Kanika Mahajan – IEA featured economist interview

Kanika Mahajan, a researcher engaged in UNU-WIDER's project on 'The changing nature of work and inequality', is the August 2021 featured economist of the International Economic Association (IEA). Kanika Mahajan is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, India and the author of a major recent UNU-WIDER study on the Evolution of wage inequality in India (1983–2017). Her profile and interview with the IEA is reprinted here with permission. To view the original article, click here

IEA: Can you tell us what made you pursue a career in economics?

Kanika: I come from a family where most people work either in banking or finance. My initial exposure to discussions at home about recent developments in the economy fuelled my interest. I finished by bachelors and master’s in economics and after my postgraduation undertook a short stint in the corporate sector. Learning the ropes in this role, I realized two things about myself. One, doing superficial work with lack of depth does not excite me. Second, I enjoy pursuing my own ideas rather than being thrust upon deliverables. Given my preferences for the type of work that appeals to me, I thought academia would be the most suitable option. It would allow me to think deeper about issues and at the same time I could work on topics I enjoyed. That is when I quit my job and applied for a PhD in Economics.

IEA: You have been part of a UNU-WIDER research project on the changing nature of work and inequality in developing nations, and produced a paper on the evolution of wage inequality in India. Can you tell us briefly some of the key results of this project? Any surprises?

Kanika: There are three key results of this paper. One, earnings inequality in the Indian labor market has declined over the past 15 years, after increasing in the preceding two decades. Second, the decline in inequality has been accompanied by an increase in non-routine task intensity and job polarization. Third, job polarization did not result in earnings polarization in the Indian context (as opposed to the developed countries) and changing task content also did not lead to an increase in earnings inequality. In fact, in the Indian case, the evolution of earnings inequality seems to be inter-linked to institutional factors like minimum wages. The most unexpected finding here was that earnings or wage inequality has fallen in India in recent years given that most accounts using other data sources show that wealth inequality may have increased over time in India.

IEA: You recently did some research on how the introduction of new technology (mechanization) affected women’s employment in rural India. Can you tell us what you found and why it matters?

Kanika: This study was motivated by a decline in male and female labor use in agriculture over time in India, with the latter experiencing a larger decline. In this research we look at how increased adoption of machines in the tilling operation of agriculture, due to soil characteristics that make an area more amenable to deep tilling using machines, affect male and female labor use on farms. We find a negative, though insignificant, impact on male labor use while female labor use falls significantly per unit area cultivated due to increased mechanization. This is explained by a fall in labor demand in downstream tasks like weeding, mostly performed by women, since deep tillage reduced weed growth and at the same time male labor more likely to be used for tilling as this task became mechanized. Theoretically, we showed that a change in technology can have gendered impacts when male and female labor are imperfect substitutes and the incoming technology has differential complementarities with male and female labor.

IEA: Researchers based in developing countries sometimes face serious obstacles in accessing research networks that are based largely in advanced countries. For women, the challenges can be even greater. What has been your experience in this regard? Would you have some advice for young scholars who are starting off their careers outside those established networks?

Kanika: This was one of the major hurdles I faced after my PhD. In fact, my PhD was from Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi, which made it even more challenging. Exposure to international networks during one’s PhD can play an instrumental role in developing fruitful collaborative partnerships with other researchers in the field. However, over time I realized that the only way to overcome this potential handicap was to present my work in as many well accepted international conferences as possible in the field. This gave my work recognition and enabled me to travel and meet other researchers.

I even emailed my paper to people working in the area to get feedback. Some responded while some did not, but this is okay. One should not be hesitant to reach out when required. Sometimes the feedback was very useful in giving shape to my final research. As I attended international conferences, it also helped shape my collaborative work with other researchers internationally. I would advice young scholars to be more pro-active in participating in conferences and undertake more collaborative research. We learn so much from each other in a team and one should be ready to share one’s thoughts and ideas with others and develop them further. The result is often better and helps one develop a network of co-authors. 

About Kanika Mahajan

Her primary research interests include empirical development economics, specifically in the field of labor and gender. As part of her research agenda on labor, she is currently working on issues around stagnation of women’s labor force participation in urban India and a decline in female employment in rural areas, exploring both the supply side and the demand side linkages along with examining occupational task content of jobs in India. Her other projects in the area of labor and gender examine links between stereotypes, economic shocks and women’s employment. Among other gender issues, she has been looking at sanitation and violence against women. In the context of COVID-19, her research examines resilience of supply chains in agriculture and manufacturing sectors in India. She is particularly interested in using innovative high frequency micro-level datasets to answer pertinent questions in her research.


The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.