Valerie Michelman

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has awarded Harris Public Policy PhD student Valerie Michelman a dissertation fellowship for 2021-2022 for its highly selective Gender in the Economy program. 

Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the program will provide Michelman with $43,000 to advance two research projects, one examining equal pay for teachers and another how sex-specific guidance from the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) impacts pharmaceutical development, potentially to the detriment of women. 

Michelman, whose proposal was one of three selected from more than 50 Fellowship applicants, will attend the upcoming June meeting of the NBER Study Group on Gender in the Economy.  The fellowship considers applications from doctoral students in economics studying victimization and violence against women, women’s roles in health and education, gender and the labor market, and a range of related topics. 

“I’m honored that the NBER selection committee decided to support my research,” Michelman said. “In addition to the financial support, I am thrilled that this fellowship will offer me the opportunity to discuss my work with members of the NBER study group.”

In the first project, Michelman and her co-author Lucy Msall, a PhD student at the Booth School of Business, examine whether sex-specific FDA guidance led to the development of fewer drugs to treat predominantly female diseases. The two researchers will also explore if the guidance resulted in a set of approved drugs that were less well calibrated for safety and efficacy for women.

“Pharmaceutical and other medical advancement in the late 20th century delivered massive improvements to Americans’ life expectancies, but the gains for men were more than twice those for women,” Michelman explained. “And that wasn’t the only equity concern. The medical community has raised concerns about difference by sex and race in the safety and efficacy of some of these pharmaceutical advancements.”

To better understand one potential driver of this phenomenon, Michelman and Msall are studying the pharmaceutical industry’s response to the FDA’s 1977-1993 guidance that pre-menopausal women should not be used as human subjects in early stage clinical trials. The FDA’s stated intent was to protect women and their unborn offspring. 

Michelman and Msall have developed a model of how pharmaceutical firms make decisions along each phase of the drug pipeline, and compared results under two different FDA policy regimes. They demonstrate that we should expect that a policy of male-only participation in early-stage drug trials will ultimately lead to sex-biased outcomes, predicting that drugs serving diseases more common in women are less likely to make it to market and drugs that do are less likely to be safe and effective for women than for men.

To test their theory, Michelman and Msall will estimate the impact of the FDA’s policy, using commercial data on the pipeline of drugs in development for the US market from 1989 to 2020.  

“It will be interesting to understand whether and how regulators’ attempts to protect vulnerable populations result in those populations being underserved by the industry,” Michelman said. “Will ‘policy paternalism’ toward pregnant women and unborn children have spillovers for the female population more broadly? We hope to find out.”

In a second project, Michelman, who prior to pursuing her PhD worked at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, explores two forms of equal pay policies for teachers introduced in the 1900s to seek broader insights about what drives the persistent “gender pay gap.”

The first wave of reforms is the explicit adoption of equal pay by sex for teachers teaching the same grade level with the same certification and years of experience. The second set of reforms is the adoption of the “single salary schedule,” which eliminated differential pay by grade level taught. This effectively raised the wages of women teachers who were overrepresented in elementary teaching – the lower paying occupation versus their high school counterparts.

“The combination of these two reforms provides an exciting opportunity to test the extent to which the direct impact of equal pay for equal work policies is dampened by workers responding by ‘occupational sorting’ into higher or lower paying jobs depending on their sex,” Michelman said, noting that previous scholarly research has shown that the persistence of the wage gap is not largely attributable to explicit discrimination by sex.  

With the funding, Michelman will examine what share of the wage gap for female teachers at the beginning of the 20th century was attributable to sorting between the elementary school teacher and high school teacher occupations and what share was attributable to sex-specific pay schedules within occupation. By leveraging the staggered adoption of these policies across districts over time, she will also estimate the impact of banning sex-specific pay on the wage gap for teachers, male-to- female staffing ratios, and sorting to sector by sex.

“The profession of teaching has played a pivotal role in female labor force participation over the course of the development of the US economy, and still plays a not insignificant role today,” Michelman said.  “These issues of what drives gender wage gaps and what response policymakers should consider remains essential for future research.”