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The Push To Break Up The Boys' Club At The Fed


The Federal Reserve is being closely watched these days for its decisions on interest rates. But there was something else notable about its most recent meeting. Four of the 10 voting members were women. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Lily Jamali reports on the push to break up the boys club at the Fed.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: No group influences the U.S. economy, even the world economy more than the Fed. And for most of its existence, its been dominated by men. That's why it was such a big deal when Janet Yellen ran the Fed from 2014 until last year. It was a first in the institution's century-long history. Even today, much of the economic policy world is overwhelmingly male. But there's a group of women among the highest ranks of U.S. economists who are working to change this.

LAEL BRAINARD: I think the Federal Reserve has a lot of work to do to have a truly diverse set of leaders.

JAMALI: That's Federal Reserve governor Lael Brainard, who served with Yellen until President Trump replaced Yellen as chair. Brainard has spent much of her career as one of the few women in the room when major policy decisions are made.

BRAINARD: So I think part of the challenge is just becoming aware that when you're sitting around a decision-making table, you look around, and you say to yourself, this table doesn't look like a typical classroom in America. And until it does, we're not going to be getting the best possible outcomes that this country deserves.

JAMALI: Brainard says things are starting to change as a growing body of research suggests that diversity leads to better decision-making. And that matters for a powerful institution like the Fed. A government watchdog report on the Fed's lack of diversity found that more of it would strengthen its legitimacy.

AMANDA BAYER: This is having an impact - an adverse impact on our profession.

JAMALI: Swarthmore College Professor Amanda Bayer advises the Fed on all forms of diversity. She says step one of finding a solution is admitting there's a problem. And it's clear that the field of economics has one. At a time when more women than men are graduating from college and earning doctorates, just a third of Ph.D.s in economics go to women. And Bayer's research shows that figure has hardly budged in decades. Plus the share of female professors in economics lags even math and computer science.

BAYER: As we try to develop knowledge for the use of policymakers and as we try to develop specific policies, we're hindered by the lack of diversity in our ranks.

JAMALI: Championing this cause is Mary Daly. She took over as president of a San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank in October. That gave her a vote in the most recent Fed meetings. Like the few other women at the top, Daly routinely offers encouragement through speeches, as she did at this Fed-sponsored Women in Economics Symposium last year.


MARY DALY: When you show up, you are female. And bringing that to the table is just as important as bringing your skill set to the table. And that's what I'm going to try to convince you of tonight.

JAMALI: A labor economist, Daly has looked at why more women aren't in the U.S. workforce. Rising through the ranks over two decades, she also grew interested in why there were hardly any women even in entry-level roles at the Fed itself.

DALY: I called over 250 colleges myself - placement directors, chairs of departments - and said, what do you think of the Fed? And they said, it's an old boys club where women wouldn't be welcome. And I said, let me talk to you more about the Fed.

JAMALI: Her approach worked. The proportion of women in research associate roles in San Francisco more than doubled, going from 20 to 50 percent. But bringing them in is one thing. Now the task is getting them to stay and helping them one day rise to the top of an institution where women remain scarce. For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lily Jamali