By Eric Morath
Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen -- after fighting financial crises and anemic economic growth as Federal Reserve leaders -- are turning their attention to a different problem: How women are treated in their own profession.
"Economics certainly has a problem," Mr. Bernanke, a former Fed chairman, said at a recent meeting of the American Economic Association. "We have a very low ratio of women in terms of our professional ranks and, unfortunately, a reputation for hostility towards women and minorities seems to be an important reason why many women choose not to become economists."
It is robbing the profession of a major source of talent and insight, said Mr. Bernanke, the organization's incoming president, during its annual gathering in Atlanta last week.
Mr. Bernanke said he and Ms. Yellen are working to address the issue.
"This should be the highest priority for us over the next couple of years," said Ms. Yellen, who in 2014 became the first woman to lead the Fed when she succeeded Mr. Bernanke. Her term ended last February.
Women make up about 30% of the nation's undergraduate economics majors, while minorities represent just 12%, according to a 2017 Fed study. That's compared with overall student bodies that are almost 58% women and 21% minorities.
Academic studies in recent years have shown women in economics are less likely to be promoted, even when they are just as productive; female-authored papers in top economics journals go through a longer process of peer review, and women economics instructors receive lower teacher evaluations.
The very subject may breed sexism, according to Valentina Paredes of the University of Chile and two co-authors. Their new working paper, released in December, found Chilean male students' gender bias rose with their years of economics training. One factor that made a difference: more female professors.
The AEA and wider profession has grappled with hostility toward women in recent years. The group was asked by more than 1,000 economists to create its own job board in 2017, after a study found vulgar and misogynist language directed toward women on a website used to find economics jobs.
Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President Mary Daly described in a speech at the Atlanta conference how she faced demeaning behavior early in her career.
Ms. Daly said she had hit a "home run" with a high-profile presentation, and a senior official at the bank greeted her afterward.
"He says, 'Wow, that was awesome. I didn't expect that,'" Ms. Daly recalled. "Then he follows up with 'You're short and you're a female. You're a tiny little thing,' is what he said. 'You're a tiny little thing and you're a female.'"
Ms. Daily said she was stunned.
"And not one of my senior colleagues said a thing -- nobody," she said. "That affected me. I thought, 'I'm always going to have to punch above my weight in order to prove that I should be here.'"
Ms. Daly said in surveying other women at the bank, she found few reported egregious acts of harassment. But many reported similar, less-severe ones.
"They were happening all over the place," she said, adding women in the economics profession face death by 1,000 cuts.
"People were being cut," she said. "Tiny little cuts, that were demoralizing them in the long run."
The AEA has rolled out its job-market site and is conducting a survey on professional climate to better listen to members. Mr. Bernanke selected 11 women to serve on a 19-member committee to pick the papers and sessions presented at the Atlanta meetings. One those women, Betsey Stevensen, a former adviser to President Obama, said having more input from women resulted in additional discussion of topics such as gender inequality.
Current Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said diversity and inclusion is a priority for the central bank -- but also a necessity for ensuring it draws top talent.
"Young people coming up are accustomed to diverse and inclusive environments," he told the conference. "I want the Fed to be known within the economics profession as a great place for women and minorities and other diverse people to work and be happy and be listened to."
--Sharon Nunn and Greg Ip contributed to this article.
Write to Eric Morath at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 11, 2019 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)
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