4 Women Economists Reflect on What It’s Meant to Have a Woman Leader at the Fed

“I don't know that many people ever believed that someone other than a white male should be a Fed chair.”

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

When Janet Yellen leaves her role as the chair of the Fed at the end of her term in February, she will have a pretty impressive record to tout. She has led the Fed during one of the longest market rallies in modern history and presided over one of the biggest declines in unemployment and most significant periods of job creation ever. Despite these successes, critics had hoped that Yellen, who inherited an economy that had stabilized since the recession, would be aggressive in rolling back recession-era policy. Instead she proceeded with a slow and cautious approach to raising interest rates in the face of a strengthening economy.

Yellen will retire from the board completely after her term is up, even though she is still eligible to serve as a governor. One of the board’s current governors, Jerome Powell, will take her place, and likely continue the general arc of her monetary strategy.

Despite the growing health of the economy under her watch, Yellen will be the first Fed chair in recent history to finish a term but not be appointed for a second. The previous three Fed chairmen, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, and Paul Volcker, were all reappointed despite elections that put a president from the rival party in power.

I asked four women economists what they think Yellen has accomplished as the head of the Fed, and if having a woman in one of the most high-profile jobs in economics changed anything for them, or the male-dominated field.

Valerie Wilson, an economist, and the director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity, at the Economic Policy Institute:

She did a lot to weigh all of the data in determining the strength of the labor market, the risk of inflation. And those decisions to keep interest low have helped the recovery continue, and especially have helped the recovery reach communities of color, which is another thing that I think she should get credit for—being a Fed chair who was willing to hear concerns about what the Fed can do to address racial disparities, and acknowledging that there are racial disparities in employment and other economic outcomes that the Fed’s policies can have some effect on.

I don’t think it really had any impact on the profession and how the profession views female economists. I don’t sense really that anything has changed much. I was excited and glad that there was finally a woman in that position. But I would say the bigger impact may be for people outside of the profession. This is the first time that people have seen a woman in that role, and I don’t know that many people ever believed that someone other than a white male should be a Fed chair. And so I think having her there has sort of opened that door.

Aparna Mathur, an economist and resident scholar on economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute:

Janet Yellen has had a successful tenure as chair of the Federal Reserve. During her time there, we have seen a dip in unemployment rates, an overall improvement in the economic picture, and an uptick in other indicators that suggest that the recovery after the Great Recession has finally taken hold.

While she prefers to not be viewed through a gender lens, what makes her stand out to me as the first female Fed chair is her speech on women’s economic opportunities, and how women are unable to fully participate in the labor force because of a lack of family-friendly policies in the workplace, such as paid family and medical leave. This is an issue that I care about deeply, and it was wonderful to hear Janet Yellen use her forum to bring this issue to the forefront of the conversation, to talk about it not as a women’s issue but as an economic issue confronting the U.S., and particularly as an issue that matters for economic growth. All too often this kind of thinking is glossed over or sidelined. But coming from her, I think it gave the issue prominence and salience. And I am grateful for that.

Claudia Goldin, an economist and professor at Harvard University:

I’ve known Janet since 1975. She’s been special to me because of her humanity and her ability to rise above the rest.

In terms of female role models and mentors, she is clearly one: Laura Tyson was CEA Chair during the first Clinton administration, Janet followed her in the second Clinton administration, and Christina Romer was CEA Chair during the first Obama administration.

In the American Economic Association, we now have almost a full house of female officers. I was president in 2013–2014. Recent elections gave both vice president positions to women and several others on the executive committee. The major journal has had a female editor for a long time and we now have another. I can go on and on. The point is that young women do see many female economists in high positions—none as high as Janet, of course. Yet, my male colleagues are still tone deaf when it comes to putting together important panels at meetings (now called “manels” when there are no women) and they are insensitive in other ways.

Shelly Lundberg, an economist and professor of demography and economics at UC Santa Barbara:

Most academic female economists find themselves, early in their careers, with few women who can act as examples or role models. Growth in cohorts of women in the economics Ph.D. pipeline stalled about 15 years ago, and the share of women among full professors in the departments who train Ph.D.s just reached 14 percent this year.  (The Federal Reserve Board does better, and has been very active in recent years recruiting and promoting a more diverse set of researchers.) So of course, the first woman in a prominent and powerful position such as Fed chair has an important psychological impact on ambitious young women studying (or deciding to study) economics.  

The aspect of Yellen’s tenure that makes her a role model effect particularly powerful, I think, is the general acclaim of her performance—she has, with little drama, presided over what most commentators regard as an extremely successful term. She makes professionalism and competence seem like world-beating attributes—which, of course, they are. Hard-working young women find this extremely encouraging. It would be nice if the current publicity about Yellen’s term encouraged more undergraduate women to major in economics, but we’ll see.