Finally, President Barack Obama clumsily backed into the right choice to replace Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman. Not for the right reason, either: that Janet Yellen has always been the best choice for the job. But Obama only caved after his first choice, Larry Summers, flamed out.
Yellen had the better credentials. She already is the Fed’s vice chairwoman, for one thing. She predicted the financial collapse that led to the Great Recession. She tends to view economic downturns in very human terms and she has received high praise from most Senate Democrats — 20 of whom took the unusual step of sending a letter to the president imploring him to nominate her when he clearly was leaning toward Summers.
Of course, women’s rights groups are ecstatic. If confirmed — the process likely is being delayed by budget battles — Janet Yellen would be the first female Fed chair and instantly would become one of the most powerful women in the world.
The question: Can Yellen’s nomination prompt more young women to enter the field of economics, one of a handful of remaining disciplines in which prominent women are few and far between?
Bloomberg News makes the point that women are far less likely than men to study economics: “Nationwide ... for every female undergraduate in the major, there are three males in the major, adjusted for relative numbers of bachelor’s degrees by sex.” It is not for lack of interest, nor for the frequently but inaccurately held perception that men are better at math than are women.
Bloomberg reports: “Women who thought they would major in economics often become discouraged when they don’t get sufficiently high grades in introductory courses. Men are far less likely to be discouraged by similar grades. In other words, the gradient of major choice with respect to grades in the ‘gateway’ courses is steeper for women than for men. The same pattern has been found among engineering students.”
So this becomes the better question: Can prominent female role models help young female economists understand that less-than-stellar grades early in the educational experience can be overcome?
Bloomberg’s answer is yes.
Such role models already exist; look no further than Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director. Though her academic background isn’t in economics, she’s been deeply involved in finance. Her post-graduate training was as a labor and antitrust lawyer, and she was a leading partner at the law firm of Baker & McKenzie in Europe. Forbes this year ranked her as the world’s seventh most powerful woman.
Lagarde should be an inspiration to young women. Palpably brilliant, she operates in a male-dominated world and gives the impression that, in a debate, she could disarm and win over a man smoothly, smilingly and effectively.
Yellen has a considerably different style. She is not a French fashionista; she is more the academe. But when she’s confirmed by the Senate, as is likely, many a female economics major will heave an inward sigh of relief and say, “One of us has made it. Now I can, too.”
Bonnie Erbe writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.