Janet Yellen’s Long, Personal Speech on Women and Work

The chair of the Federal Reserve says half of society is being held back.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen smiles before speaking at Brown University in Providence, R.I., on May 5.

Photogrpaher: Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

It really does make a difference when the chair of the Federal Reserve is a woman. On Friday, Janet Yellen gave a detailed, 18-page speech at her alma mater, Brown University, making clear just how important the topic of women and work is to her. Without taking anything away from her predecessors at the Fed, it’s hard to imagine Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, or Paul Volcker giving such a talk.

In the text of the speech posted on the Fed’s website, Yellen reached back to 1891, the first year women were admitted to what was then called the Women’s College of Brown, to trace the history of women at work in America. Woven through her speech is the story of Elizabeth Stafford Hirschfelder of the Class of 1923, an aunt of Yellen’s husband, George Akerlof (himself a Nobel Prize-winning economist and by all accounts, a supportive spouse).

Betty Stafford, as Yellen called her, “grew up in Providence, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Brown in mathematics, and then rather adventurously headed west, teaching at two universities in Texas in the 1920s before completing her Ph.D. and then teaching at the University of Wisconsin.”

But Stafford's gender seems to have held her back, Yellen recounted. “After earning her Ph.D. at Wisconsin, Betty married a fellow student and over the next decade coauthored five important papers with him and a well-regarded reference work. But, while her husband progressed from instructor to professor at Wisconsin, Betty worked as an instructor on an ad hoc basis. During World War II, while he worked for the government in Washington and New York, Betty stayed in Madison, teaching math to servicemen. When he took a job teaching in California after the war, they divorced, and it was only then that she was a given a position as assistant professor.”

Stafford appeared for a third time later in the speech, by which time it was clear that things didn’t work out for her the way they should have: “After the war, and then single, my relative Betty Stafford remained an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin despite an enviable body of research. She married another Wisconsin professor, an eminent chemist, and collaborated with him on his research. But, in 1954, she gave up her assistant professorship, she said, to be able to accompany her husband on his frequent international travels. Betty later moved with her husband to California, and after his death, she endowed a graduate fellowship in the sciences and a prize in theoretical chemistry. Although Betty’s accomplishments were considerable, against the backdrop of increasing opportunity for women over her lifetime, I believe that Betty Stafford Hirschfelder was denied opportunities and greater success simply because she was a woman.”

Yellen’s speech is titled “So We All Can Succeed: 125 Years of Women’s Participation in the Economy.” Yellen explained that the title was inspired by Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for advocating for girls’ and women’s education. Malala said, “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”

Yellen’s story begins at the end of the 19th century, when most women were deprived of a good education. Only 54 percent of those aged 5 to 19 were even in school in 1890, she said. The largely young and uneducated women who worked outside the home “mostly toiled as piece workers in factories or as domestic workers, jobs that were dirty and often unsafe.”

Women who sought higher education a century ago could be met with outright hostility. Said Yellen: “Ruth Pederson, a member of the Class of 1919, said some professors didn’t want to teach women and prohibited women from taking their classes. Margery Leonard [Class of 1929] remembered one Boston University professor who urged her to drop out of law school. When she refused, this professor punished her by forcing her to recite the details of rape and seduction cases before her jeering, stomping classmates.”

By the 1930s more women were working, but they tended to drop out as soon as they got married. The labor force participation rate was almost 50 percent for single women in 1930 but only 12 percent for married women.  Women’s participation continued to rise as they became more educated and there were more clean, safe jobs—such as clerical work—that were considered suitable for them. In the 1970s, access to birth control made it easier for women to plan their children around school and work. There were new legal protections against sexual harassment. By the early 1990s, 74 percent of women from 25 to 54 were in the labor force, vs. 93 percent of men of the same age.

Lately, unfortunately, progress has stalled. The participation rate of women in the labor force peaked in the 1990s and has actually fallen since. Women working full-time still earn 17 percent less per week, on average, than men working full-time. Some of that is due to differences in the jobs they do and their credentials, but Yellen said that “even when we compare men and women in the same or similar occupations who appear nearly identical in background and experience, a gap of about 10 percent typically remains.” Women are also under-represented in the highest echelons of business. In her own field, she noted, “women constitute only about one-third of Ph.D. recipients, a number that has barely budged in two decades.”

Personal bias is obviously one factor, but the one that Yellen focuses on is the structure of society itself—particularly the fact that women “continue to bear the lion’s share of domestic and child-rearing responsibilities.” This isn’t breaking news to women in the workplace, nor is it something that the head of the world’s most powerful central bank typically spends a lot of time on. 

Yellen concluded with some mainstream suggestions: “For instance, improving access to affordable and good quality childcare would appear to fit the bill, as it has been shown to support full-time employment.” And, “Recently, there also seems to be some momentum for providing families with paid leave at the time of childbirth.”

Yellen herself broke the glass ceiling as the first woman to head the century-old Fed. Her speech seems to be an effort to help other women break through.

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