Economics pioneers forged pathways for women at Yale

Susan Rose-Ackerman and Sharon Oster, two of the first women faculty in Yale’s economics department, had distinctive careers — and inspired many other women.

Susan Rose-Ackerman and Sharon Oster

When, in 1974, Susan Rose-Ackerman and Sharon Oster were among the first five women appointed to the faculty in Yale's Department of Economics, some raised their eyebrows. Were women capable of teaching economics to Yale students?

In the decades that followed, Rose-Ackerman and Oster — who both retired in 2018 — not only taught, but broke glass ceilings to take on important leadership positions at Yale. Oster became an influential professor and dean of the Yale School of Management. Rose-Ackerman pivoted to the Yale Law School and the Department of Political Science where she became a leading expert on government corruption and brought a political-economy perspective to the field the field of administrative law. And throughout their distinguished careers, both have mentored and inspired women, providing others support that, at times, had been denied to them.

In pursuing academic careers in economics, both Rose-Ackerman and Oster knew they were taking a challenging path. Economics today remains a male-dominated field; 50 years ago there were very few women with faculty positions anywhere in the country.

In almost any job there were not a large number of women,” Rose-Ackerman said.

The young women economists found support from male mentors and women close to them.

Oster drew strength from her mother, who had immigrated from Sweden at age 20, speaking no English and having only an eighth-grade education. The memory of her mother’s tenacity in overcoming these obstacles motivated Oster throughout her academic career.

As Rose-Ackerman pursued her Ph.D. at Yale, she focused her research on demand for used cars. Even though her dissertation advisors, especially the chair, William Brainard, were supportive, she grew weary of the subject. “I didn’t want to be the world’s expert on used cars,” she said.

An opportunity to shift focus from lemons and clunkers arose when one of her faculty mentors, Joe Peck, joined the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. He offered her a position as a junior staff economist, which she accepted.

During her time in Washington, she was introduced to many facets of Johnson’s “Great Society” platform.

Working at the council really got me interested in microeconomic policy and public finance,” she said. Ultimately, this experience planted seeds for her later transition to political science and law.

After completing her Ph.D., Rose-Ackerman joined the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where she did research on urban economics, specifically housing policy. Later, she returned to Yale as a visiting assistant professor of economics from 1971 to 1972, before joining the faculty full time in 1974.

For Oster, a paper she wrote during graduate school at Harvard proved pivotal in her job search. It focused on industry discrimination against women and theorized how firm structure might affect women’s employment. Impressed by her work, her professor encouraged her to submit the paper to the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a top-ranked journal.

It never would have occurred to me to submit it myself,” she said. “But sure enough, after a revision or two, the paper made it in.”

Having research published in a top journal helped Oster stand out among recent Ph.Ds searching for faculty positions. And it helped her land a job at Yale.

Early during their time as faculty at Yale

Not everyone embraced the idea of women teaching economics at Yale.

Joe Peck, who was chair of the economics department in 1974, told Oster about an exchange he had had with one of her students — a male undergraduate who, referring to Oster, objected to being taught an introduction to microeconomics by a woman.

Joe told him, ‘Young man, it’s a woman or nothing. Get out of my office,’” Oster said.

Oster and Rose-Ackerman developed distinctive intellectual agendas at Yale. Rose-Ackerman ventured further into political science when she co-taught a core seminar for the major now known as Ethics, Politics and Economics. Teaching this course, combined with her research in housing policy and public finance, eventually sparked her interest in illegal activity as a viable subject for economic analysis.

That was when I saw corruption as an important problem in the administration of federal housing programs,” she said. “I noticed how illicit economic incentives could show up in the implementation of public policies.”

Her work at the intersection of economics and political science created opportunities. In 1982, she left Yale for a tenured position at Columbia Law School. Then, after five years at Columbia, Yale Law School and the Department of Political Science offered Rose-Ackerman a position in 1987. She accepted the job and subsequently developed a reputation as a foremost authority on the economics of corruption. Her work in comparative administrative law continues to inspire scholars globally.

Meanwhile, Oster also left the Yale economics department in 1982, but only traveled a few buildings up Hillhouse Avenue to the Yale School of Management (SOM). The next year she became the school’s first tenured woman faculty member. Twenty-five years later, she was named the school’s first female dean, serving in the role from 2008 to 2011. As dean, Oster was instrumental in fundraising for the school’s new home, Edwards P. Evans Hall. Her scholarly work provided a theoretical basis for non-profit management and strategy, research that has found its way into non-profit offices around the world.

The role model effect

Both Oster and Rose-Ackerman left a mark on the women they have mentored.

In 2012, the American Economics Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics (CSWEP) awarded Oster the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award for contributions to women in the economics profession. When presenting her with the award, Fiona Scott Morton, the Theodore Nierenberg Professor of Economics at SOM, recalled her first lunch with Oster at Yale. Oster reassured Scott Morton that Yale was a place where you “could talk about your family at work, and even leave the office occasionally to attend to their needs, and no inference would be made about your ability as an economist.”

Susan Parker, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, cited Rose-Ackerman as a mentor who played a large and meaningful role in her career. “[She] was on my dissertation committee and a wonderful and supportive mentor to me,” Parker said. “She was and has been a clear role model for me, particularly during graduate school when I was anxious for role models and acutely aware of the few tenured female professors in the field.”

Sandra Urie, a former CEO of the global investment firm Cambridge Associates, says Oster provided her valuable advice and support.

She was a great role model to the women in our class and cared a lot about making it clear that gender is not a barrier to high achievement in economics and highly quantitative analytical pursuits,” Urie said. “She made a special effort with her ‘open door’ policy to provide guidance not only on her class but also as a sounding board on the broader set of issues facing us as we juggled our educational pursuits, career planning, and for some of us, motherhood.”

When Rose-Ackerman and Oster retired, each had spent more than 40 years at Yale. Today, Oster is the Frederic D. Wolfe Professor Emerita of Management and Entrepreneurship. Susan Rose-Ackerman is the Henry R. Luce Professor Emeritus of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and the Yale Department of Political Science as well as a Professorial Lecturer in Law.

Lisa Qian is a 2020 economics graduate of Yale College and a former intern at the Economic Growth Center. Aiden Lee is a 2022 economics major in Yale College and a current intern at the Economic Growth Center. The article is part of a series produced by the Economic Growth Center, in honor of its 60th anniversary year, the 50th anniversary of coeducation, and 150th anniversary of women students at the university.

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