In January, President Biden announced his slate of nominees to the Federal Reserve. Two out of three nominees are women: Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former financial regulator for the State of Maryland and a former member of the Federal Reserve Board, and Lisa D. Cook, a professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University. Following the announcement, both women received a considerable amount of criticism online and in the press. Given the amount of influence over America’s economic policy entrusted to those who work for the Federal Reserve, constructive debate over Fed nominees is generally a good thing. Some of the missiles fired at these particular nominees, however, were anything but constructive, particularly those aimed at Dr. Cook.
One of the more prominent criticisms was penned by Harald Uhlig, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, who wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal lambasting Dr. Cook’s nomination as “part of a broader agenda by leftist Democrats.” He dismissively refers to her 2013 paper on the relationship between racial violence and patents filed by Black inventors as “most of her work,” and, because the paper is in his opinion “distantly related to the Fed’s core mission (of stable prices and low unemployment),” she is therefore unqualified to serve on the Fed. He also points to a Twitter thread she wrote in response to his own thread inveighing against defunding the police as further evidence that she “would push the agenda of racial equity and social justice” if appointed to the Fed.
Dr. Uhlig’s belief that Fed officials should not be political agents is uncontroversial. The Federal Reserve was established as an independent central bank to insulate it from any political pressures applied by Congress or the President. Dr. Cook, however, is not a political agent. The paper cited by Uhlig dealt with links between race and economic growth, but that is not incongruous with the Fed’s mission. Experience with analyzing the disproportionate distributional effects of increased inflation and interest rates would be an important asset for the Fed, even if it has not been emphasized in the past. As macroeconomist Claudia Sahm puts it, “maximum employment is now about getting the last person across the finish line that you can in a sustainable way. And in the U.S. economy, the last person, though not always, is usually going to be Black or Brown. The new Fed needs new people.”
Other notable economists, including Nobel Laureate Paul Romer, vocally supported Dr. Cook’s nomination. The article maligned by Dr. Uhlig was a profound insight into the way that physical security — or the lack thereof — affects entrepreneurship, and by extension, a nation’s economic growth. Economists are not unified in dismissing Dr. Cook’s credentials, but the level of controversy surrounding the nomination process indicates a significant level of resistance to new faces and new ideas at the Fed, perhaps a consequence of the current composition of faces and ideas predominant in the field of economics as a whole.
According to the American Economic Association’s 2020 Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession report, women make up about 35% of new economics Ph.D.s. In contrast, the percentage of doctorates awarded to women in STEM and other social sciences was about 55% in 2016. That disparity widens when looking at professors with tenure. Only about 15% of tenured economics faculty are women, again according to the committee.
In 2019, the Chicago Booth Review published an excerpt from a panel discussion on the problem of gender disparity in the economics profession. Claudia Goldin, one of the panelists and a professor at Harvard University, considers the issue a “process of survival” and believes “the largest relative ‘mortality’ of women economists occurs at the very start of the process — as undergraduates.” A 2018 article from the Daily gives some insight as to why the undergraduate economics experience at the University of Michigan can disincentivize women from pursuing the major. Deciding not to pursue the major based on unsatisfying grades in intro courses was one potential reason. The lack of female professors was frequently mentioned. One student mentioned that her economics discussion sections were more impersonal than her other courses, which certainly made an impact.
Women deciding to pursue other disciplines is a trend that economics departments continue to worry about. They should respond by figuring out ways to improve the environment in economics courses and better ways of marketing the major to a broader demographic. The University of Michigan recognized this problem and established the Society of Women in Economics as an organization to build community and provide professional development resources on campus. But that is surely not enough. The Department of Economics should play a more active role in recruitment and retainment, perhaps by regularly surveying women currently in the program to identify aspects of courses and teaching styles that could be adjusted to make the program more appealing. By taking steps to make the culture of undergraduate economics in Ann Arbor attractive to a broader audience, U-M could become a hub for the next generation of leaders in economic policy and usher in a future in which any economist would not believe the field to be so toxic that entering the profession was a mistake.
Alex Yee is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.