Catherine Eckel

Catherine Eckel

Looking towards the future of economics research


Catherine Eckel is widely regarded as a leader in the field of experimental economics, which is when experimental methods are applied to test economic theories. Beyond her innovative contributions to the field, Eckel is recognized for her teaching ability, her mentorship of economics students, and her advocacy for women in her field. From her research to her advocacy, it is clear that Eckel is dedicated to creating a brighter future in economics: one that is both more informed and more inclusive.

I had always been something of an activist, and economics gave me a way to think about hard problems with a cool approach.

– Catherine Eckel in an interview in theNewsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession

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Innovative Ideas

Sex differences in economic decisions – In the absence of risk, men and women respond to economic decisions differently

Eckel’s research often addresses sex differences within the context of economics. In particular, she is interested in the sex differences observed in economic decision-making. Her paper on the topic, which was co-authored by fellow economist, Philip J. Grossman, was published in the Handbook of Experimental Economics Results in 2008. In this review paper, titled “Differences in the Economic Decisions of Men and Women: Experimental Evidence”, Eckel and Grossman discussed various studies pertaining to the topic of sex differences in economic decision-making, including studies conducted by Eckel herself. Based on the literature, they concluded that, in general, there are no consistent significant differences in the economic decisions made by men and women. However, they remarked upon an interesting pattern, by which the experimental design could elicit sex differences. In experiments where the participants were not exposed to risk, women tended to make more socially-oriented decisions than men, who tended to make more individually-oriented decisions.1

In the absence of risk, an interesting pattern emerged, whereby women made decisions that considered the needs of society at large, while men made decisions that focused more on themselves as individuals.2 One example of the kind of study discussed in this review paper was conducted by Eckel and Grossman in 1998, the results of which were published in their paper “Are women less selfish than men?: Evidence from dictator experiments”. In this study, the dictator, the participant, is asked to split 10.00$ between themselves and an unknown person. In each session, participants are assigned either the role of the dictator or the recipient and directed to a different room based on this assignment. Participants in the dictator condition are then randomly given envelopes containing ten one-dollar bills and ten pieces of blank paper. They are told to remove ten items from the envelope – whatever combination of bills and blank slips of paper they wish – then to return the sealed envelope to the experimenter and leave. The participants playing the role of the dictator are told that the remaining contents of the envelope will be given to an anonymous partner. Once the participants in the dictator condition had left, the experimenter brought the envelopes to the recipients and the amount of money each received was calculated. Half of the sessions were conducted with female dictators and half were conducted with male dictators. On average, they found that women chose to donate twice as much money as men, which offers evidence of a sex difference in economic decision-making. A key point of this study is that risk is absent in the context of this game, which aligns with the conclusion of Eckel and Grossman’s review paper.3

“I wondered if lack of mentoring made a difference. It seemed that there were many small barriers to effective mentoring of women while men unconsciously received lots of in- formal mentoring from their teachers and colleagues. I really think that people are just a little more likely to mentor someone who reminds them of themselves, and let’s face it, this made a woman’s situation different. Women had to work to develop effective mentoring relationships while men were automatically mentored.”

– Catherine Eckel in an interview in the Newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession

As Eckel and Grossman point out in their review paper, this finding has implications for future research in behavioral economics.4 Knowledge of these sex differences can enable the more accurate prediction of behavior, in addition to being an interesting avenue of investigation in its own right.

“In those settings where subjects are not exposed to risk – i.e., as respondents in ultimatum experiments employing the “game method” design and dictator games – systematic differences are revealed. The choices women make are less individually-oriented and more socially-oriented. This finding is conditioned by the level of risk, which points to an important avenue for future research. If men and women systematically differ in their responses to risk, then this has important implications for behavior.”

– Catherine C. Eckel and Philip J. Grossman in “Differences in the Economic Decisions of Men and Women: Experimental Evidence”

Women in economics – Advocacy, mentorship, and the importance of role models

In addition to contributing to research, Eckel has played a significant role in improving the status of women with professions in economics. In the early 1990s, Eckel joined with other faculty members at Virginia Tech, where she held a professorship at the time, to form the Organization of Women Faculty, a group of like-minded women who, together, organized various workshops. At Eckel’s suggestion, the organization began inviting experienced individuals in the field, many of them women, to speak at the university. The speakers were asked to give two presentations, the first, a more general talk regarding their research, and the second targeted at graduate students and new professors and focusing on the inspirations and challenges they had faced in their careers thus far. Eckel believes that these presentations were successful at both bringing new experimental economics research findings to their attention and highlighting the contributions and careers of women.5 

Eckel stresses the importance of mentoring for women in economics, something that has been an important part of her own career. She has given seminars on this topic, such as one in 2016 at the Gender Institute at the Australian National University. In these seminars, she explains how, at the universities where she has been a faculty member, she helped to develop these programs and participated in them as a mentor herself.6 Eckel also addresses the fact that mentoring is often presented in a negative light, leading women to feel that they may be viewed as weak for having a mentor. She emphasizes that women, like men, must network to further themselves within their profession, and mentoring is a key part of that. Furthermore, she points out that it may be more important for women to connect with women in their field at other universities, as there may be too few senior females in the economics department at a given university to provide sufficient support to new graduate students and faculty members.7

Research shows that mentoring can have a significant positive impact on the careers of mentees, specifically in the context of academia.8 Female faculty members are often marginalized and feel like outsiders, which may impede their professional success. Studies have shown that mentorship programs may mitigate this effect, enabling women to thrive in their chosen field.9 This is a key issue in academia, especially in economics, which tends to be male-dominated.

