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Economics professor’s influential research highlighting inequity in the labor market

Mar 27, 2024

Huanan Xu presents research Friday, Feb. 2, 2024 on campus at IU South Bend. (Photo by Michael Caterina) Gender disparities in employment have been historically long-standing, with the post-COVID landscape highlighting what is commonly referred to as “the motherhood penalty.” Dr. Huanan Xu, associate professor of economics at the Judd Leighton School of Business and Economics at Indiana University South Bend, specializes in research on labor market dynamics among different demographics.

Xu’s recent research has focused on the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected women, particularly those with school-aged children. Understanding trends could be used to influence public policy decisions that could potentially narrow the gap between genders in the workforce, such as making affordable childcare more accessible.

“It is making an impact in helping researchers around the world understand how the labor market evolves, and how women contribute to the labor force,” said Xu.

During her sabbatical last year, Xu wanted to further advance her research and was selected as a senior research associate for Harvard Law School’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy (CLJE). Described as a “hub of collaborative research, policy, and strategies to empower working people to build an equitable economy and democracy,” CLJE includes researchers from universities throughout the world who are dedicated to bringing awareness to issues affecting the labor market and using research to develop and advocate practical solutions to address challenges for workers.

“Dr. Xu is a highly productive researcher with a significant influence in her field. Her investigation into COVID-19-era unemployment disparities constitutes a vital research stream for shaping public policy,” said Dr. Bhavik K. Pathak, interim dean and professor of decision sciences for the Judd Leighton School of Business and Economics.

In addition to her contributions at Harvard, Xu was invited by the Federal Reserve earlier this year to discuss her research as part of their event series “Uneven Outcomes in the Labor Market: Understanding Trends and Identifying Solutions.”

Having such prestigious and renowned organizations recognize Xu’s research exemplifies the mission of the Judd Leighton School of Business and Economics.

“It underscores the practical and impactful nature of the research that we do,” said Pathak. “[Xu’s] work aligns seamlessly with the societal impact objectives of the business school.”

Xu’s research has been influential among researchers across industries and the media. Her research article with co-authors Kenneth Couch and Robert Fairlie, “Early evidence of the impacts of COVID-19 on minority unemployment” published in the Journal of Public Economics was cited more than 500 times, and an article with the same co-authors, “The evolving impacts of the COVID‐19 pandemic on gender inequality in the US labor market: The COVID motherhood penalty” was named the 2022 Best Article Award by the academic journal Economic Inquiry.

In another particularly notable honor, Xu’s research was cited by Claudia Goldin, the 2023 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in her 2022 working paper “Understanding the Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Women.”

Since returning from her sabbatical, Xu has continued her economics teaching, and is currently working on research that she anticipates will be completed and published this spring or summer. Her recent work “Labor Market Transitions over the Business Cycle: Gender Differential in the United States from 2001 to 2020” will be published in the forthcoming Feminist Economics journal.

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