The St. Louis Fed’s Focus on Women in Economics
By James Bullard
Note: This article originally ran April 5, 2019, in the St. Louis Fed’s Regional Economist publication.
Economics is a male-dominated field. Women are underrepresented starting at the undergraduate level, and the gap widens carrying forward to advanced careers in economics.
For example, one study found that more than half of undergraduates who earned bachelor’s degrees in any discipline from 2011–2015 were women, but less than one-third of those who majored in economics were women.¹ Another study found that women earned about 31 percent of doctorates in economics in 2014.² In contrast, women made up more than half of those earning a doctorate in other social sciences, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and the humanities and more than 40 percent of those earning a doctorate in business. Looking at academia, where the next generation of economists are trained and mentored, another report revealed that the share of full professors (a tenured position) who were women was 14 percent among departments with Ph.D. programs in economics and 24 percent among those without such programs in 2017.³
In an era when diversity has become fundamental to success, these statistics paint a rather dismal picture. Considering the economics profession’s influence on public policy, attracting more diverse candidates is paramount. Yet, with the limited pipeline of diverse talent discussed above, creating real change means playing the long game.
Seeing an opportunity to contribute in this area, St. Louis Fed staff created a new initiative in 2018: the Women in Economics (WIE) symposium and podcast series.⁴ This initiative is designed to connect young women with accomplished women in the economics profession who share the story of their career journey, helping inspire women who wonder if economics is a profession they should (and actually could) pursue.
The first WIE symposium was held at the St. Louis Fed in February 2018. Attendees included more than 120 women studying economics at the undergraduate level, who came from 14 different states and 43 different colleges and universities. During the symposium, these undergraduates had the opportunity to hear from some of the top economists in the U.S. (who happen to be female), to obtain career advice and to network with women who have diverse careers in the field of economics.
The feedback characterized the symposium as outstanding, and based on its success, a second WIE symposium was held this past February. We are working with colleagues across the Federal Reserve System to make the WIE symposium a national program.
The WIE podcast series highlights the careers of women who are prominent economists in business, academia and the Federal Reserve System. The podcasts focus on their personal stories about what inspired them to study economics, the challenges they have faced throughout their careers, who their mentors have been and how they are mentoring others.
The podcast series kicked off with three speakers from the first WIE symposium: Mary Daly (now president of the San Francisco Fed), Claudia Sahm (section chief of consumer and community development research at the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors) and Ellen Zentner (managing director and chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley).
Since the initial launch, additional podcasts featuring women from a variety of economics professions have been released roughly once a month. As of March, the series also included podcasts with two more of my colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee (Lael Brainard and Loretta Mester) as well as economists working at the St. Louis Fed (Paulina Restrepo-Echavarria), in academia (Fenaba Addo, Amanda Bayer, Lisa Cook, Susan Feigenbaum, Gail Heyne Hafer and Una Osili), at the Brookings Institution (Louise Sheiner) and in business (Diane Swonk and Kate Warne). We also have a podcast with David Wilcox (former director of the research and statistics division of the Board of Governors), who talked about his work related to this topic.
Importance of Diversity
The WIE symposium and podcasts support the St. Louis Fed’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. We understand that organizations make better decisions when they have input from a diverse group of people. The same is true when it comes to monetary policy, for instance. Including diverse perspectives leads to better policy decisions, which ultimately leads to better macroeconomic outcomes. Having more women and underrepresented minorities in the field is necessary to ensure these diverse views are taken into account in business and policy decisions.
We have seen a groundswell of support — both throughout the Federal Reserve System and outside it — for continuing and even expanding our WIE effort. At the Bank, we recognize the potential impact that this initiative can have in promoting more diversity in economics. As a result, the WIE symposium and associated podcast series won the 2018 St. Louis Fed President’s Award for Innovation. While more needs to be done to help raise awareness of these issues and to encourage more women to pursue a career in economics, the WIE effort makes great strides in these areas.
- The authors looked at four-year, not-for-profit colleges and universities in the U.S. See Bayer, Amanda; and Wilcox, David. “The Unequal Distribution of Economic Education: A Report on the Race, Ethnicity, and Gender of Economics Majors at US Colleges and Universities.” Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2017–105, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, October 2017.
- These numbers are based on data for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. See Bayer, Amanda; and Rouse, Cecilia Elena. “Diversity in the Economics Profession: A New Attack on an Old Problem.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Fall 2016, Vol. 30, №4, pp. 221–42.
- See Lundberg, Shelly. Reports from the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, 2018 Issue 1.
James Bullard is president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In this capacity, he oversees the activities of the Eighth Federal Reserve District and is a participant on the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee, or FOMC, which sets the direction of U.S. monetary policy.