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Women land top economic policy posts as profession faces wider reckoning


(NEW YORK) — Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, a graduate student studying economics and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, who is Black, said she never would have entered the field if she hadn’t met Lisa Cook.

In 2017, then an undergraduate math major with little familiarity with economics, Opoku-Agyeman attended a seminar led by Cook, also Black, who at the time was an economics professor at Michigan State University.

“She was wonderful,” Opoku-Agyeman told ABC News. “I walked up to her and said, ‘Hey, can you be my mentor?"”

After graduation, Opoku-Agyeman spent a summer studying at Michigan State, where the relationship with Cook deepened from a formal mentorship to a friendship.

“She has looked out for me in this space,” Opoku-Agyeman said. ​​”I don’t think I would be here if she didn’t take me under her wing and usher me through some of the most difficult challenges.”

In May, Cook became a Federal Reserve governor, making her the first Black woman to hold that key position, which helps set central bank policy at a high-stakes moment when policymakers are trying to bring down inflation without causing a recession.

She is one in a series of women recently elevated to senior leadership posts in U.S. economic policymaking, including the appointment last month of Lael Brainard to lead the National Economic Council.

The rise of women at the top of economics shows how far the profession has come from a previous era when few women entered the field, economists told ABC News.

However, women continue to make up a fraction of students in the discipline, who ultimately set the course for its professional ranks; and a severe lack of minority women remains a dire concern, they said.

Esther George, the first woman to become President of the Kansas City Federal Reserve, who stepped down in January, told ABC News that the current group of women atop economic policymaking marks a major accomplishment but more progress awaits.

“It’s great,” she said, later adding: “We’re always looking at who’s graduating out of school with Ph.D.’s in economics, and notice right away there are fewer women, fewer still people of color. It really requires thinking about why that is.”

In all, two of the top three economic policymaking posts in the Biden administration are currently occupied by women, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

This year, a record number of women serve on the boards of the Federal Reserve’s 12 regional banks, a Reuters analysis last month found. Out of 108 spots on the 12 Fed bank boards, 44% are occupied by women, the analysis showed.

By contrast, women hold 28% of board seats on the Russell 3000 index of publicly traded companies, according to a report released in September by the advocacy group 50/50 Women on Boards, which drew on data from research firm Equilar.

The surge of women atop economic policymaking has coincided with a heightened focus on gender diversity at key institutions like the Federal Reserve, a shift driven in large part by women, economists said.

For example, George, the former President of the Kansas City Federal Reserve, helped women colleagues advance their careers through her position as host of a prestigious annual three-day symposium on central bank policy in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

In 2011, George launched a group called “Women of Jackson Hole” that aimed to improve the representation of women attendees and speakers at the conference.

When she began the initiative, women made up a handful of conference attendees, George said. Last year, nearly 30% of the symposium participants and more than 40 percent of the speakers were women, the symposium said.

“At first, all of us women could sit around a table for five,” George said. “When I left, we had a whole patio.”

“There’s a point at which you realize, and this was true for me: I can’t solve everything, but I ought to solve what I can.”

Stephanie Kelton, an economic professor at Stony Brook University and former economic advisor to the presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders, applauded the rise of women at the top of the field but stressed the importance of evaluating them based on how they carry out the job.

“It’s certainly affirming and it’s overdue, and you love to see women succeed in climbing the ranks,” Kelton told ABC News. “But it also matters who these people are and what they’re going to fight for and how they understand the working of the economy.”

Despite progress in representation of women at the top of the field, men far outnumber women at the undergraduate and graduate level, leaving the profession as a whole out of balance, economists said.

Last year, the share of women granted Ph.D. degrees stood at about 34%, slightly lower than it was in 2020; while the proportion of women among undergraduate economics major degree recipients stood at nearly 36%, roughly one percentage point higher than 2020, according to an annual report from the American Economic Association, or AEA.

Women make up less than 18% of full professors in economics departments with doctoral programs, the AEA report found.

In recent years, as the field has reckoned with the lack of overall gender representation in its ranks, prominent women economists have come forward with stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, prompting a #MeToo moment for the profession.

“I fortunately didn’t have any of those kinds of experiences that seem so commonplace within our discipline, and I don’t know if we’re uniquely bad in economics, but it sure seems to be something that needs to be addressed,” Kelton said.

Anne Owen, a professor of economics and public policy at Hamilton College who formerly worked at the Fed, said the lack of women in the field makes it harder for female students to establish a “sense of belonging” that can ease challenges posed by the profession.

“Going to graduate school in economics is very difficult and you have to persevere,” she added. “It might have been easier to find a reason to persevere if there were other women pursuing the same thing I was.”

The disparity in representation is even more pronounced among minority women. In 2016, minority women received 5.1% of all economics degrees conferred that year, an AEA report found.

Opoku-Agyeman, the graduate student at Harvard Kennedy School, said the lack of diversity in economics exposes her to moments of subtle but harmful forms of disrespect, such as people questioning her ability. Further, the status quo leads to policy outcomes that fail to fully consider the perspectives of minority groups, she added.

“We’re not doing ourselves any favors when we have a homogeneous looking group of people overseeing policymaking and how our economy functions,” she said. “Because the policies being enacted are being enacted on folks who don’t look like one group.”

Still, she said she draws encouragement from the rise of women in leadership positions, especially Cook.

“For me, it shows it can be done,” she said.

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