Research News

Faculty Spotlight: Lori Beaman

IPR economist examines mobility in developing countries

savings groups
For one of her research projects, Lori Beaman studies the effect of women in Mali, shown above, participating in a savings group.

As a Northwestern freshman, IPR economist Lori Beaman (WCAS ‘99) intended to be an engineer, but a pivotal seminar on Africa’s economies taught by former Northwestern professor Christopher Udry (now at Yale University) led Beaman to change her major, and ultimately, her career.

 “Economics was a good fit, because this was using quantitative skills for problems that mattered to people and in particular, a set of people in developing countries who really needed help,” Beaman explained. “It balanced nicely—the desire to use quantitative skills with a desire to ‘save the world’.”

Lori Beaman

After volunteering with the Peace Corps in the west African nation of Mali, earning a PhD from Yale, and completing a postdoctoral fellowship with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Beaman returned to teach and conduct research at her alma mater, where she uses her skills to evaluate programs seeking to empower marginalized people in developing countries.

Job Referrals and the Labor Market

Beaman’s time in Mali influenced some of her most groundbreaking work—her research on the labor market impact of job referrals and networking.

In Mali, like in many developing nations, people do not “register births or deaths with the government. There might not be a school in their village, and there’s probably not a healthcare center,” Beaman said. “So on a day-to-day basis, they basically have no interaction with the government or formal institutions.”

Therefore, social networks—friends, family members, and acquaintances—play a critical role in building financial security for those in countries with weak institutions.

Initial studies by Beaman and her colleagues find that social networks significantly influence individuals’ employment outcomes, such as their ability to find a job and earn higher wages.

Later, when examining job referrals in the central African country of Malawi, Beaman and her co-authors uncovered a downside to social networking, its potential to widen disadvantages. In an IPR working paper, Beaman and her colleagues find that men overwhelmingly recommend other men—while most women refer candidates, especially female ones, who are less likely to qualify for the position. Their findings suggest that such informal hiring processes can lead to distinct job market disadvantages for women, implying improving women’s skills and knowledge—a policy response echoed in current governmental and non-governmental initiatives—might not be enough to eliminate this gender gap in wages.

Similar results are often found in “any group that has initially worse labor market outcomes or are struggling a bit more,” Beaman said, including among African Americans.

In 2013, Beaman received a highly competitive, five-year Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation, to continue her research on social networks. 

Improving Poor Women’s Prospects Around the Globe

Throughout much of the developing world, improving women’s livelihoods is key to alleviating poverty yet remains a significant challenge. In a series of working papers and articles, Beaman and her colleagues investigate various efforts to boost women’s mobility—that is, their ability to hold political office, find gainful employment, or launch their own businesses.

In one study, Beaman and her research team examine affirmative action policies in India, which mandated that women hold at least one-third of village council seats in randomly assigned villages. The researchers reveal that after a decade with the quota system in place, women were more likely to enter and win elections. Equally interesting, simple exposure to having women in office improved public perceptions of the effectiveness of women in power and weakened negative stereotypes associated with men and women’s public and private roles.

The researchers conducted a follow-up, tracing the long-term benefits of more female politicians. Beaman and her colleagues interviewed hundreds of households in Birbhum, a district in western India, asking teenagers and their parents about time spent on chores, in class, and their family and career aspirations. In villages that had a female leader for a decade, girls spent less time spent on household chores and the achievement gap between boys and girls shrunk, compared with children living in districts without such quotas. Additionally, the gap between boys’ and girls’ future career hopes, such as obtaining a well-paying job, decreased.

Beaman’s work on India’s quota system has piqued policymakers’ interest worldwide. At a conference for the U.K.’s Department for International Development, for instance, government and nonprofit leaders eagerly displayed their excitement over her findings. 

“They weren’t just politely listening; they had actually known about our work, and had refined questions about how to better improve the training of women leaders in India,” Beaman said. “It was quite a satisfying experience to see policymakers engage with what we were doing.”

Lori Beaman is an assistant professor of economics and an IPR fellow.