At the beginning of November, President Trump decided to replace Janet L. Yellen, despite a widely heralded term, with her colleague Jerome Powell. Yellen has been the first female chair of the Federal Reserve. Nominating Powell restored the Fed’s century-long practice of male leadership.
So exactly how male-dominated are central banks? We investigated.
This is how we did our research
Using the Central Bank Directories, we collected data on central bank leadership for 115 countries for the years 1998-2014. Leadership includes top positions as central bank governors, presidents or chairs. We also included membership in what we call generically the central bank boards. To determine gender balance, we use central bankers’ names and, to the extent that the information is available, we code gender diversity within the institutional body responsible for monetary policy.
We also looked at the annual reports (1999-2016) for the two most prominent global central banks, the European Central Bank, or ECB, and the U.S. Federal Reserve to get a picture of women’s representation at the highest managerial levels.
Women lead few central banks worldwide
In 2015, there were 16 female central bank governors, chairs or presidents, out of the total of 115 central banks examined. Most of those served in developing countries. As the figure below shows, from 1998 to 2014, the number of women holding the post of governor, chair or president in one of the 115 central banks is usually in the single digits.
The next figure shows the number of women in leadership positions on central bank boards in the same 115 countries. The percentage of women in central bank boards remains somewhere around 10 to 15 percent over the period. However, there is an upward trend, and, in terms of raw numbers, as the figure shows, there is clearer progress. In 1998, there were 39 women in leadership positions — with only seven countries appointing two or more women to central bank leadership. In 2014, there were 116 women in such positions — with 35 countries appointing two or more women.
Note, however, that in just over half of the country-years in our sample, no women served on the central bank board. Twenty countries had no women in their central bank leadership for the entire 16 years that we examined, including radically dissimilar countries like Bangladesh, Mexico, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Uzbekistan or Switzerland.
The Fed has a larger share of women than the ECB
The world’s two premier central banks are the U.S. Fed and Europe’s ECB. Of the two, the Fed’s board and senior managerial positions consistently have more women — although the numbers for males and females are not yet close to equal.
The Fed and the ECB are managed by similarly sized boards. The Fed’s Board of Governors includes seven members, even though lately, vacancies abound. In 1978, Nancy Teeters was the first woman to join the board; since then, except for three years during the early 2000s, the board has included at least one woman. Between 2014 and 2016, two women served; between 2011 and 2013, the board included three women. Today, just one other woman, Lael Brainard, serves on the board with Yellen.
Since its inception in 1999, the ECB has been managed by a six-member executive board. In contrast, however, that board has only had one woman at any given time; and in 2012 and 2013, its membership was all male.
Beyond their boards, central banks’ senior management are also significant, offering expertise and often directly contributing to board deliberations. To assess women’s representation at this level, at the Fed, we examined the heads of divisions, which varied over time from 13 to 15 positions. At the ECB, we examined directors general and directors, which included between 19 and 28 positions.
Here again, we found more women in top positions at the Fed. Since 1999, the percentage of women in the Fed’s overall senior management ranged between 30 and 50 percent. During the same period, the ECB’s female senior management ranged between 5 percent and less than 20 percent, improving only in the past three years.
We also took a look at the percentage of women in senior core-business managerial jobs for the boards of the Fed and ECB. Core business involves managing issue areas that are directly related to the tasks of modern central banking, like monetary policy, research, statistics, financial stability or payment systems. At the Fed, women are better represented even in core business areas: Women hold between 20 and 40 percent of such positions. In contrast, the ECB has been male-dominated, with women holding anywhere from zero and just over 10 percent of top core-business managerial positions.
What’s next for women in central banking?
Women remain underrepresented in the economics profession, particularly in specializations like macroeconomics or finance, the backbone of central banking. More important, it’s not clear that politicians are motivated to find and appoint qualified female candidates to the top seats, or to insist that their central banks find and promote women on staff.
But public calls for gender equality have become louder. In response, in 2013 the ECB announced that it aimed to roughly double the share of women in high-ranking management positions and introduced a gender equality action plan. In 2014, Sabine Lautenschläger, was appointed to the previously all-male ECB Executive Board.
Also in 2013, female Democratic senators and various women’s groups encouraged President Barack Obama to appoint Yellen as Fed chair. In 2017, even though Yellen’s stewardship of the Fed overlapped with record low unemployment and stable prices, few made a strong case for gender balance at the Fed, presumably because women’s groups did not expect to get a hearing from the Trump administration.
Cristina Bodea is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.
Tara Iseneker is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at Michigan State University.