Are Female Economists Undervalued?

By Sarah Wilson

Back in 2013, The Daily Caller asked us “Who’s Hotter: Janet Yellen or Miley Cyrus?” Miley Cyrus had just shocked the world with her performance at the Video Music Awards and Janet Yellen had just been selected to be the first ever woman to chair the Federal Reserve. Obviously, the comparison between the two had occurred to many of us. Remember when people used to ask that same question about Ben Bernanke and Channing Tatum?

Fast forward two years and Yellen has once again been the recipient of some sexist behavior. She recently received an open letter explaining why the Fed should raise interest rates without delay. Then, it suggested a source she might consult to help her make her decision.

“Chairwoman Yellen, I think you should sit down with your Nobel Prize winning husband, economist George Akerlof, who is known to be consumer-sensitive,” read the letter. The source was former presidential candidate and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who, it is worth noting, does not have a PhD in economics from Yale or years of experience in monetary policy work.

On Monday, Yellen responded, providing an authoritative explanation of the Fed’s decision to maintain low interest rates.

Regardless of one’s personal stance on interest rates or monetary policy or Ralph Nader in general outside of this episode, telling an accomplished and experienced economist with hundreds of other economists working for her to ask her husband what to do with the money is, at best, extremely tone deaf. In the letter, Nader also advises Yellen, who, like her husband, is an emeritus professor at Berkeley, to ask GSPP professor Robert Reich out to lunch so he can offer guidance on Fed policy. This is a particularly interesting suggestion given that Reich has come out in opposition to raising interest rates, as have many liberals.

In 2015, it would be nice to think of this dismissive treatment of a female economist’s abilities and accomplishments as a bizarre incident, but a recent contribution to The New York Times “The Upshot” feature by University of Michigan economics and public policy professor Justin Wolfers highlights other recent examples of similar slights.

He cites Ralph Nader’s patronizing suggestion to Yellen along with three other examples of similar behavior. In a New York Times article on the cost of tuition, the author initially referred to Lawrence Katz as “a professor at Harvard and a leading scholar of education economics” glossing over his co-author with just a name, Claudia Goldin. Readers of the initial article might be surprised to find Goldin is also a professor at Harvard, a giant in the field of education economics, and the first listed author on the study. Wolfers notes that economists adhere to alphabetical author listings unless one of the authors fills a more junior or secondary role. If that were the case, as the initial article’s wording would suggest, Goldin’s name would be listed after Katz’s. On the bright side, the original article has since been corrected and an apology issued.

In recent weeks, a study about increasing mortality rates amongst middle-aged white Americans has been making headlines. One of the authors of this study is Angus Deaton, who just won this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. While Deaton’s accomplishment is impressive, the first name on the mortality study is that of Anne Case. Case is not only Deaton’s wife, as mentioned in a number of articles Wolfers cites, but also a professor at Princeton and another of the world’s leading economists. These impressive credentials would likely have been lost on readers of much of the media coverage of the study and its findings.

As a final example, Wolfers describes an Atlantic Monthly article in which his own wife, Betsy Stevenson, also a professor at the University of Michigan and a former chief economist at the Department of Labor, receives second billing on research they conducted together.

The irony that the subject of the article—written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, a former Princeton professor, and the first woman ever to serve as Director of Policy Planning for the State Department—was “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” was not lost on Wolfers or Stevenson.

“It left Betsey to suggest—only half jokingly—that the reason women can’t have it all is because even leading feminists don’t give them credit,” writes Wolfers.

Women have come a long way in the last half century. Snarky internet headlines and angry letters aside, Janet Yellen is still head of the Fed, the person on whose shoulders the decision about interest rates will ultimately rest. There is a female presidential candidate who has been Secretary of State and may very well be her party’s nominee and the nation’s next leader. No one has commented on her pants suit selections yet, but that may be because they’ve been too preoccupied by Carly Fiorina’s face. And women have gained the right to accumulate the knowledge necessary to do the work described above. That alone is a huge step forward, although hundreds of other articles could be written about the under representation of women and people of color in a variety of disciplines, including economics. But, the evidence Wolfers cites, even with its small sample size, points at another potential problem: even members of under-represented groups who have broken into the field still fail to receive equal public recognition for equal contributions.

Sarah Wilson is a second-year MPP candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.