A double life

A professor of economics relaxes by writing successful novels

When asked what drives her ongoing achievements in economic research, Professor Alison Booth reaches for the word ‘obsession’. It’s hard to say whether this is a prerequisite for the academic personality, but in Alison’s case it helps explain how a leading economist can sustain a double life as a successful novelist.

“Most people would agree that to survive as  an academic you have to not only be talented but also incredibly focused. I would argue that in most cases that focus translates into obsession. People who are able to do a lot with their time are really absorbed by what they are working on, so they don’t want to stop working on it. Some might view this as a fault, but it is one of the traits you need to get on in what you are doing.”

As a mother of two daughters, Alison has experienced the added challenges of maintaining that professional focus while raising a family.

“Having family responsibilities makes you much more focused on what you can achieve with a given amount of time. You should be talking to my children to see what they think about this passion, because it means you have to be highly organised and, although they never complained, I sometimes wonder if they thought it was a bit like an army camp!”

With her children grown up, far from easing off, Alison has turned to writing fiction, and the same level of organisation, intense focus and, yes, obsession is demanded.

“I’m the sort of person who concentrates fiercely on whatever I’m doing. I get into it, doing it very intensively and concentrating to the exclusion of everything else. But for me that can only be done for a short space of time. I don’t know how full-time writers get on, but once I wrote 2,200 words in a day while I was on a retreat and the next day I felt quite ill!”

Nevertheless, even writing in this time-constrained fashion, Alison has published three novels in as many years, an achievement most full-time writers would be content with, all the while maintaining a busy schedule of academic research that sees her one of Australia’s most respected and most frequently cited economists.

It attests as much to her willpower and talent as to her extraordinary ability to organise both her time and her thinking.  However, she points out, despite the fact that both her academic career and fiction writing are highly cerebral activities, the latter is also “in a strange way relaxing.”

“In the same way you might read a novel to escape, this can also be that. Because it is broken down for me mentally into these small blocks of time, it’s just long enough to be an escape.”

It is perhaps because of this that Alison avoids any conflict between her writing and the ‘day job’. This and the fact that in many ways the two activities are fed by the same fundamental interest in issues of inequality and social justice. It was such questions that first led Alison into the world of economics having started her academic career with an undergraduate degree in architecture. A major inspiration during this pivotal period was Patricia Apps, one of Alison’s lecturers at Sydney University. Apps, now Professor of Public Policy in the Faculty of Law, is well known for her work in public economics and it was largely through her influence that Alison’s interest in welfare economics began to grow. Apps encouraged Alison to undertake postgraduate study at the London School of Economics. At the time, studying economics at Sydney would have meant undertaking a second undergraduate degree.

Alison duly completed a rewarding but grueling year of study towards a Master of Economics at LSE and then went on to a PhD, under the aegis of another specialist in welfare economics, Tony (now Sir Tony) Atkinson. Thanks to the encouragement and inspiration of these early mentors, a burgeoning interest became a life’s work. Alison is now widely known for her work in labour economics in particular, although her work has covered many other areas with a welfare focus.

Remaining in Britain, she established her career through a series of appointments in London before accepting a Professorship at the University of Essex. During those early years, the support of fellow female academics was especially valuable:

“At that stage the economics world was incredibly male dominated. There were only a few women doing economics PhDs, and so we decided to form a support group. For me, in fact for all of us in the group, it has been really important. And although we formed this back in the eighties, we are still  close friends. We’re scattered all over the world now but we have kept in touch and it has been very good support.”

Thankfully, these days there are many more women working as academic economists. The change is particularly noticeable here in Australia, where the dire situation in the 1980s actually deterred Alison from making an earlier return to her home country. Noting a welcome change for the better and with the attractive offer of the Fred Gruen Professorship at ANU, Alison eventually returned to Australia in 2002, and has remained at ANU ever since.

While an interest in the causes of inequality have inspired much of her work, up until now she has steered clear of gender issues.

“I wanted to avoid being labeled as an economist who worked on gender issues because I think if you are trying to establish yourself in a male dominated field you don’t want to be pigeonholed as that, but things have changed, and I thought it’s appropriate to start looking at these issues now... If wage differentials are estimated properly, controlling for all the other factors that might have affected the outcomes, there is still a gap of 12 per cent in Australia and 18-20 per cent in Britain.”

This has led some to hypothesise that this is because women are intrinsically different, that it is down to nature: maybe women are just less competitive and less willing to take risks.

It is this latter idea that prompted one of Alison’s most recent research projects: if there is a difference in the male and female appetite for risk, is it innate or is the result of culture or the environment?

“That’s what got me interested – whether or not we could say anything, as economists, about nature versus nurture.”

Alison and her fellow researchers set up an experiment testing the attitudes to risk-taking amongst groups of undergraduate students. First year economics students were randomly assigned to three different class types: all-female, all-male and mixed. They were tested at the beginning and end of an eight-week period to see how their behaviour had changed. The results were compelling:

“We found that, by the end of the experiment period, the girls in the single sex classes were making the same choices as the young men in the co-ed or the all-male classes. So the girls in the single-sex classes had evolved so that they were behaving much as men in terms of risky choices.”  

Whether this means that the single sex environment gives female students an advantage perhaps demands more study. However, if the behaviour of women is apt to change depending on the group environment, it does suggest that cultural factors – nurture if you like – are more influential than innate characteristics, or ‘nature’.

Alison’s own appetite for risk-taking came to the fore with the launch of her literary career. For many aspiring writers it is perhaps the risk of failure or exposing oneself to criticism that stops them taking the all-important step. In Alison’s case, it was perhaps only a matter of time before her energy  and determination brought a long cherished literary dream into the limelight. The experience of getting her father’s novel published in 2002, was the prompt.

“It got me thinking how nice it was for my father, and how beautifully he wrote. I’d always shared with him a love of books, and I had written short stories (plus one awful novel when I was young), so his success sort of prodded me along.”

After a couple of false starts with plots that got abandoned along the way, the result was Stillwater Creek, completed over five years, working weekends and evenings, often late into the night. Alison thought this would be her only book, but a two-book deal demanded a sequel, and The Indigo Sky quickly followed. In the end a third novel, A Distant Land, completed a trilogy of novels about a fictional coastal town in New South Wales called Jingera and its inhabitants. The novels have been warmly received, with Stillwater Creek Highly Commended in the ACT Book of the Year in 2011.

With three books under her belt, is Alison tempted to write full-time?

“Sometimes I think it would be quite nice, but I still love what I’m doing academically. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to write a bit of fiction without it affecting my day job. If you have the creative urge, it’s really a matter of working very hard. I should probably not work so hard!”


Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute