Jiwon Lee, class of 2018, economics

Jiwon Lee ’18, a senior studying economics, had a busy start to her last year at Pomona. So demanding in fact, that she missed presenting at the College’s Intensive Summer Experience Poster Conference in early September. An academic opportunity came along which took place the same weekend as the College’s poster conference, and Lee could not pass it up.

Lee’s research was accepted to Stanford’s 11th Annual All-California Labor Economics Conference, which called for paper submissions from economists and faculty only. Fortunately for Lee, Associate Professor of Economics Michael Steinberger was familiar with her work and joined Lee as a co-author for her paper “The Gender Asymmetry in the Determinants and Effects of Family Migration.” The accepted paper explores the determinants and effects of family migration decisions in the U.S. based on the gender of the spouse.

“I was the only presenter without a Ph.D.,” says Lee. “It was a bit scary.”

Lee’s research findings show that most married women—regardless of education—do not find migration to be a vehicle for greater earnings attainment. As a result, those women with higher educational and occupational status may stand to lose the most by migration, experiencing significant earnings disruptions.

Furthermore, says Lee, the lack of wife-centered migration suggests that current patterns of job-related geographic mobility in the U.S. may be contributing to an underutilization of the female labor force.

“It made me realize that one of the more serious barriers to female workers’ earnings and careers may originate in the home, and as long as families asymmetrically prioritize the husbands’ careers over the wives’, the infrequency of women migrating in response to economic incentives is likely to continue,” she says.

At the labor economics conference, Lee had the opportunity to meet UC Santa Barbara’s Shelly Lundberg, the economist who wrote a paper in 2003 that inspired Lee to pursue her research paper. “It was amazing to know that she sat through my presentation,” says Lee.

The interest in the econometrics of family migration has a personal connection for Lee. When she was 10 years old, her family moved to the U.S. from South Korea. Her family’s migration decision and its consequences made Lee think a lot about how gender norms may affect household decisions, and how decisions to uproot  are made based on a couple’s work opportunities for men or women.

Lee says she always liked economics but it wasn’t quite clear how she could pursue it as a college major or as a professional career. She branched out to different industries including internships in marketing, finance and most recently, she was a summer analyst at an economic consulting firm.

Looking for summer work her junior year, she had eyes on being a research assistant. With no previous connections, she contacted Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research and applied to do research work remotely. She was not only hired, but asked to work again for them the next summer, this time at the center, where she worked on research regarding the effects of family planning on women’s empowerment in Malaysia. The quality of her analysis was such that they had mistaken her for a graduate student.  

“I was initially given a lot of super difficult, yet also really important tasks,” says Lee, who was able to successfully tackle the responsibilities. “This enabled me to have a lot of autonomy and voice in the project, even after they realized that I am an undergrad.”

Empowered by her success, Lee made proposals for models and analysis for the Malaysia research. These proposals were accepted by the project leads made Lee co-author of the paper.

Lee credits a variety of experiences at Pomona for introducing her to issues associated with gender, which would later influence her research in economics. “I think it has been a gradual process from various resources and communities throughout my time at Pomona.”

A lot of interest and inspiration came from great conversations she had with friends in various Pomona communities, including the Asian American Mentor Program (AAMP) and the Women's Union.

Although she did not take a specific course on gender studies, she says that that most of her classes, regardless of their disciplines, offered the opportunity for her to apply her growing passion and interest in gender studies.

“For example, for Theory and Aesthetics of Television course in media studies, I wrote my final research paper on the male gaze in American TV shows,” says Lee. “For Population and the Environment course in sociology, I did my project on the socio-economic factors that lead to the decline of marriage and fertility rates in South Korea.

Through independent courses, Lee has been able to further investigate the intersection of gender studies and economics. Such is the case of the topic of motherhood penalty for working women in South Korea, her very first research project in Economics Professor Bowman Cutter’s class.

So how does the Glendora High School graduate feel about her future in economics? She prefers not to think about it but rather work on it.

She’s preparing for her teaching future in graduate school by being a mentor for Professor Cutter’s econometrics course. “I’ve seen tremendous growth in her as a teacher over the last two years,” says Cutter.

She may not hear it directly, but according to Cutter, other students are very complimentary of her mentoring and teaching.

Lee is also taking an independent research course with Professor Steinberger to improve the paper they presented at Stanford in September in order to submit it for publication to a top-tier journal.