To be a woman in economics is to work in a field whose gender dynamics are notoriously imbalanced. Women receive degrees in economics at disproportionate rates compared to men (and women in other disciplines), and the women who do pursue careers in the field face discrimination, harassment, exclusion and hostility—studies have shown that women gave fewer than one quarter of all economics talks in recent years, and a different study found that when women do present, they’re barraged with questions at higher rates than their male colleagues.
These conditions, and this underrepresentation, “likely hampers the discipline, constraining the range of issues addressed and limiting our collective ability to understand familiar issues from new and innovative perspectives,” economist Cecilia Rouse wrote in 2016, when she was a professor at Princeton.
On Friday, Rouse was sworn in as the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, becoming the first Black person to hold the role. At 57 years old, Rouse represents a generation of female economists who have persevered through their industry’s environment and now stand at the forefront of a financial crisis that has shuttered small businesses and unemployed millions of Americans. And so, as part of our regular segment on Morning Joe highlighting women over the age of 50 who are changing the world, Forbes and “Know Your Value” want to shine a light on the women who will be crucial to our nation’s economic recovery. They are:
Janet Yellen, 74: In 2014, Yellen became the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve, and for four years her steady guidance on interest rates played a key role in America’s recovery from the Great Recession. Seven years later, she’s in a remarkably similar position, having been sworn in as our nation’s first female Treasury Secretary while staring down grave economic realities. “We are living in a K-shaped economy, one where wealth built upon wealth, while working families fell farther and farther behind,” Yellen said during her confirmation in January.
Yellen received her Ph.D. from Yale in 1971—the only woman to get her doctorate in economics from the university that year—and soon thereafter took a teaching job at Harvard. Her career has crisscrossed from the world of academia to policy (President Clinton appointed Yellen as the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers in 1997, making her the first woman to hold the role), but through it all, she’s held one consistent guiding principle: “I care about people,” Yellen said in 2013. “I discovered that economics was of enormous relevance to our lives and had the potential to make the world a better place.”
This thesis is evident in her support of the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill Biden signed. “We have 22 million Americans who say they don’t have enough to eat. There’s additional money for food stamps,” Yellen said of the package in a Sunday interview on ABC. “I’m hopeful that, if we defeat the pandemic, that we can have the economy back near full employment next year. And I think this is the package we need to do that.”
Cecilia Rouse, 57: When President Biden nominated Rouse to lead the CEA in January, he called her “one of the most distinguished economists in the country; an expert on labor economics, race, poverty and education.” A bipartisan majority agrees with this assessment: On March 2, the Senate voted 95 to 4 to confirm her to the position.
“We want to design policies that will be economically effective,” Rouse said earlier this year about her goals as CEA chair. “Every time we look at a policy, what are the racial and ethnic impacts?”
Rouse has attributed her economics career to her mother, who encouraged her to take a class in the subject while she was a freshman at Harvard. It was during the early 1980s and unemployment was spiking around the country, and Rouse has described being compelled by the way the headlines were reinforcing what she was learning in the classroom. After receiving both her undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Harvard, Rouse went on to work at Princeton (before being confirmed as CEA chair, she was the dean of its School of Public Policy and International Affairs) and had served in the National Economic Council under President Clinton and was a member of the CEA for President Obama.
Anne Finucane, 68: The Bank of America vice chairman is the 36th most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes, due to crisscrossed sustainable finance, capital deployment and public policy efforts. When the pandemic took hold of the United States one year ago this month, Finucane added $100 million to the bank’s typical $250 million in charitable giving, directing it toward the purchase of PPE, food and other necessary items for communities that needed it the most.
“As we collectively navigate this health and humanitarian crisis, we recognize that the private sector can play a pivotal role to help communities in need,” Finucane said.
In an interview with Mika Brzezinski last year, Finucane talked about the ways she needed to reframe how she thought about the pandemic. “I don’t know for other people, but for me, I had to really readjust to the fact that this wasn’t just a [short-term] emergency,” she said.
Kristalina Georgieva, 67: A Bulgarian environmental economist, Georgieva entered 2020 with a high degree of prominence and responsibility: she was the CEO of the World Bank from 2017 to 2019 and in 2019 was named the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, succeeding Christine Lagarde. Georgieva is the first person from an emerging country to lead the organization, and as such, by Forbes’ estimate, she is the eighteenth most powerful woman in the world. But the onset of the coronavirus pandemic increased her significance on the world stage: As businesses shuttered around the world, half of the IMF’s 190 member countries requested emergency loans from the fund.
“What I think you see at the IMF is recognizing that at a time of crisis, we do have a role of first responder,” Georgieva said in September. “And in this role as first responder, when we provide emergency financing—we have done $30 billion for 75 countries, 47 of them low-income countries—we have to really move fast.”
With the crisis funding now deployed, Georgieva is turning her attention to the next threat to her member nations: inequities in their economic recoveries.
“The path to recovery is highly uncertain and, most importantly, uneven,” she said during a February address to the EU parliamentary conference. “Uncertain because of the ongoing race between the virus and the vaccines. Uneven because of the difference in starting positions, economic structure and capacity to respond—causing inequalities to grow both across and within countries. The latter is my deepest concern: that the Great Lockdown of 2020 could morph into a Great Divergence in 2021.”
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