Young Prof Snags Top Ec Medal


Thirty-seven-year-old Professor of Economics Susan Athey became the first female recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal Friday. The American Economics Association awards the prize biannually to an American economist under age 40 who has made “a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.” [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

Of the 30 economists who have received the medal, 11 have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Athey, who arrived at Harvard in 2006 and has done significant applied and theoretical research on bidder behavior in auctions, joins five other Harvard professors who have won the Clark Medal, including Eliot University Professor Lawrence H. Summers and Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein ’61.

Athey said in an interview that she had received congratulations from a number of former winners, including “Larry Summers, who told me he was proud to have appointed me.”

Writing from his Blackberry in India, Summers said that because of Athey’s work, “economists can study individuals and businesses with fewer straitjacket assumptions and so get a better understanding of their behavior.”

Athey’s colleagues have long considered Athey a wunderkind in economics, since she began mastering difficult problems in comparative statics as a graduate student at Stanford.

“It was obvious from the start that she was special,” said Stanford Professor Paul R. Milgrom, one of Athey’s thesis advisors.

Milgrom said Athey has since created novel ways of examining how firms and individuals react to changes in uncertainty.

Athey’s other thesis advisor, Stanford Professor of Economics John Roberts, said Athey has made inroads in both economic theory and empirical economics and that she has been “a tremendous force for promoting women in the profession.”

Athey said she is pleased at the increased presence of women in economics. However, she cautioned that her own situation is a unique one.

“It’s a lot easier that I didn’t have my children until I became fairly established, so I didn’t have to worry as much about proving myself,” Athey said. “This award makes it particularly hard since...most women like me would be evaluated for the award at the time they’re having young children.”

Claudia Golden, the Lee professor of economics and the first woman to receive tenure in economics at Harvard, agreed that motherhood posed a serious challenge to gender parity in the academy. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

“I think many women, no matter how successful they are and how productive, at home take the backseat to a man who’s not as erudite or as intelligent as they are, and they do it for the good of their children,” she said.

However, Feldstein said in an interview that gender should not overshadow Athey’s accomplishments.

“I think that she would have won it whether she was a woman or not a woman,” he said.

—Staff writer Nicholas K. Tabor can be reached at

CORRECTION: The April 23 article "Young Prof Snags Top Ec Medal” listed the wrong age for Professor of Economics Susan Athey. She is 36, not 37. The article also misspelled the name of Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin.