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Francine Blau receives top labor economics award

Francine D. Blau, ILR '66, credited with changing the way scholars and policymakers think about the role of gender in pay and other economic issues, is the 2010 winner of the prestigious IZA Prize in Labor Economics, the Institute for the Study of Labor, an international think tank in Bonn, Germany, announced today (Sept. 30).

The honor carries a prize of about $67,000.

Blau, the Frances Perkins Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Labor Economics at Cornell's ILR School, "laid the foundation for more equality and equity in the labor market," according to the institute.

The first woman to receive the recognition, Blau will accept the award Jan. 8 in Denver.

"The award is a great honor for ILR and Cornell and well-deserved recognition for Professor Blau's enormous contributions to the world of work," said Harry Katz, the ILR School's Kenneth F. Kahn Dean and Jack Sheinkman Professor.

Blau said that it is especially gratifying to be recognized for work on gender issues, which was considered risky professional territory -- particularly for women -- in the 1970s.

Women received only 7 percent of doctorates in economics when Blau earned hers from Harvard University in 1975; studying gender could have compromised her career in a field with many untested corners for women academics, she said.

Nevertheless, Blau was not dissuaded from her interest at a time when "Occupational segregation was all around me," she said -- the medical and legal fields were dominated by men, and elementary schools and libraries by women.

"It suggested to me the importance of the issue," she said in an interview this week.

Gender and labor economics proved fertile research ground; Blau has published key pieces of the field's foundational literature.

"Francine Blau's work is highly relevant for decision makers in politics and business because it shows that we need to significantly improve the labor market integration of women in order to meet the challenges of an aging labor force and growing skills shortages," said Klaus F. Zimmermann, director of the institute. IZA, its acronym, is drawn from the German translation of the institute's name.

The award, he said, recognizes Blau's seminal contributions to the analysis of labor market inequality.

Through pioneering use of detailed micro-level data, Blau assessed potential causes for gender pay differentials, such as qualification differences, Zimmerman said.

Blau's research, spanning four decades, has revealed patterns of change and identified areas where answers are still lacking, he said. For instance, her work shows that the overall gender pay gap has decreased, but that the remaining gap is no longer mainly explained by differences in qualifications and skills.

Instead, labor market discrimination and the fact that women are still primarily responsible for child care and housework duties lowers labor market attachment and limits employment opportunities, Blau has found.

Improved integration of family and work is key to achieving labor market equity and efficiency, according to findings by Blau, whose work has also influenced labor economists' thinking on migration and racial discrimination.

After serving on the faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, she joined the Cornell faculty in 1994.

A former vice president of the American Economic Association, Blau served as chair of its Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. She is a former president of the Society of Labor Economists and of the Labor and Employment Relations Association.

Blau, a National Bureau of Economic Research associate, has published important research with her husband, ILR Professor Larry Kahn.

A collection of Blau's key research findings will be part of the IZA Prize Book Series published by Oxford University Press.

Mary Catt is the ILR School's staff writer.

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