What I’ve been up to

You might be wondering what I’ve been up to as this space has been sparsely populated of late. I spent most of March fighting a cold, and then an infection, and then trying to get back on track from all of it. At one point, I actually called my mother and cried “what if I get a hole in my face and no one ever loves me?” Her response, ignoring my terrible sentence construction, was perfectly deadpanned: “Erin, they’re doing wonderful things with plastic surgery these days.”

Thank goodness for moms. In the meantime, I tried to do some research as well as figure out what the plan for the next year (at least) is. As most of you know, I’ll no longer be at Gettysburg in the Fall and I spent much of the year seeking out a new academic position. I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining the faculty, albeit temporarily, at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, next year.

I’m sad to leave Gettysburg, my wonderful colleagues, and some great students. Though this was always the plan, it’s still tough. I ran into a former student the other day and when I asked him how he was, he said, “worse now that I found out you’re leaving.” They’ve already started guilt-tripping me for it.

It was a difficult decision; I turned down a few other enticing offers, but ultimately decided that being on the East Coast was important as a collaborator and I explore some research opportunities in DC and Northern Virginia. The faculty at Lafayette are world-class (including fellow Boulder grad and family economics guru, Susan Averett), and I’m hoping that my time there will yield some fruitful collaboration. In addition, I’ve agreed to help UNICEF with the early stages of a data collection project on services for victims of interpersonal violence and for juvenile offenders in Zimbabwe, a project that gets me all kinds of excited.

I got my first revise and resubmit on a single authored paper (it was really fun to revise my CV to reflect that!). I’ve also been immersed in the finding-new-research-ideas process as well as the finishing-old-ones process, and hope some of that can come to light shortly.

As for this space, I plan on continuing to babble here, and hopefully there will be plenty of exhilarating topics to cover as my research and other projects expand. I’ll try not to harass you with too many moving complaints. Google reader is going away in a few months, which means I need a new way to keep track of all of you I love to read, so if that’s how you’re following here, please do update it.

Thanks for staying tuned!

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More on adolescent girls, because, yeah

I just realized that I never shared this work with you all. This post was written almost four months ago, but I think it’s still relevant. And even more so now as the papers are all live on the Girl Effect website. I hope you enjoy it!

My coauthor and I spent the last week finishing up our issues paper on adolescent girls for DFID and the Nike Foundation. It’s been this super crazy, whirlwind kind of project where I’ve learned so much and met so many amazing people. It’s exciting, but it sure was exhausting. I’m really excited to be able to share our findings, here they are!

So, what do we find? For the most part, programs that seek to use social norms to reduce societal discrimination against adolescent girls aren’t very well-studied. With the exception of a very small number of programs, both quantitative and qualitative analysis are lacking; overall there has been little effort to sufficiently randomize participants and perform rigorous pre- and post-intervention analysis. Thus the ability to causally identify statistically significant effects of these programs is incredibly limited.

There are a few rays of light, however. We found three programs–Tostan, Meena Communication Initiative, and Promises–that promote gender-equitable behaviors and discourage violence and discrimination against adolescent girls using social norms language or methods. All three of these programs employ multifaceted interventions. That is to say that while each has a goal of reducing discrimination or ending FGM/C, the actual process includes community conversations, social norms marketing through popular culture medium such as comic books and television shows, community declarations, school programming and more.

It seems that this is the way programs in the developing world are going. Recently, Markus Goldstein posted about his new paper on a child club program to promote the status and welfare of adolescent girls in Uganda. Though it doesn’t seem to have a strong social norms component, ELA is multifaceted, and thus multi-outcome.

In terms of sexual behavior, the girls who participate in the clubs show significantly better HIV and pregnancy knowledge than the control group.   They are also 12.6 percentage points more likely to report always using a condom when they have sex (which matches up with a reduction in those reporting often or occasional use of a condom).   They also experience a striking reduction in fertility – at follow up, treatment girls are 2.7 percentage points less likely to have a kid (26 percent of the baseline mean).   Now since they also report no increase in use of other forms of contraception, these things taken together strongly suggest that they are markedly reducing their risk of exposure to HIV.

My favorite part of reading this paper was this interactive effect. It’s very cool and I think will provide an strong template going forward for programs that wish to engage communities and have profound, lasting effects. Both Markus’ research and ours suggest that the narrowly focused, difficult-to-replicate, difficult-to-scale-up RCTs such as those heralded in Poor Economics and More Than Good Intentions have some growing to do.

On being careful

Early on in my graduate career, a professor hired me to do some data cleaning on a set of historical data she and a coauthor had collected. Eventually, my data analysis and stata skills became more useful than my data cleaning skills and at some point, she asked me to perform some sort of regression or matching analysis. I did it sort of slap-dash and sent it out, returning later to find at least one big mistake. Though I presented the corrected version to her in a meeting later, she had already seen the incorrect version and begun to make changes to the paper to fall in line with it. What followed was a 30 minute lecture on how I needed to be careful, how she couldn’t write me a good recommendation if I wasn’t careful, how specific employers wouldn’t want me if I wasn’t careful.

It is a conversation I’ve relived several times throughout my still very new career as a PhD economist, admonishing myself to be careful and diligent in all my work, but more than ever in the past week or two as the Reinhart-Rogoff Excel error uncovered by a UMass-Amherst grad student has come to light. It hasn’t gone well for them and according to some, may even be changing the debate on austerity in politics.

