Janet Yellen, the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve Board, recently discussed her first full-time job after college. She started as an assistant professor in the economics department at Harvard University; the year was 1971; she offered a powerful assessment.
“When I went there, I was the only woman on the faculty and I found it a very lonely and discouraging life,” said Yellen, the only woman in her graduating doctoral class at Yale. “I was really completely on my own in terms of doing research and I had virtually no one to talk to or to work with. I wouldn’t say it’s discriminatory, but it certainly was a situation that wasn’t conducive to success.”
Yellen, a President Barack Obama appointee in 2014 to the Fed, appeared on a panel titled “Women in Economics: The Washington Edition.” The discussion, held at the Economic Policy Institute think tank, focused on female economists and the challenges they face in the real world of a white-male dominated profession.
Panel moderator Heather Long, economics reporter for The Washington Post, cited an American Economic Association Climate Survey that found 30 percent of women and 25 percent of non-white economists said they experienced discrimination in the field. Long added, “I think those numbers really woke people up in addition to some of the more stark comments.”
One of those comments was voiced by Kayla Jones, who in 2018 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore.
“What keeps me going is my passion,” said Jones, who is an economics scholar in the Harvard Research Scholar Initiative program. “I know that economics is an area that I’m really interested in learning more about and it’s an area that we can really make a difference as minorities in terms of helping to ask more informative policy questions.”
About 30 percent of doctoral students in economics today are women; however, that figure has remained static since the late 1990s. Yes, the numbers have increased almost sixfold since chairwoman Yellen’s college days in the late 1960s, but issues still exist.
Including such matters as diversity of thought, the interruption curse and the quota/affirmative-action conundrum.
Nina Banks, associate professor of economics at Bucknell University who has researched the history of early black economists of 100 years ago, navigated that first matter, saying, “Recently, I’ve experienced a different type of bias that exists toward black economists in general, not just black women, and this is a bias where our research is not cited or our research is attributed to someone else. I can think of a number of examples of that.”
Yellen raised the trouble spot of interruptions, meaning when female economists speak in open forum-type settings in general, their male counterparts sometimes rush to abruptly interject, usually in a condescending manner. “Certainly,” Yellen said, “there are seminars where you would be lucky to get through your very first slide without interruption in which you explain what you’re going to do and it’s not uncommon for somebody to interrupt in slide number one and to say, ‘I just have to tell you that you’ve asked the wrong question and you’re looking at it the wrong way.’
“And you’ve not even succeeded in laying out what you’re going to do yet.”
As for the Federal Reserve, Yellen explained: “I would regard it as a workplace that takes diversity and inclusion much more seriously and is much more systematically attentive to thinking hard about how to create an environment that will promote diversity and inclusion and will be supportive.”
Regarding the quota question, Jones spoke in favor, explaining, “I do think having quotas would help to create a more even playing field in terms of creating more spaces for women and minorities to be invited to different panels as well as to rise up in different leadership positions.”
Note that some high-profile leaders recently have implemented a version of unilateral, de facto quota systems. Christine Lagarde, former head of the International Monetary Fund, refused to attend IMF meetings in which she would be the only woman.
On the male side, geneticist Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, boldly announced in June that he wouldn’t speak on what he labeled as “manels” — or panels that exclude women.
Now, back to Janet Yellen. Remember, she earlier spoke of feeling isolated at Harvard. But that changed after the university hired a second woman, someone Yellen could bond with socially and professionally as they collaborated on papers and research — plus mentorship.
Yellen, speaking of her brave beginning at Harvard, offered, “I think if anyone had asked me at the time, did I think I had a fair shot, I would have said yeah. Everybody’s on their own and I have as good a shot as anybody and if I don’t get it, it’s completely my fault.”
But she acknowledged in hindsight, “Collaborations don’t form just because two people happen to share common intellectual interests and decide we’ll get together. It comes out of a social network, going out for drinks after a seminar, meeting socially, talking about work and beginning to work together.”
A solution that ultimately became a blueprint for success.