Uma Kambhampati - Applying economics to real-world problems
Professor Uma Kambhampati joined the University of Reading in 1998 as a Professor of Economics. As a development economist and currently the Head of School of Politics, Economics and International Relations, Uma's research interests include gender, development and household economics with a primary focus on child labour, women's empowerment, individual well-being and life satisfaction.
During her early years of research, much of Uma's work applied economic theories to understand the determinants, patterns and impact of child work in India. With globalization, developing economies such as India witnessed a sudden proliferation in child labour practices with many high profile consumer goods being sourced from organisations employing child workers. Uma examined gender attitudes and types of social institutions that influenced the probability of schooling and work among children.
"Does the environment that a child is born in make a difference to the growth and development opportunities available? For instance, are households really poor and hence forced to make their child work or is it the presence of gender bias and social institutions like patriarchy in families that discriminates say against the girl child going to school? Economics has some of the answers."
Retaining her intellectual focus in intra household research, Uma moved on to study child work and education in relation to women's empowerment. Does empowerment improve the welfare of children within the household? Research findings indicated that a mother's literacy, when factored in, increases the probability of schooling and decreases that of work, especially for girls. In other words, when mothers have bargaining power, in this case via education, they are likely to increase collective household welfare.
Having recognised child work as a critical area of research, Uma received research funding from the Department for International Development in the UK (DFID). She also published a number of papers on the topic in various journals and publications including World Development, Journal of Development Studies, European Journal of Development Research and Feminist Economics.
measuring happiness and wellbeing
For years, an on-going discussion within economics and development studies has raised questions as to whether wellbeing is a personality trait or regulated by the environment you live in. Uma's research tries to understand factors affecting life satisfaction among adults in the UK.
"Is there really a gender difference when you look at individual life satisfaction and happiness? What makes a woman or a man happy? Are women happier than men?"
While average levels of life satisfaction are similar for men and women, the variations in life satisfaction are more marked for women. Paid work hours increase life satisfaction for both men and women, while housework hours, childcare and caring for adults are statistically more significant for women.
Working with students
Currently supervising dissertation and PhD students within the Department of Economics, Uma is happy to see her students develop similar research interests in gender and development studies. Most of her students tend to look at other markets that are neglected by mainstream economists but are strongly affected by institutional factors like gender norms and notions of masculinity and femininity.
Uma works together with her PhD students on their research projects helping them build their work into detailed research papers. For instance, she recently co-authored a paper with one of her students which examines the reasons behind the wage premium earned in sex work over domestic work in India, despite employing individuals with similar demographics, which is women with low levels of training and education, migrating to cities for work.
"I have known Professor Uma Kambhampati for more than six years, first as a PhD student and later as a colleague and co-author. Uma has a wealth of knowledge and experience, and has the incredible capacity to mould a set of incoherent ideas into a well-structured piece of research. I have always deeply benefited from her expertise and have thoroughly enjoyed working with her."
economics at reading
Economics as a discipline has always been perceived as a male dominated hard science. Research has shown women are under-represented in the profession worldwide. Uma is proud of the fact that the department of Economics at the University of Reading is breaking the stereotypes in this regard.
"We have higher female representation in the department which does not hold true for most departments within the country. We have a large body of female economists and early career researchers in addition to a strong cohort of female PhD students. Additionally the School of Politics, Economics and International Relations at Reading is among the few within the country to have a female Head of School."
Speaking about diversity in teaching and learning, Uma points out the strengths of the department are not limited to the teaching of pure economics, statistics and mathematics. Undergraduate students have the opportunity to select options and learn from specialists in economic history and social economics right from the start of their degree. The optional modules offered to undergraduate and postgraduate students build on the department's research strengths notably in the fields of behavioural economics, development economics, labour economics, business economics, economic history and banking and finance.
The research intensive teaching also builds on the department's close association with other disciplines in the wider University including psychology, geography, history, business studies and philosophy. Uma herself is a part of the Global Research division in the University working closely with the departments of geography, law and agriculture.
"Within the Department of Economics, there is a collective interest in being on top of things in our areas of specialism. For instance, it doesn't stop at the fact that I am a development economist and I teach development economics. What really matters is I am a development economist and I use a certain set of skills and methodology in my teaching and research. The more I am able to keep myself up to date with that, the better I am able to pass that on to my students."