Meet the Team: Patricia Cortes, Human Capital Initiative

Patricia Cortes is a Core Faculty Member at the Human Capital Initiative (HCI) at the Global Development Policy Center and an Associate Professor of Markets, Public Policy, and Law at the Boston University Questrom School of Business.

She is an empirical labor economist working on international migration and gender. In her work, she has studied how low-skilled immigration affects prices and the labor supply of high skilled women in the US, female migration flows in East Asia, the migration of Filipino nurses to the US, and the role of the demand for time flexibility in explaining gender pay gaps and occupation segregation. Her ongoing projects include a study on the effect of immigration restrictions on the labor market in Saudi Arabia, an investigation of gender differences in negotiation and job search using experimental methods and a study of automation and gender. She obtained her PhD in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Master’s and Bachelor degrees in Economics from La Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

Below, Patricia discusses her research interests in human capital, gender inequality in the labor market, and the importance of affordable and high-quality childcare:

Why did you join the GDP Center Human Capital Initiative and what drew you to study human capital in the first place?

Everything started thanks to Samuel Bazzi, a former HCI faculty member. I remember he talked to me about the Human Capital Initiative and invited me to join and become involved with the GDP Center. I was very excited when I found out that there were other professors and scholars at Boston University interested in the study of human capital and I decided to join right away. It was also a good way to expand my network outside of the Questrom School of Business, where I am a professor.

What are your current research interests and how does your research align with the HCI?

The main focus of my research right now is on understanding the drivers of gender inequality, particularly in labor market outcomes. The labor market is where individuals use their human capital to contribute to the production of goods and services in the economy and get compensated for it. Human capital is also accumulated in the job, by learning by doing and training opportunities. When women face constraints in the household and barriers in the labor market, they cannot reach the full potential of their human capital. My work aims to understand these constraints and barriers and help develop policies to eliminate them.

My work has had a US focus, but I have also studied gender inequities in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and East Asia. The sources of gender gaps vary somewhat across countries, but, surprisingly, the key fundamental reasons of gender inequality are very similar across countries and societies.

The GDP Center is an interdisciplinary research center that encourages cooperation among researchers of different backgrounds and expertise. How is interdisciplinarity important to you in your work?

Interdisciplinarity is very important in my work. I was attracted to the GDP Center because there is a diverse group of people studying gender as I do, but with different perspectives and I really value this aspect. For instance, right now, Rachel Brulè is focusing on gender inequality in politics and resource allocation and Mahesh Karra focuses on women’s reproductive health in developing countries. It is always constructive to see different perspectives and angles of the same phenomenon, more so when we all have the same goal: to reduce gender inequities.

In one of your recent working papers, “Children and the Remaining Gender Gaps in the Labor Market,” you and your co-author found that parenthood produces different labor outcomes for men and women. Specifically, you document that, in the US, close to two-thirds of the overall gender earnings gap can be accounted for by the differential impacts of children. From a policy perspective, how do you hope to leverage your study?

That’s an interesting question. One of the main takeaways from the study is the role of traditional gender roles in explaining the much larger negative effect of having children on the career of women versus that of men. Even when women are more talented than their husbands and have better prospects in the labor market, they tend to reduce their labor supply much more than their partners after the birth of their first child. Unfortunately, there are no policies that will easily and rapidly change this dynamic.

That said, the provision of affordable and high-quality childcare can help women return successfully to the labor market, when they are ready to do so. More access to flexible jobs can also ameliorate the gender gap in the labor market.

What is something you’ve done in your research that you never imagined you would do?

Something I did and never thought I would do is to wear an abaya – a long cloth covering all my body when I was conducting a research project in Saudi Arabia. It was not optional, I had to do it full stop. I never thought I would have to hide my body like that. I had to experience a society with so much gender inequality and extreme sexism, beyond what I thought I would ever experience. As a woman, I also could not sit in the same place as men anywhere, including at a conference, where there was a seating divide between men and women.

How has the outbreak of COVID-19 affected your work, as well as research interests?

COVID-19 has brought to light a lot of the struggle that women experience in balancing family and work responsibilities. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the labor force participation of women has decreased significantly more than men. One of the main reasons is the increase in at home childcare, which has mostly been borne by women.

Relatedly, I began a project looking at other ways in which the pandemic can have lasting effects on the labor market outcomes of women versus men. First, as in many households, both fathers and mothers work from home now, and the household responsibilities have increased, they might share childcare and house duties more equally. It is interesting to study if changing dynamics due to the pandemic will have permanent effects on the distribution of household work between partners.

The other potential silver lining is that with more working from home, jobs could become more flexible. Before the pandemic, people with flexible jobs were penalized the most, but now we understand that many tasks can be done virtually. It is interesting to study whether there is a permanent change in the nature of jobs that will benefit women, who usually value flexibility more. Currently, we are running some surveys and following some households to understand how and if the distribution of household work has changed, how much time individuals spend working from home, and how much they value flexibility. Hopefully, once the pandemic has strongly weakened, we will be able to run another survey and observe any permanent changes in households.

On a personal note, I had never worked from home before the pandemic. I loved my office, because it is where I felt the most productive. Out of necessity, however, I started working from home and became even more productive than before; it was a good learning lesson.

If you could make one policy change overnight, what would it be?

I would like to offer the provision of affordable and high-quality childcare. I think that this would be beneficial for women, children, and the economy, as women will be able to remain in the labor force. Affordable and good childcare would also reduce inequality, because child care is expensive and only richer people can afford it. If child care is subsidized or publicly provided, these inequalities would be substantially reduced.

What advice would you give to others interested in studying gender, international migration, and labor?

In my dissertation, I ended up implementing an idea based on a book written by a sociologist. This would not be the standard source of inspiration for a traditional economist. But reading that book made me understand the phenomenon I was tracking even better and it was great for generating ideas. Thus, what I suggest is to look for different perspectives, be open to new fields and approaches. I also think is important to talk to the subjects of your research, for example, if one would like to study gender or migration, talk to women and migrants, it will help you to better understand their situation. The same advice, when studying another country, talk to natives of that country and spend time understanding the context.

What book, podcast, film, TV show, activity are you enjoying right now?

I am spending more time with my daughter and together we are doing a lot of advanced baking – for instance we cooked a Japanese cheesecake and a crepe cake!  I am also enjoying cooking more intricate recipes and sharing them with my family.


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