Chandan Jha, Ph.D., believes that building a meaningful professional life begins with finding something that inspires you and moves you to take action. For Jha, that is the well-being of others. He grew up in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, on the country’s border with Nepal, before moving to the United States to continue his education as a graduate student. Over the course of his life, he has witnessed and experienced what he calls “huge differences in culture,” discrepancies that he says “sometimes make him uncomfortable,” particularly as they relate to equity, fairness and inclusion. As a child he was aware of the disparate educational opportunities that were available to boys and girls in India. By the time he was ready to begin his undergraduate studies at Magadh University in Bodh Gaya, he wanted to understand those inequities better. Why did they exist? How did they impact people on a day-to-day basis? What, if any, responsibility did he have to help alleviate them?
Today Jha is the John K. Purcell ’65 Endowed Chair in Finance professor in the Madden College of Business and Economics at Le Moyne College. His research on corruption, particularly the link between social media and corruption, and the relationship between gender representation in national parliaments and corruption, has received media attention from all over the world. Jha won the 2020 Kuznets Prize for his article Ancestral Ecological Endowments and Missing Women, which he wrote with Gautam Hazarika of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Sudipta Sarangi of Virginia and appeared in the Journal of Population Economics. Most recently, Jha has been studying something particularly unique at the intersection of gender and equality: the connection between the abundance of arable land in antiquity and the level of participation of women in the workforce at present. Put simply, the more arable land a society had, the more workers it need needed in order to cultivate that land. When there was a shortage of labor, it was often filled by women, who had traditionally worked in the home. Eventually this became ingrained in the culture where women working outside the home was acceptable and even today societies with greater ancestral arable land are characterized by greater rates of female labor force participation. What’s more, because women’s health was vital for them to contribute to agriculture, these societies often placed a greater emphasis on women’s health, as evidenced by better outcomes as measured by the maternal mortality rate and female-male life expectancy gap.
Over the course of his research, which included a large-scale review of literature, Jha found that this did not necessarily translate to greater empowerment for women in ancient life. It does not correlate to more robust educational or civic opportunities for women today, either. However, it is an important data point in the history of women in the workforce and holds lessons for society today. As Jha notes, at the start of 2023, just 53 of the Fortune 500 CEOs were women. This can have real-world implications. Diverse teams arrive at better decisions than homogeneous ones. They tend to focus more on facts, to process those facts more carefully, and to be more creative in their thinking. That is why, as an economist, it is important to him to continue to explore issues of equity, fairness and inclusion. It is something about which he is passionate, and he believes that passion, in addition to curiosity and a commitment to the common good, is central to outstanding research.
“The world is a vast collection of knowledge,” he says. “I want to contribute to making the world a better place to live, and I believe I can do that by exploring the causes and consequences of different kinds of social inequality that exist.”