Published: 17 June 2016

‘This is my thing’

The Deputy Head of Surrey’s School of Economics and Senior Lecturer in Economics, Jo Blanden, has been selected as one of the University’s Inspiring Women at Surrey.

Jo’s research interests lie broadly in the fields of labour and family economics, and she is a key contributor to research that has shaped government policy. Her current projects continue to explore the topic of social mobility in the UK, seeking to understand the impressive school performance of children in London, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. She also has a research grant to look at the impact of nursery attendance on children's outcomes.

Jo’s interest in social science was sparked early on, when she took a GCSE in the subject. “I became really fascinated by social scientific insights into how people live and work and realised: this is my thing,” she remembers.

Jo embarked on a PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) degree at the University of East Anglia, subsequently switching to a straight Economics degree because she found it the “clearest and most rewarding” of the disciplines.

It was during her Masters in Economics at UCL that Jo became interested in the issue of intergenerational income mobility (or social mobility). This subsequently became the topic of her PhD, which she undertook while working as a full-time researcher at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance.

“My supervisor Steve Machin is an expert in labour economics,” says Jo. “We started talking about the issue of parental background and how it affects outcomes for children. I researched outcomes for children born in 1970, comparing the results with Steve’s research into outcomes among those born in 1958. and it was clear that family background mattered more for people in the 1970 cohort.”

Jo’s extensive research into social mobility – which has looked at issues such as the relationship between an individual’s family background and where they end up in education – has helped to inform the policy of successive governments since New Labour. With social mobility a hot topic under the Brown government, Jo was invited to meet Gordon Brown in Downing Street in 2008 and her research comparing social mobility in the UK and US with the Nordic countries was quoted by David Cameron during his 2015 Conservative Party conference speech.

Her own experience of having pre-school children generated her most recent research project, which looks into the impact of the Government providing 15 hours of free-nursery care on children’s outcomes.

Her first paper on this project finds that, although there seem to be benefits of attending nursery for some groups of children at age five, these disappear by age seven.  As with her work on social mobility, these findings are well known in Government, although Jo was surprised to see that the Government pledged to increase the number of free hours to working families in the election campaign.

“In terms of child development, it would have been better to concentrate on improving the quality of the provision available, for example by ensuring that all early years settings are led by someone qualified to graduate level, but Government has other priorities,” she says.

While Jo does not believe that gender is a barrier to career achievement in academia today, as the mother of two young children she is well aware of the conflicting demands of pursuing a successful career while having a family.

“Being an academic brings certain benefits in terms of flexibility – in the school holidays for example – but changing when the work is done doesn’t make it any less,” she says. “The level of expectation on academics has risen both in terms of research and teaching, which has led to a big quality improvement and a livelier research environment, but this also means increased pressure and longer working hours which can be particularly difficult for parents to manage, whether women or men.”

However, there are increasing numbers of women entering the field economics, which is borne out at Surrey. “In the School of Economics, we have four female professors, as well as many women in mid-level and junior positions,” says Jo.

“There are also more female students than ten years ago, with around 40:60 women to men today. I’m incredibly impressed with the young women I teach who excel on their Professional Training placements within finance organisations and government departments. It will be fascinating to see what they do next.”

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