Q&A with King Center Postdoctoral Fellow Karmini Sharma
Karmini Sharma is a postdoctoral fellow at the King Center who works at the intersection of economics of gender, development economics and experimental economics. In January 2024, she will join Imperial College London as an assistant professor of economics.
Tell us about yourself and your background. What were you doing before coming to Stanford and what drew you to apply for the Postdoctoral Fellows Program at the King Center?
I was a PhD student at the University of Warwick and undertaking field work in India for projects on topics related to sexual harassment. Given that I worked in the field and have a passion for development, it was a no-brainer to apply for the postdoctoral program at the King Center. I had heard and read great things about it from others and the faculty affiliates at the King Center are some of the best names in the field. Furthermore, I saw the profiles of other postdocs who had been at the center before, and each of them was doing awe-inspiring work; I really wanted to be a part of it, and learn from these people.
Your research focuses on a broad range of topics related to the economics of gender, development economics and experimental economics. What sparked your interest in using the tools of economics to look at issues around sexual harassment, gender segregation, and discrimination?
I was always interested in topics related to gender due to my own experiences or other people’s experiences I had heard of in India which created a deep sense of seeking equality. But I never thought I could ‘work’ on it, or do much about it until I came across a project that involved primary data collection during my master’s at the Delhi School of Economics. I was a part of an interdisciplinary field research team collecting data in rural areas of West Bengal related to maternal and child mortality. That truly changed my perspective on economics. Instead of being a dry, mathematical, or abstract theory subject, it instantly became a tool for studying social problems deeply and understanding the solutions to solve them. Even though I took a corporate job after my master’s, this experience made me realize within three months of starting the job that I wanted to go into academia and I have not looked back since.
Your job market paper uses a randomized controlled trials to look at how to deter sexual harassment in India. What did your experiments show?
I undertook a randomized controlled trial with students in colleges in Delhi where I randomly selected classes to receive sexual harassment awareness trainings for men in those classes. The training aimed to make men more aware about sexual harassment and tried to instill empathy in them to understand women’s perspective within a sexual harassment incident. I find that the training indeed increases men’s awareness and their empathy overall. However, it did not translate in them changing their attitudes about sexual harassment. Instead, the training changed how they perceived their peers who were trained with them. The men started thinking that their peers were more likely to call out sexual harassment behaviors, or support victims of sexual harassment. This translated to a complete reduction in the most extreme forms of sexual harassment around 4 months after the intervention and a reduction in overall sexual harassment approximately 7 months after the intervention.
This is good news showing that the training does bring about a reduction in sexual harassment, something that has been hard to establish before because of measurement issues. However, I find that this drop in sexual harassment is accompanied with a reduction in romantic relationships between these men and women both 4 months and 2–3 years after the intervention after they have graduated. I argue in the paper that this seems to be driven by women becoming more cautious of interacting with men in their classes after the treatment because they cannot discern between the good or bad type of men after the training since all of them are behaving similarly.
This has important implications for workspaces and similar organizational settings where peers can play an important role in one’s social image. If we can change men’s beliefs about what others think to be good or bad, then that can help change their behaviors even if they do not privately agree with those views. Sexual harassment went down and I consider that a great success for the training.
In March 2023, you published a paper that looks at potential reasons for occupational segregation, one of the leading causes of the gender gap in earnings. This paper uses a laboratory experiment to study how men and women differ in their choices to receive feedback on their performance. What is the most important finding from this work, and how is it relevant for policy? Were you surprised by it?
The key finding from this paper is that on average women are less likely to seek information about their performance in stereotypical ‘male’ industries or fields. We model this using a male stereotypical task that we asked both men and women to perform and then gave them options to seek more or less feedback. We also varied the incentives provided to seek feedback. We find that whether we make the information more public or keep it private to the respondents, women continue to demand less feedback than men about their performance. Women’s demand for information is also difficult to change. This means that women are less likely to learn accurately in a male-typed domain and that might hinder their ability to improve or change the course of their performance.
Our results inform discussions about how men and women might learn differently about their own ability in a male-dominated environment and how that may affect gender gaps in beliefs. Indeed, we find that demanding less information results in women having more inaccurate beliefs about their own ability than men in the male-typed task in our experiment. This has substantial consequences for academic, financial or career-track choices for women. For instance, if women have inaccurate and persistently lower beliefs about their own abilities then they might not contribute ideas, promote themselves, or even apply for jobs as has been established in the previous literature. There is no single policy recommendation to counter this. From an efficiency perspective, giving more information could provide encouragement to women at the top of the distribution. However, we do not know whether men and women react differently to such encouragement. This opens avenues for future research.
You have been at the King Center as a postdoctoral scholar for a year now and will be joining Imperial College London in January 2024 as an assistant professor of economics. What has your experience been like at Stanford and the King Center?
The experience here has been life-changing! It continues to be. The faculty that I get to interact with, like Alessandra Voena, Léonard Wantchékon, Marcel Fafchamps, Melanie Morten, Pascaline Dupas and many more have been truly inspiring, encouraging, and motivational. The predocs at the center are so special too. All of them are not only highly talented but also truly motivated in studying social problems. I really felt at home with other postdoctoral students, and predoctoral students who had a similar vision, or motivation. I feel lucky that I could be a part of this and create collaborations, build friendships and learn so much. I got full support from the King Center in my work, my research projects, in funding for conferences I am organizing on violence against women and much more. I highly recommend development students to apply for this postdoc!