While I understand the excitement of finding something big, it seems that the bigger a deal this paper was to be, the more careful they would have been. I once asked Robert Barro whether he thought people went easy on him because he held so much sway. Not at all, he told me, if anything, they’re harder on me.

And we should be, hard on each other that is. We should demand transparency and replication, and not just by chance in some random graduate classroom. If evidenced by nothing else than the number of “you’re an economist, aren’t you used to being wrong?” jokes I heard this weekend, we need to be more careful.

On cell phones and twitter in the classroom

Yesterday afternoon, a guest speaker was in a Gettysburg College sociology class to discuss the role of social media in the Israel-Palestine conflict. When I asked how it went, having run into the speaker and professor at the local Irish pub, my colleague replied, “it was going great until Boston.” In moments, it seemed, Boston had transformed from a city to an event. While we still wait for the details to shake out, calling it anything in particular seems premature, but also reflected, probably, an unwillingness by my colleague to internalize what had happened.

Upon reflection, I am now struck by my lack of surprise that a news event would so wholly disrupt a class. No one came running into the classroom to tell them about it, but rather all her students were on twitter. This class is a bit particular because it is on the study and practice of social media, but all the same, I’m sure the same situation played out throughout campus as students are now constantly on their phones.

Just over eleven years ago, when planes struck the World Trade Center buildings, I was in class. Though someone had mentioned a plane when we walked in, we held class, entirely oblivious to what was going on just a few states away. The next time that class met, the professor apologized for having kept us; he just didn’t know. And how could he?

The subject of cell phones and twitter in classrooms proved to be a popular one throughout the evening (It’s a rare event that gets a group of eight or ten professors out on a Monday for purely social reasons, but last night happened to be just that. We still talked mostly about students and research, if you must know). All present seemed to have much higher levels of tolerance for use of phones and computers in the classroom than I had imagined. I still remember professors answering their students’ phone when they rang in class, confiscating laptops and phones, and now all that seems unimaginable. I don’t expressly prohibit cell phone use in my class. I know that my students are texting or reading sports scores when they look down at their shorts and not at me, but I’m not going to stop them either. Some students are legitimately looking things up, finding definitions, trying to figure out whether Palestine is a country or a city, or any number of other activities. Some are probably on facebook, too. In some cases, it’s just their choice. Some claim they listen better with something in their hands, but all the same, I’m not on a rampage confiscating iPads, and neither are these colleagues.

We all seem to have just accepted it. I guess technology is here to stay, so how to work it in appropriately is inevitable.

My condolences to the families of those affected in Boston.

Lean In, Dad, if you can

I’m in that period of my life where my friends are starting to have babies. The wedding invitations that filled my mailbox up until last year have been replaced with baby announcements and family photos. It’s hard to believe that I have no weddings to attend this year. Like an actual zero.

I’m not sure if it’s the labor economist in me, but I ask pretty much everyone what their parental leave policy is. How much time are you taking off? How much time is your partner taking off? How much is paid, how much is unpaid? I just learned Gettysburg offers a one-course reduction for “secondary caregivers” (I must say, I do like the gender neutral language, even if it is implied that the dad is the secondary). There are all sorts of restrictions about when you can take it and how often, because I’m sure that parents are going to time their childbearing to maximize the number of classes they can get out of (no, they’re not; that’s ridiculous). Sometimes people just offer the information:

The fact remains that there isn’t a lot of support for two-parent caregiving, at least in this country. I am impressed, though, with how many of my male friends and colleagues have taken time off, even if unpaid, and have taken the time to actually caregive, as opposed to using it for personal or professional gain. 

Catherine Rampell has an op-ed in the NYT today on increasing parity among caregivers’ leave policies. She suggests that parental leave, or rather paternal leave, is an important aspect of not only equity in the workplace and ensuring that we continue to chip away at the gender pay gap, the glass ceiling, and other forms of discrimination. In addition, she suggests that mere exposure to full-time caregiving in the early stages of a child’s life might lead to more equitable distribution of household and caregiving work as the child ages. It’s actually a big deal!

This might not sound like such a big deal, but social scientists are coming around to the notion that a man spending a few weeks at home with his newborn can help recast expectations and gender roles, at work and home, for a long time. A striking new study by a Cornell graduate student, Ankita Patnaik, based on a new paid paternity-leave quota in Quebec, found that parents’ time use changed significantly. Several years after being exposed to the reform, fathers spent more time in child care and domestic work — particularly “time-inflexible” chores, like cooking, that cut into working hours — than fathers who weren’t exposed to the reform. More important, mothers spent considerably more time at work growing their careers and contributing more to the economy, all without any public mandates or shaming.

Perhaps the most amusing part of the article is that the comments section is filled with screeds against “procreators.” Yes, I get it. The planet has a lot of people on it and you’ve made a personal decision not to procreate. But, two things. One, individuals don’t make the decision to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a child because they’re going to get two weeks off. If you think that, you need to take an economics class. And two, if you want to reduce population growth, donate to programs that work to educate children, improve access to contraception and family planning services, reduce child mortality, and give young women jobs, all of which are actually proven to reduce fertility rates.