Reasons behind the ongoing challenge in attracting and retaining women in economics

Beverly Hirtle, NY Federal Reserve Bank head of economic research, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the income gap amid the pandemic and bringing diversity into the field of economics.

Video Transcript

- Well, over the course of the pandemic as we know, we're still about almost 10 million jobs down from where we were before. More than half of those jobs lost have been among women, many of whom have felt compelled to stay home to care for loved ones, whether it be children or elderly.

As we know also in the wake of equal pay day yesterday, women on average are still making $0.79 in the United States on the dollar that men make. So would it help maybe to get more women into economics who are setting these kinds of policies and doing this kind of research?


Beverly Hirtle is joining us now. She is Executive Vice President and the Director of Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and our Brian Cheung, who covers the Federal Reserve is also with us. Beverly, thank you so much for being here. So obviously, there is an issue when it comes to the gap between women and men and that comes to the economics profession as well.

I'm curious about your path and how you got into economics and what you have seen change in the profession in terms of diversity as time has gone on?

BEVERLY HIRTLE: Yes, so it's fair to say that economics found me, rather than the other way around. When I was in college, I took intro economics literally by chance because it fit into my schedule around the courses I was really interested in taking. And when I sat in that class, what I was taught and what I heard simply resonated with me. Provided a framework of analyzing the world that simply made a lot of sense.

So I took more and more economics courses and began to think about it very seriously as a profession. Went back to my professors and expressed this and they were so enthusiastic and supportive of my interest. They really helped me map out a path into graduate school. Incredibly supportive, and that made a huge difference for me.

At the time I was in graduate school, which was a good number of years ago now, there were very few women in my class. At MIT where I was in graduate school there were three women altogether out of a class of 25 or 30 people. So it was pretty small, and that was relatively typical.

Now the statistics that are kept by CSWEP, which is the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, it's part of the American Economics Association, shows that about 35% of PhDs awarded every year out of US programs go to women. But that's still, even though it's higher than when I was in school, it is still well below the 50% at which women attend college and graduate schools and more general.

So there is an ongoing challenge in the profession in attracting and retaining women.

BRIAN CHEUNG: Hey, Beverly. Brian Cheung here. It's great to speak with you. So having more women in the economics field though is so important during this crisis itself when we know that women have been disproportionately affected. Labor force participation rates for women suffered steeper losses than men did and they're not coming back as fast. Maybe because of child care or other types of things.

From where you sat the New York Fed, how are policymakers kind of viewing those challenges that specifically women face and what can economics do to address that?

BEVERLY HIRTLE: So we've done a lot of analysis of the disparate effects of COVID in particular, across a number of dimensions by race, by education, by income and also by gender. And of course, we find the same results that others do, that particularly for labor force participation it has been disproportionately hit on women relative to men. So I think the role that we can play is to highlight what the facts are and for explanations of what seems to account for those facts, because that provides the channel to understand where policy that addresses those conditions can be most effective.

Whether it's policy that the Federal Reserve would have through our monetary policy or supervisory responsibilities, or whether it's policy that some other set of policymakers in the US economy might have.

BRIAN CHEUNG: And Beverly, we heard Chairman Powell speak about this this week, not just for women, but the diversity in terms of race as well, he said that the Federal Reserve could do a better job. What do you think the Federal Reserve's pipeline is for female and also diverse candidates into the central bank? Do you think that there's more room to go and what is the New York Fed specifically doing to try to bring in more perspectives into what is a really important policy making institution?

BEVERLY HIRTLE: Well, I think you've hit exactly the right issue, which is pipeline. As I said, if we think about the economists we recruit who all would have PhD in economics, only about 35% every year are women. And if you look at the percentage that are Black or African-American or Hispanic, each of those individually, the share of total new PhDs is in the single digits.

So there is a limited pipeline. Of course, we focus recruiting efforts on those who are coming out through that pipeline. But there's a lot that the Fed, the New York Fed and the system more generally can and has been doing to try to increase the pipeline.

At the New York Fed we have a research analyst program where we bring in recent college graduates. They work with us and our economists for a couple of years, and we try to feed the pipeline into graduate school through that program. We've been pretty effective at bringing in women. I wish I could say we were fully at 50% but we're pushing in that direction.

We've been less effective at bringing in underrepresented groups, underrepresented minorities. And so we are working with the whole federal-- with the whole New York Fed in bringing in summer interns over at earlier points in their college career, after their sophomore year, trying to get those interns into the bank, excited about economics and finance. Provide them with experience at a point in their college career where we can advise them on courses and other things that they could do that would prepare them for degrees in finance and economics.

And there are programs similar to that not just at the New York Fed but across the whole Federal Reserve system. And then finally, at the New York Fed we've been doing a series of webinars about economics as a profession, trying to interest undergraduates at HBCUs and other public universities and other places where there are larger populations of minorities who are underrepresented in economics and finance. And in fact, we have one of those that we're doing next Wednesday, March 31st.

And those who are interested can sign up for it at the New York Fed's website,

- Great. Beverly, hope to catch up with you a little bit later this year on the progress both that women are making the economy broadly and also specifically in economics. Beverly Hirtle is the New York Fed Head of Economic Research, and our own Brian Cheung. Thank you both very much. Appreciate it.