that the Federal Government agencies and departments have questions about. So, I said, “It’s time to start that think tank.”
My friend, Terry Odendahl, an anthropologist living in Washington at the time said, “Heidi, I heard you’re talking about that idea for years. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to help you write the proposal, because you’re not writing the proposal.” And so we really founded it together, because she helped me write the proposal, and she really showed me how to go around where the small foundations are, a lot of them in New York, and sell a new idea to small foundations. The foundations I’d worked with at the National Academy of Sciences were all the big, prestige ones. Ford, Rockefeller, so on.
And when I went to them, they said, “Oh. We don’t need another think tank on women. There’s lots of women’s research centers. Look, they’re all over the universities.” And I said, “Yeah, but they’re not policy think tanks, and what we really need is a policy think tank that can do original research like is done in academia, and also can bring academic research to the policy process. Not just in Washington, but around the country. Lots of state governments would like that kind of research too.” So that was the idea and the concept, and we did get it going. We started with those very small grants. Eventually those bigger foundations came in, and those foundations have been its main source of funding.
Hasenstab: Well, that’s so great that you also took a nudge from a friend to help encourage you.
Let’s back up and talk about your education. You just mentioned you got your Ph.D. from Yale. You studied economics at Swarthmore College before getting your Ph.D. at Yale. How did you choose to study economics?
Hartmann: Well, when I went to Swarthmore, I thought I would be a math major. I love math. But when I got there, I sort of thought, “You know, I think math majoring is maybe a little bit not what I really want to do.” And I had taken economics as an introductory course my freshman year, because not only did they have a distribution requirement at Swarthmore, which I think is fine, but one of my senior social studies American history class had a six-week unit on economics. I don’t think I remembered anything about it except the supply and demand lines, and where they meet the quantity sold, and the price will be set. So with that concept, I said, “Well, might as well try economics.” Swarthmore didn’t have sociology or anthropology at the time. It had basically economics, political science and psychology.
Hasenstab: That seemed to work out okay.
Hasenstab: This podcast series launched in 2018 as a way to share the experiences of women who are making their marks in the field with the ultimate goal of inspiring more women and members of underrepresented minorities to consider studying and working in economics. Based on your experience and also your research, why do you think it’s important to encourage more women to study and pursue careers in economics?
Hartmann: Well, economics does provide a very powerful tool for changing public policy. And frankly, one of the reasons I took that economics class as well, or more particularly the reason I wound up majoring in it is that I realized it does have an impact on public policy. I think I wrote a paper on the sales tax, and what was good about it, and what was bad about it in New Jersey, my home state, in one of my courses. And also, I had not grown up privileged at all. It was a miracle I could go to Swarthmore. That was a matter of getting scholarships. My mom and father had to divorce when I was four, because he was a gambler and he was spending all her money. I don’t really know that he ever really worked. She did the work and made the money. And there were two of us to support, my brother and me. And it just seemed clear that men were doing better. The average man could support a wife at home and more kids at that time in the ‘50s, the period I remember. And so I always had that in the back of my mind, and I think that really led me to major in economics. So I would encourage people to major in economics.
I think what happens now in a lot of schools is that economics was built as a way to Wall Street, as a way to make money, as part of the business sector. That’s not really true. You can view it as part of the social sciences, part of the policy sciences. And like engineering, you can view that as a great way to help people. And economics is too.
Hasenstab: I love that. It’s a great way to help people. Heidi, you’ve had ample experience speaking publicly. You’ve testified before Congress. You’ve been interviewed by and cited in national media outlets, including CNN and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and more. So talk about the balance of doing such important research, and then being out publicly speaking on broadcasting these messages, speaking on these topics.
Hartmann: Well, one reason you’re kind of driven to get in the media or try to get in the media is that that’s a great way to have an impact on public policy. We did not lobby it at WPR. We provided information only. But if we went around to congressional offices with a report under our arm and wanted to talk about it with a staff person or rarely a member of Congress, they’re usually too busy, they would all say, “Oh, I saw this in the New York Times.”
Hasenstab: That’s a great way to get noticed.
Hartmann: Strangely enough, it’s a channel that gives you your immediate credibility. And it’s also what I call filling the airspace.
We realized that what we had to do was stay on the air. Get the idea that the wage gap is real, that it reflects inequality and discrimination. Not the whole wage gap, but some portion of the wage gap definitely reflects discrimination. There’s been a lot of research to show that. Because we realized if you don’t fill up the airspace, the other side automatically wins.
We would release our study on the wage gap every year, and some years we’d call the press and they would say, “What’s new? Same old thing, same old thing. Women don’t make as much as men. What’s new?” You know, it was very frustrating. So, we used to have to figure out a way to present it in a new way. So, one year I’m looking at the data, looking at the data, “What’s new here?” And I realized that in this state where women were paid the highest of all the states, including D.C. as a state, and you compared it to what the men were earning in all the states and D.C., the state with the highest-paid woman earned less than the average of the lowest paid state for men. So that’s new, that’s different. Okay. The state with top women’s wages, the top women earn less than the state with the lowest men’s wages. That’s really pretty bad. And I think that kind of shows a comparable worth problem, right? Because it can’t possibly be all about them being in the same jobs and being paid that little. It’s not. It’s that men and women are in different jobs. Women do the bulk of the caregiving jobs, men do the bulk of the construction jobs, most of the manufacturing jobs, most of the transportation jobs, until recently most of the communications jobs. But even now, because communications is a big field, men still dominate.
