October 16, 2013
By Bonnie Erbé
 
Finally President Obama clumsily backed into the right choice to replace Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chair.  And not for the right reason, either: that Janet Yellen was and has been all along the best choice for the job. But he only caved after his first choice, Larry Summers, flamed out.
 
She had the better credentials. She is already Vice Chair of the Fed, for one thing. She predicted the financial collapse that created the Great Recession. She tends to view economic downturns in very human terms and she received high praise and support from most Senate Democrats, 20 of whom took the unusual step of sending a letter to the President imploring him to nominate her, when it was clear he was heading towards nominating Summers.
Of course women’s rights groups are ecstatic. Janet Yellen will be the first female Fed chair and instantly will become one of the most powerful women in the world. The question is being asked, can Yellen’s nomination prompt more young women to enter the field of economics, which is one of a handful of remaining disciplines where prominent women are few and far between?
 
Bloomberg News makes the point that women are far less likely than men to study economics, “Nationwide…for every female undergraduate in the major, there are three males in the major, adjusted for relative numbers of bachelor’s degrees by sex.” It is not for lack of interest, nor for the frequently but inaccurately held perception that men are better at math than are women.
 
Bloomberg reports, ”Women who thought they would major in economics often become discouraged when they don’t get sufficiently high grades in introductory courses. Men are far less likely to be discouraged by similar grades. In other words, the gradient of major choice with respect to grades in the ‘gateway’ courses is steeper for women than for men. The same pattern has been found among engineering students.”
 
So the question becomes can prominent female role models help young female economists overcome the misperception that tougher grades early on in the educational experience be overcome? And Bloomberg’s answer is yes.
 
One need only look at another prominent female “economist,” Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, to see that such role models already exist. However, I put “economist” in quotes because Lagarde’s post-graduate training was as a labor and antitrust lawyer, and she came to power as a leading partner at the law firm of Baker & McKenzie in Europe. Forbes this year ranked her as the world’s 7th most powerful woman.
 
Lagarde is an inspiration to young women if ever there were one. She’s palpably brilliant and gives off the impression that very few men would want to be in the position of debating her. She could take a man’s head off, gently and smiling but stunning in the process.
 
In 2009 she told Forbes Magazine: "I hate to say there are female and male ways of dealing with power, because I think each of us has a male and a female part. But based on my own experience, women will tend to be more inclusive, to reach out more, to care a little more."
 
The media are rife with quotes from her on being a female role model as well as a leader to the male half of the world as well. She is an outspoken supporter of women’s rights.
 
Yellen has a stunningly different style. She is not a French fashionista. She is more the underspoken academe. But once she is confirmed by the Senate, most every female economics major in this country is bound to heave an inward sigh of relief and say, “One of us has made it. Now I can, too.”