The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected women and threatens to reverse decades of progress towards gender equity, including in the field of economics, United States Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned at an event marking International Women’s Day on Monday.
“I think it’s absolutely tragic the impact that this crisis has had on women, especially low-skilled women and minorities in the United States,” Yellen told the International Monetary Fund’s managing director Kristalina Georgieva during a live event called The Age of Womenomics.
During the conversation, the two economic titans discussed their personal career paths, what can be done to encourage more women to pursue a career in economics and the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on women’s employment.
Women are more likely than men to be employed in the services sector, which has experienced tremendous job losses during the pandemic. The COVID crisis has also spotlighted women’s roles as primary caretakers. When schools closed, many women were forced to give up their jobs or saw their careers take a back seat to caregiving, Yellen said.
“They’ve really lost a lot of income and opportunities. We’re really concerned about permanent scarring from this crisis,” Yellen said.
Yellen said she is hopeful that the US Congress will pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package this week. And once vaccines are rolled out on a mass scale and schools reopen, the main focus will be on getting the labour market back on track as soon as possible to avoid a repeat of the 2007-2009 Great Recession, after which it took about a decade to achieve full employment.
Yellen, who is the first female secretary of the US Treasury in history and the only person to have led the US Treasury, Federal Reserve, and the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said that women must be encouraged to join the economics field in order for real change to happen.
“We have a ways to go. There are still too few women around the tables that you and I sit at,” Yellen told Georgieva.
‘Bad policies are being paid by ordinary people’s suffering’
Yellen recalled growing up and hearing her parents tell stories of the suffering caused by high levels of unemployment during the 1929-1939 Great Depression.
Hearing about the plight of poverty inspired Yellen to take her first economics course at Brown University. In 1971, Yellen earned a PhD in economics from Yale University. She was the only woman in her class.
“I fell in love with economics as a freshman in college,” Yellen recalled.
Georgieva, meanwhile, said she studied “on the other side of the Iron Curtain” in the early 1980s in Bulgaria and was inspired to pursue a career in economics after a family member got sick from polluted water.
“It cried out to me that we have to have policies that are protecting people’s health and that are allowing the economy to grow without these negative impacts,” the IMF chief said.
Georgieva said that Yellen’s stories of the Great Depression reminded her of life in Bulgaria in the 1990s, when the economy collapsed and hyperinflation wiped out her mother’s entire life savings.
Georgieva would get up at four o’clock in the morning to get in the queue to buy milk for her baby daughter.
“Bad policies are being paid by ordinary people’s suffering and good policies can bring opportunities to everyone,” she said.
Implicit bias against women
Women are held back from studying economics and pursuing careers as economists because there are not enough mentors and role models that could help them imagine a rewarding path in the field, Yellen said.
Women in the economics field are also more likely than men to be ignored, interrupted, discriminated against and harassed, Yellen added, explaining that is why it is critical to empower bystanders to act against bad behaviour when they see it.
It is also essential to ensure that women are included at economics conferences and panels and offered a seat at the table where decisions are being made, she said.
“Economics can be very mathematical,” Yellen said. “People lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day this is about human welfare – it’s about making people’s lives better.”
Georgieva echoed that sentiment: “Economics is not a dry science. It is actually an empathetic science: one that is about the livelihoods of people, and the ability for society to do better.”
Georgieva recalled learning early on in her career the dangers of women trying to blend into a male-dominated field.
“It is dangerous because what we want is diversity, we want women to bring ideas and perspectives that otherwise will not be in the conversation,” she added.
Both Yellen and Georgieva emphasised that leaders in the economics field need to create an environment in which all people feel equally comfortable. Women in senior positions should be encouraged to mentor other women and to make sure that they create that sense of confidence in younger women to step up and grab opportunities
“I crafted a phrase that I repeat often: ‘Don’t be shy. Please apply,’” Georgieva said.