After the success of the Organization of Women Faculty’s speaker series, Eckel was asked to assist on Virginia Tech’s National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant, which is awarded to universities to enable the diversification of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community. In the late 1990s, Eckel worked at the National Science Foundation as the Program Director in Economics, where she assisted in a collaboration with the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession to develop CeMENT, a mentoring program for new female and non-binary faculty members.10 The program informs participants on topics such as networking, getting published, writing grant proposals, and maintaining a work-life balance. Its benefits have been confirmed by empirical evidence.11

Historical Biography

“Personally, the work [of mine] I like best deals with the impact of social status on economic behavior. I like to think that this body of experimental research, in part, helped lead to the recognition that context matters, and thus contributed in a small way to the development of behavioral economics.”

– Catherine Eckel in an interview in the Newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession

Catherine Eckel dreamed of becoming an actress, but one year of theatre school changed her mind. She then set her sights on photography and started a small business, in which she photographed houses. However, she soon realized that if she wanted to be successful, she would need formal training, which led her to enroll in Virginia Commonwealth University’s undergraduate business program. While she did not particularly enjoy her business courses, she discovered a passion for economics. In fact, it was one of her economics teachers that first suggested she pursue her studies at the graduate level.12 Eckel eventually received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 1983.13

After obtaining her degree, Eckel went on to teach at Virginia Tech, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Texas at Dallas, where she founded the Center for Behavioral and Experimental Economic Science.14 She is currently a professor of economics and director of the Behavioral Economics and Policy Program at Texas A&M Unviersity.15 Eckel wrote her first paper in experimental economics with behavioral economist Charles Holt, in 1989, which was titled “Strategic Voting in Agenda-Controlled Committee Experiments,” and published in the journal American Economic Review.16 She continued to grow her portfolio in the domain of experimental economics in the years that followed. She has conducted research on a variety of different topics and has several publications to her name.17 

In addition to being a leader in the area of experimental economics, Eckel has dedicated much of her career to advancing women in economics. She is an advocate for women in the field and has been instrumental in the development of mentoring programs, which she herself has participated in. In particular, she aims to provide mentorship to female assistant professors in economics.18  In 2012, she was awarded the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award by the American Economic Association Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. The award has been presented annually since 1998 to recognize individuals who furthered the status of women in economics.19

Eckel’s teaching methods frequently earn her praise from her students and she has won a number of teaching awards.20 She is extremely dedicated to supporting students through their studies of economics and as they begin to take on careers in the field. As a professor, Eckel has supervised several undergraduate research projects and is eager to help her students gain the skills and experience necessary to pursue their studies at a graduate level.21 In addition to this, she often agrees to take on Ph.D. candidates. The graduate students she has supervised have gone on to be professors at universities worldwide.22

Throughout her career, Eckel has collaborated with many other noteworthy figures in her field. She has co-authored several papers alongside Philip J. Grossman, a professor in the Department of Economics at Monash University in Australia.23 Together, they have made significant contributions to the literature, specifically regarding sex-differences in economic decision-making and reactions to financial risk. Eckel has cited economist Charles Holt as having an important influence on her career, naming him as a long-time friend and mentor. It was with Holt that she wrote her first paper in experimental economics, which soon became the main focus of her research.24

Published Works

Where are the Women Economics Majors?

In this 2013 edition of the Newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in Economics Profession, which is distributed by the American Economic Association, Catherine Eckel is one of the women in economics featured in an interview. She talks about her early life and what led her to enter economics, as well as her work as a mentor and advocate for other women in her field. In addition to an interview with Eckel, this edition of the newsletter features entries on issues relevant to economics, such as the importance of role models and how we can go about attracting more women and minorities into this field of study.

“Are women less selfish than men?: Evidence from dictator experiments”

This paper, which is co-authored by Eckel and her colleague, Philip J. Grossman, examines sex differences in individually-oriented and socially-oriented decisions. They do so through the use of a dictator game, which is a popular form of experimental design in behavioral economics research. This is just one example of Eckel’s many contributions to experimental economics.

“Men, Women, and Risk Aversion: Experimental Evidence”

Eckel and Grossman collaborated once again on this review paper, in which they discuss the literature on sex differences in risk aversion. They note that, while women have been shown to be more risk aversion is field, or “real world” studies, sex differences are not consistently shown in more controlled experimental studies. They also highlight some of the issues with current research, such as failing to take certain influential factors into account, and suggest future directions of study.


  1. Eckel, C.C., and Grossman, P.J. (2008). Differences in the Economic Decisions of Men and Women: Experimental Evidence. Handbook of Experimental Economics Results. 1, 509-519.
  2. See 1
  3. Eckel, C. C., & Grossman, P. J. (1998). Are women less selfish than men?: evidence from dictator experiments. The Economic Journal108(448), 726–735.
  4. See 1
  5. Conrad, C., Goldin, C., Boya Zhu, M., Griffith, A.L., Feigenbaum, S.K., and Saunders, L. (2013). Where Are the Women Economic Majors? Newsletter of Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession
  6. Mentoring with Professor Catherine Eckel. Gender Institute. Australian National University.
  7. See 5
  8. Ver 5
  9. Gibson, S.K. (2006). Mentoring Women Faculty: The Role of Organizational Politics and Culture. Innovative Higher Education. 31(1), 63-79. DOI: 10.1007/s10755-006-9007-7
  10. Ver 5
  11. Ver 5
  12. CeMENT: Mentoring for Junior Faculty. American Economic Association.
  13. Catherine Eckel. Economía de la Universidad de Texas A&M.
  14. Ver 13
  15. Ver 13
  16. Ver 5
  17. Ver 5
  19. Ver 18
  20. Ver 18
  21. Ver 13
  22. Ver 13
  23. Philip Grossman. Perfiles. Monash University.
  24. Ver 5

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