Janet Yellen will be the most powerful economist in the world. What does that mean for women in economics?


Janet Yellen, President Obama's nominee to be the next Fed chair. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

There's broad agreement in economics circles that in selecting Janet Yellen as his nominee for Federal Reserve chair, President Obama is nominating someone with unusually strong credentials for the job — a top academic economist with deep experience at the Fed. But we should not overlook what an important achievement it is for women in economics — cracking the ultimate glass ceiling in the field.

Unfortunately, women have been underrepresented in economics for generations, a problem that has been somewhat lessened over the years, but where there continues to remain huge gaps. “In the general finance world, and even in economics, there are tons of women,” Christina Romer, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, told Ezra recently. “But I’m lucky at monetary-economics conferences if I’m one of three women, and now that Anna Schwartz has died, if I’m one of two.”

According to the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, about 35 percent of candidates for an economics doctorate are women. But at each stage of the profession — from assistant professor to tenured full professor — fewer women are represented, with fewer than 15 percent of women holding the rank of professor.

There are a lot of theories for why women are underrepresented in the field, but Cecilia Rouse, a top economist at Princeton and dean of the university's Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, said one of the biggest problems is the lack of role models.

"It’s  a vicious cycle where there are a lack of women who are role models," she said in an interview this morning. "If women don't have the role models, then women don't have the interest, then women don't have the role models."

She said Yellen as Fed chair will help ameliorate that problem — at least to some degree. "It symbolically is a great moment for women in economics," she said. "This is the most powerful job in economics.And for the first time it will be held by a woman."

"I think it’s hugely important than women can see that women like that," she said.

Last night, Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan, said he was hopeful that was the message his daughter would get, as well.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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Neil Irwin | October 9, 2013