Hersch began her academic career with a simple question: Why do women who do the same work as men earn less? Even after gender pay discrimination was made illegal by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Hersch recalls, “Women who worked full-time and year-round earned only 60 percent of what men earned.”
The dominant economic theory was that the substantial gender pay gap had an efficiency-based rationale: Women had traditionally devoted their efforts to the unpaid work of running the household, allowing men to specialize in gainful employment in the job marketplace. Hersch’s research career began by challenging this explanation of the gender pay gap. When she found that there were no data to fully account for household responsibilities, working conditions, education, work history and job skills, Hersch began the laborious process of developing original data. Over the course of her career, she pioneered numerous innovative approaches to identifying new data sources from government and court records and from the stock market.
Her results have led Hersch to conclude that there is no sound economic rationale for why women in the same jobs are paid less than men. Though the gender pay gap has narrowed, progress has stagnated. The gender pay gap still persists almost 40 years after Hersch began studying it. Women now earn approximately 80 percent of what men earn, although today they are more educated than men and have access to more jobs in more sectors of the economy than ever before. She attributes the persisting gender gap to discrimination.
Hersch’s pathbreaking research has also documented the presence and labor-market consequences of sexual harassment, which is much more consequential for women than for men. As part of her broader inquiry into the sources and impact of discrimination, she has also documented evidence of discrimination based on skin color, race and immigrant status.
Hersch launched Vanderbilt’s Ph.D. in Law and Economics Program in 2006 with economist W. Kip Viscusi. Her chair, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair, recognizes the university’s founder, steamboat and railroad entrepreneur Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who founded the university in 1873 with a gift of $1 million.
Since joining Vanderbilt’s faculty in 2006, Hersch has published more than 30 articles in peer-reviewed economic and legal journals while also mentoring 10 graduates through the process of earning both a J.D. and a Ph.D. in law and economics. “Joni made sure we were not only thriving academically, but also thriving socially,” said Caroline Cecot, JD/PhD ’14, who now holds a tenure-track professorship at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. “She’s been an inspirational role model to me.”