WASHINGTON (AP) — Janet Yellen, the first woman to head the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury Department, says women seeking to pursue careers in economics face a number of obstacles from the way beginning economics courses are taught to overly aggressive questioning in college seminars.
“There is a cultural problem in the profession, and we need to change the culture,” Yellen said Monday. She was appearing at an event with Kristalena Georgieva, only the second woman to head the International Monetary Fund.
The two, who spoke at the event recognizing International Women’s Day, discussed the obstacles they both faced embarking on economics careers, a profession where even today, women are in a distinct minority to men.
Yellen said studies have shown that the way economics is taught in introductory courses is often a “turn off” for women because the beginning courses do not focus enough on how economics can improve people’s lives.
“The pipeline issue really starts early,” Yellen said. “There are a lot of people who are thinking about how can we reach economics in such a way that it shows women that it is a great way to improve human welfare.”
She said women pursuing degrees in economics often face more hostile questioning in college seminar classes from the men in the class, adding to the hurdles women have to face in pursuing advanced degrees.
Georgieva, who was a top official at the World Bank before taking over at the IMF, said she often encourages women to “don’t be shy, please apply” as a way to overcome the reluctance of women to pursue promotions. “Women may be more self-critical and forego opportunities” in male-dominated organizations.
She said on her first visit to the World Bank to make a presentation, she was wearing a colorful dress but immediately turned around and went to a store to buy a dark suit when she saw how all the men were dressed.
Asked how she handled setbacks in her career, Yellen said that after getting her PhD in economics at Yale she took a job as an assistant professor at Harvard but was passed over for one of a limited number of tenured jobs at Harvard. She said she decided to take a job at the Federal Reserve, and in that position realized how much she enjoyed pursuing economic research as part of making government policy decisions.
“I came to the Fed and discovered how much I enjoyed doing public policy,” she said. “It was a different path but it really took me into a large part of my career.”
It was in this Fed job that Yellen met her future husband and both moved to the University of California at Berkeley where they taught for many years before Yellen returned to Washington during the Clinton administration. Yellen is the first person to head all three top economic jobs: the Council of Economic Advisors, the Fed and the Treasury.
Georgieva said she was drawn to studying how economics can influence environmental issues because growing up in Bulgaria, she had a relative who became very sick from ground water pollution that was preventable.
She said the economy of Bulgaria collapsed because of hyper inflation during a time of communist control in the 1980s, wiping out her mother’s savings and forcing her as a young mother to get up at 4 a.m. to go to the store to buy milk for her daughter.
She said that episode demonstrated the need for governments to pursue sound economic policies. “My message to my staff is that policies are for people and for improving people’s lives,” she said.