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Joanna Lahey, PhD '05

Empirical economist documents age discrimination

Even when the data are discouraging, Joanna Lahey, PhD ‘05, listens to the numbers. That’s why her economics research, which documents age discrimination in labor markets, has so much credibility both in academic circles and in the popular press. Her work could affect both government policy and individual expectations.

Joanna Lahey PhD ‘05

Lahey, now assistant professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, has documented the difficulties facing many older workers. In one study, she found that contrary to expectations, 50-year-old white men actually worked less in states that enforce federal ­age­-­discrimination laws, suggesting that firms may try to avoid litigation by not hiring older workers in the first place.

Lahey examined age and employment issues through her MIT research and while conducting postdoctoral work at the National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER). At NBER, she tested for age discrimination in job markets by distributing 8,000 résumés for female applicants of varying ages to firms in St. Petersburg, FL, and Boston. “A younger worker in either state is more than 40 percent more likely than an older worker to be called back for an interview,” she says.

Her work has been reported on American Public Radio as well as in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. She received the 2006 best-­dissertation award from the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. And her results will be published in forthcoming papers in the Journal of Human Resources and the Journal of Law and Economics.

Lahey’s empirical approach to economics took root at the Institute. “I had great mentors at MIT,” she says. In particular, professor of economics Dora Costa “strongly encouraged me to try new hypotheses if my original idea was not answered by the data.”

In addition to research, Lahey enjoys teaching graduate students in public policy. “They start out telling me they’re scared to death of math, but by the end of the term, they become comfortable with numbers,” she says. “This is critical, because our public servants must be skilled at using data to craft rational policies.”

Lahey, who earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in mathematics and economics from Pomona College, lives in College Station, TX, with her husband, Ryan Beasley, who teaches electrical engineering at Texas A&M. The couple’s son, Nicholas, was born last December.

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