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Janet Yellen: A woman at the top of a very male profession

Janet Yellen testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate banking committee.

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

First thing next month, Janet Yellen will become the first woman to chair the U.S. Federal Reserve Board – arguably, the most important economic policy job in the world. While this is a breakthrough on many fronts, it is particularly noteworthy because of the appalling representation of women in economics.

Ms. Yellen was awarded her doctorate from Yale University in 1971. At that time, women received only 8 per cent of all doctorates in economics (out of roughly 800 in total). When I received mine in 1978, the percentage had risen to about 10 per cent. While those numbers have increased considerably over the intervening four decades, to 32 per cent in 2012 (when 1,195 in total were awarded), the upward movement of women on the academic career ladder has not improved.

Women are significantly less likely to be promoted to tenure than men, and these differences cannot be fully explained by observable characteristics, such as the number of publications in prestigious academic journals. Indeed, the data suggest that women with children published more papers than their male counterparts (or, for that matter, their female counterparts without children) in the first 10 years post-PhD; so much for typical gender bias that blames the underpayment of females on child bearing and rearing.

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From 1973 to 2001, female economists were an estimated 21 percentage points less likely than men to have a tenured academic job 10 years after receiving their PhDs. While much has been made of the low proportion of women in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), this gender promotion gap is larger in economics than in any of the STEM disciplines. For example, the gap is less than 3 per cent in the physical sciences, nil in statistics, and it reverses (favouring women) in life sciences, engineering and political science. While the percentage of doctorates granted to females has risen in all of these fields since 2001, the fastest growth has been in the physical sciences, led by computer and information sciences, and in engineering.

The growth has lagged in economics. The field now has the second-lowest absolute proportion of female PhDs – above engineering and about tied with the physical sciences. In 2012 (the latest data available), only 381 women were awarded their PhDs (32 per cent of the total), compared with 1,883 PhDs to women in engineering (22 per cent of the total). The American Economic Association's Committee for the Advancement of Women in Economics reports that the situation has improved relatively little in the past decade. Lest we think this applies only to academic economists, the U.S. National Association of Business Economists reports that female PhD economists earn about 20 per cent less than men with PhDs.

Ms. Yellen has been a star in the economics firmament for many years. She has had a number of stints at the Fed and was chair of the economic policy committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development from 1997 to 1999. She is professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, where she has been on faculty since 1980. Of the top 10 economics graduate schools in the United States, Berkeley has the largest proportion of female PhD students (roughly 40 per cent); studies have shown that there is a strong and persistent correlation between the gender ratio of students and faculty. Professor Yellen has been a role model for women for many years.

(Not surprisingly, she has had a very supportive partner. Her husband of many decades is Dr. George Ackerlof, a Nobel Prize-winning professor of economics, also at Berkeley.)

Among tenured economists in Australia, Canada, Britain, the United States and Sweden, a 2008 study found only 5 to 9 per cent are female.

Janet Yellen's appointment to the world's most powerful economic position will, hopefully, make a difference. Economics is too powerful a discipline to be exercised only by men.

Sherry Cooper is TMX Industry Professor at the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University, and former chief economist at Bank of Montreal.

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