Hasenstab: Wow, Heidi, that’s so interesting, and it really ties into the conversations on equity with William M. Rogers that you’ve done here recently at the St. Louis Fed. Bill’s the director of the Institute for Economic Equity. And I know in that conversation with Bill, you discussed women workforce, and the wage gap. What are some of the takeaways when you examine the pay gaps and other structural barriers that have historically prevented women from benefitting fully from their labor, but continue to do so today?
Hartmann: Well, it’s interesting. When I started studying this, the wage ratio was about 60%. Women earning 60% of what men do, leaving a 40% wage gap. Now it’s creeping up to over 83-84, depending on which data series you look at. So, I look at that and I say, “Wow, that’s a lot of progress. We’ve more than half closed the wage gap. Isn’t that great? There’s only 15% left.” Young women go, “That’s disgusting.” So, it all depends on your perspective how terrible it is, but it’s still a huge cause to women and their families. And a lot of men are now behind equalizing women’s pay too, because they’re like, “My wife is working as hard as I am. Why isn’t she bringing home as many bucks? Our family could use the extra bucks.” So it’s definitely a real challenge. One of the other things is you find that as unequal as wages are, that whole lifetime of those unequal wages comes home to roost in your retirement. You know that you’re much more unequal. And many married women can have a share of the husband’s pensions. Some do it 50/50, some will have the higher survivor’s pension should he die early. And that helps, but it doesn’t really make up for the fact that you work all that time, and you have bupkis compared to your husband. So, it is still a significant problem.
What to do about it? That’s very difficult. We’ve had almost no federal law about the wage gap since 1963 when the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. We had the Lilly Ledbetter Act, but frankly, it just corrected a poor Supreme Court decision, so it wasn’t really anything new. It was just fixing something idiotic that the Supreme Court did. So, it’s a struggle to get economic issues effecting women, lower income people, people of color through Congress. There’s just a huge resistance to working on economic issues.
And the amazing (thing) to me was that in the early days of the pandemic, we passed a law under President Trump about family rescue, and a lot of economic things were in there. Paid family leave, it was the first time the federal government had supported paid family leave, but it did for the pandemic. And the only reason it got in there, of course, was that advocates and other members of Congress had been working on it for 15-20 years, at least. So, there’s always a preparation that makes it look like it just happened like that. All these people behind the scenes working on it, research done at IWPR and other places. So, there’s a big background to it, but sometimes it just goes through so quickly. Like, you blink and it’s there.
Hasenstab: Well, that’s a good point that you brought up, because we’ve talked about your public role. But like you said, there’s often 12, 15, 20 years of background work before something is included in legislation. Economics as many times as someone might be out there publicly sharing these messages, they’re also in the background doing that research, sharing that, supporting that, and helping some of those things come to fruition.
Hartmann: But you did ask me about the pay gap, and if you really want to know what we can do about that.
Hasenstab: Yes. What can we do about that pay gap?
Hartmann: Well, stronger anti-discrimination laws, stronger enforcement. There have been some new things that have been tried in the state, like what’s called transparency where everybody’s wages are open on the job instead of hidden. More like the public sector. The public sector has better wage ratios, smaller wage gap than the private sector. And also openness when you’re searching for a job where they have to say what the wage range is for the job they’re advertising. So, none of those are required nationally yet. So that’s a help.
Countries do have some comparable worth legislation that has helped bring up the wages for women’s jobs. This equal opportunity in terms of getting into the higher paid men’s jobs. That’s in hiring and promotion, and it’s kind of hard to get at that discrimination, because you have to have a lot of records that you might not have about who applied and you don’t know where they are now. But that would be very important, and that is something I think that could be addressed through we’ll call it consciousness raising in the schools, in the colleges. And that has been happening. Barbie might have helped. She saw women police people, doctors. But Barbies became everything. Mail carriers, bus drivers. So, I think that kind of imagery does help.
Hasenstab: Yeah, absolutely. Heidi, I want to ask you, is there anything else you’d like to discuss about women in economics?
Hartmann: Well, I do think the idea of saving for your retirement is worthwhile. One of the things that people have found in studying wealth accumulation is that having a good job that helps you save is critical. And those jobs would be jobs that have health insurance. If it’s not on the job, you can probably get it through the Affordable Care Act plan, which is universal. And there are subsidies for low- and moderate-income people, but you might still feel it’s less affordable than what you could get at work. So looking for a job that has health benefits, that has vacation and sick leave, and paid family leave, ideally. Paid family leave can be used not just for maternity and new baby care, but taking care of your ailing mom, or your ailing spouse, or your ailing older children. So it’s very important. The reason vacation is important is because if they don’t have those other things, often you can use some of your vacation time to fill that need.
So you want to look for a good job, and it doesn’t have to be high paying, if you don’t have the skills or educational background to get a high paying job. You still can often find a job that will have these other things. And so that would be a good thing to do, because that is going to help you save over your lifetime, and therefore prepare you for a better retirement.
Hasenstab: That’s great advice. Heidi, I want to thank you so much for your time today. To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit www.stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. We’re also on Apple Podcast, Spotify and wherever you like to listen to podcasts. Heidi, thank you so much for sharing your story today.
Hartmann: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.