Women in Economics: Jane Ihrig
This 23-minute podcast was released May 29, 2019.
“I’ve really enjoyed feeling like I’m making an impact at an historical time in the Federal Reserve System,” says Jane Ihrig, associate director of the monetary affairs division at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Ihrig talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the St. Louis Fed, about her education, her work in the economics field and her monetary policy work on the Council of Economic Advisers during the 2008 financial crisis.
Mary Suiter: Hello, I’m Mary Suiter and you’re listening to Women in Economics. A podcast series from the St. Louis Fed’s Timely Topics audio channel. Today I’m speaking with Jane Ihrig, associate director of the monetary affairs division at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Jane, thank you so much for being with me today.
Jane Ihrig: Hi, Mary. Thank you for having me.
Suiter: So, I think I’ll kick this off by first asking—I know you got your undergraduate degrees at Carnegie Mellon and you did math and economics. So, how did you decide on those as your major fields of study?
Ihrig: Well, ever since an early age, I was interested in math. And, so, I always envisioned myself as getting a Ph.D. in mathematics and being a professor. So, I went to Carnegie Mellon as a math major. And part of that curriculum was that I had to take a humanities elective every semester. I took microeconomics and enjoyed it. Took macroeconomics, enjoyed it. And then I decided to depart from econ, took philosophy and that wasn’t my cup of tea. And started taking more econ classes, just to fill those humanities electives. And, by my junior year, I realized I was enjoying the applied math in those classes just as much as my math major. So, I looked into double majoring. And, so, the only requirements I needed were math requirements. So, that was very easy to start my double major. And, by my senior year, I realized that I actually was favoring the economics issues, in part because of policy relevance and seeing the applications to society. And, so, then I made a small change in my career path and decided that I would major, go in for a Ph.D., in econ.
Suiter: So, as a young child, you wanted to be a professor of mathematics. Did you have a role model or someone in your life who was a professor?
Ihrig: No, I didn’t. I actually don’t know where I got that idea from. I think that I always wanted to be independent. I thought, you know, I wanted a good profession and, for some reason, thought a professor was something that had a higher amount of education. That was something that interests me. I always loved to learn. So, I knew that professor was the way to go.
Suiter: That’s awesome because I think my association with professor, and I’m older than you are but, was watching Gilligan’s Island, right? So, that’s awesome. Okay. So, were there a lot of women in your undergraduate classes at Carnegie Mellon?
Ihrig: Not as a math major. As a math major, I typically was the only woman in my classes. And looking back at my friendships and who I studied with, they were all men. And, so, if I look at who are my friends today that were my friends in undergrad school, they are all men. So, at the time that seemed normal. It’s just I went to class and there were my colleagues I was working with. Got their names to do study groups and it just so happened they were men.
Suiter: Wow. Okay. And you weren’t intimidated by that?
Ihrig: I don’t think so. I think once in a while you’d have a professor who definitely knew who you were because you were the only woman. And maybe sometimes I got called on more than other times. So, it could work as an advantage or it could work as a disadvantage, depending on the class.
Suiter: You went on, to get your graduate degree at the University of Minnesota.
Suiter: And I’m assuming you loved the cold.
Ihrig: Well, you know, the reason I picked it is I still loved math. And Minnesota was known as a very mathematical-rigorous curriculum.
And, so, that’s why I picked Minnesota.
Suiter: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences in graduate school in economics and courses that you really liked?
Ihrig: Sure. So, there were a few women in the graduate program with me. There were no women faculty at the time. So, most of my interactions, again, were with men. Didn’t think anything of it. Just one of the graduate students struggling through the first year, especially. Worked with groups of individuals, depending on the problem sets, which classes we were taking and had common study times and things like that. I think I had a typical experience in the sense that the first year was really hard. One thing I would like to mention is that I took a little unusual path to grad school. I took two years off and I actually was a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. And that was a very positive experience in the sense that, when you go to grad school, typically what you find is a lot of the foreigners come in with master’s degrees and most Americans come in straight from bachelor’s school. And, so, there a very big difference in knowledge and there’s a huge knowledge gap for kind of Americans coming straight from undergraduate school. So, having those two years at the Richmond Fed, where I worked closely with economists, did research projects, gave me a little bit more of a leg up than the average American coming into grad school. So, it’s really hard, but I think I had a little bit of kind of positive externality from working for two years.
