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Yellen: Women made America’s economy great

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen joins Rep. Maxine Waters, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde in a toast celebrating Women's History Month. (Credit: U.S. House of Representatives.)

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Tuesday that America’s economic progress over the past century has been fueled in large part by the advent of women in the workforce.

Yellen is the first female to lead the central bank in its 100-year history, and her speech marked one of the few times over her four-decade career that she has directly addressed the status of women in the workplace. She spoke at a celebration in honor of Women's History Month on Capitol Hill hosted by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Guests included Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and California Rep. Maxine Waters.

“It is no coincidence that America’s great success in the past century came as women steadily increased their participation in every aspect of society,” Yellen said, according to prepared copy of her statement.

The growing number of women in the labor force, particularly after 1970, contributed to the growing wealth enjoyed by American households. Women accounted for about 47 percent of the labor force in 2012, but full-time working females still only make about 77 cents for every dollar men make. Yellen also acknowledged the glass ceiling many women face in government, business and academia -- even in her own field of economics.

“Making fuller use of the talents and efforts of women in the workplace has made us more productive and prosperous,” she said. “I would hope that our nation continues to reap the benefits of greater participation by women in the economy and that we do everything that we can to foster that participation.”

A recent paper by Harvard professor Claudia Goldin, the first female to earn tenure in its economics department, found that the current gender wage gap is the result of inflexible workplaces. Goldin’s research found that pay differences could be considerably reduce, or even eliminated, if companies did not reward employees for worked longer hours or during certain times of the day -- practices that particularly harm working women with children.

“These are also positions for which considerable work hours leads to a higher chance of obtaining the reward, and it is often the case that hours alone get rewarded,” Goldin wrote in her paper. “Persistence in these positions and continuous time on the job probably matters far more to one’s success than a desire and ability to compete.”

Yellen has faced her own gender barriers over her 40-year career: She was the only woman in her PhD class at Yale University in 1971. She was one of only two female professors at Havard when she was hired after finishing her doctorate. And just last year, President Obama mistakenly referred to her as “Mr. Yellen.”

In her speech Tuesday, Yellen said more research into gender imbalances are needed to ensure the country is harnessing its best talent to compete in an increasingly global economy.

“I hope we continue to seek this understanding, in my field and others where women are in the minority, because the benefits of greater participation for women, it seems to me, are clear and substantial,” she said.