Aysegul Sahin on BPEA’s contributions to labor market research

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Editor's note:

This interview is part of the Voices of BPEA series, highlighting women’s leadership in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA), an academic journal published by the Brookings Press twice a year. Each edition of the journal includes five or six new papers on a range of macroeconomic topics currently impacting public policy debates. BPEA is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020, and the Spring 2020 conference drafts were released on March 19.

Aysegul Sahin is the Richard J. Gonzalez Regents Chair in Economics at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a labor economist whose work focuses on the analysis of macro-labor issues such as unemployment and labor force participation dynamics, labor market mismatch, gender disparities in labor market outcomes and entrepreneurship. Sahin is also a five-time contributor to the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA)—most recently in Spring 2019.

What has been your experience with BPEA?

My first Brookings paper was in March 2010, it was an analysis of the labor market. At that point, the unemployment rate was 9.7% and I was so happy to be involved, because I think our paper provided an anchor for how we should think about the labor market.

I learned a lot through the process of discussions; it’s an amazing opportunity to improve your paper.

I came back to BPEA in 2011 for an update on that research, and in the brief time since the first paper, so much work was done on the labor market following up what we identified as the major risks and the major things we had been following. I came back again in 2013 when my daughter was just 5 months old; it was another fun paper about the decline in the labor share, which was the topic of the day. I was just so happy to be involved and I learned a lot through the process of discussions; it’s an amazing opportunity to improve your paper and I always loved that feature. Finally, I’m back again and unemployment is 3.8%, so there has been big progress. I would say too, during the past nine years, I feel like I’ve improved a lot and part of that was this interaction with Brookings.

What has participating in BPEA meant to your career?

When I first contributed, I was a relatively junior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York doing a lot of policy analysis. BPEA gave my coauthors and myself this opportunity to take a step back and write this 50–60 page paper and explain to people what we had been doing about unemployment. I would say that it has helped me to be recognized as an expert on the topic and it helped a lot with my career, both inside the Fed, because I was getting external validation, and also by academics, because this piece spoke to them as well.

In your opinion, what progress has BPEA already made in diversifying economics, and what else can and should it do going forward?

I’ve been writing on unemployment, which is typically a male topic. I find it very interesting that when we talk about labor force participation, there are many women involved, but when we talk about unemployment and monetary policy- suddenly, we have the ‘usual suspects.’ I think Brookings has been amazing trying to reach out to people like me, who want to be involved in macro discussions, but who in their mind are still paying attention to what’s happening in the household, in the world of women, the social. I’ve written four Brookings papers and I’ve discussed another, so that’s five papers in nine years, and this shows there is a lot of effort to bring in people like me. We have very different backgrounds than the typical macroeconomist who used to be here in the 1970s. In terms of going forward, I think BPEA should be looking at the interaction between the changes in social norms, education, childcare, and maternal policy and how that has been and will affect the macro economy.

What would be your advice to women considering a career in economics?

Economics is about people, it shouldn’t be abstract.

I love what I do. I give a lot of advice to my undergraduate students and my research assistants that economics is about people, it shouldn’t be abstract. If there is a part of it that you think is important, that’s what you should be working on. For me, it was the labor market. Every day, I look around and I think about what can I say about the labor market. I never felt like I’m dealing with something abstract, that I don’t believe in. I also tell my students that you can have it all if you do what you feel passionate about.

Discrimination should definitely not discourage women from getting involved. There are lots of role models; mine is Janet Yellen. I was so proud to have worked at an institution where the boss was Janet Yellen, who also happens to be a labor economist.

Special thanks to Maureen Heydt, who conducted and transcribed these interviews while interning at Brookings in spring of 2019.