Suiter: That’s an interesting notion because, of course, we see more international students finishing Ph.D.’s in the U.S. than U.S. students, and I wonder if that isn’t an aspect of that?
Ihrig: Well, I do remember my first year sitting in classes. And some students were asking questions and I didn’t even understand their questions because they were just coming at it from a higher level than the American students were. The advantage I think, that I mentioned, was because we would have a problem set or, you know, here’s the issue, and I was able to apply it to real world experiences that I have heard the economists talking about or issues that the Federal Reserve was thinking about. And, so, I had exposure to those for the past two years. And, so, even though I might not have quite understood what the homework assignment was, I at least was like, “Oh, okay. This is how it relates to a real-world problem.” And then that helped me as a jumping off point.
Suiter: Oh, and that certainly speaks well to the RA program at the Federal Reserve Banks.
Ihrig: Yes, I really got to meet other junior people who are still my friends today. I also bump into some of the economists, now that I’m part of the Federal Reserve System. I’ll bump into them at, say, the FOMC meeting and say hi to them. So, I’ve developed long-lasting relationships or friendships with many of the people that I worked with at that time.
Suiter: So, back to your time at the University of Minnesota, did you have a mentor or mentors that had an influence on you while you were there?
Ihrig: So, I’d have to say that probably more of my mentors came out of undergraduate programs, surprisingly. And these would be informal mentors, where, maybe in hindsight I see they really helped me, pushed me forward in confirming that I wanted to work in economics and probably helping me to get to where I was at each stage in my career. One professor reached out to me and asked me if I would want to be her R.A. and work on a research project. So, I got to see, as an undergraduate, how to start thinking about research projects. I think today a lot of undergrads do an honors thesis. That wasn’t common when I was back in undergrad school. So, that gave me my first exposure to research. The other professor, he actually approached me and said, “Hey, I heard you’re thinking of going to grad schools. Do you want me to write you a recommendation letter?” And, I hate to date myself, but the internet wasn’t really there. And, so, I didn’t know he was this famous monetary economist. And, so, in hindsight, having a professor reach out and say, “Hey, do you want me to write a letter?” You know they’re going to write you a good letter. And, so, I think that was also very instrumental in getting me into a good grad program. In terms to your question about having mentors in grad school, through the courses, I really didn’t. I was just more of a number and pushing my way through. And, then, the hard thing for grad students is, once you’ve done your course work the first two years, it’s kind of like, “Okay, go write your thesis.” And you don’t know how to start it and how to get to the finish line and you don’t have, like, a project plan to get there. And, so, I did kind of wrestle for a year thinking, “What’s my topic?” and how to move it forward. And then one day a professor did come to me in the hallway. And he said, “What are you working on? Let’s chat.” And I consider him kind of very curious about many things. And he did pull me under his wing and say, “Tell me what you’re working on. Show me how things are going.” And that really did help push me forward in my thesis work. And I appreciated his time.
Suiter: So what was your topic for your thesis?
Ihrig: I was an international economist. I was looking at multinational enterprises and how much they invested in different countries and how much capital controls, which are somewhat common in foreign countries, to impose to keep capital in the countries and how that influenced capital build-up over time.
Suiter: After you finished your Ph.D., you went on to teach at the University of Virginia, right?
Ihrig: I did, for four years.
Suiter: And how did you like being a professor?
Ihrig: Well, you know, one thing I think that a lot of grad students think is when you come out of grad school, go be a professor. And, so, I kind of followed that track. And it was fun. It was fun to teach undergrads. But I’m a person who likes to think about what kind of contribution am I making to society. And, yes, you’re teaching the undergrads, but I was teaching international, because that was kind of one of my two expertise in grad school. And, so, I got the students when they were typically juniors or maybe seniors. And, so, by the time I got to know them, maybe I was writing them a rec letter to get a job or something. But I wasn’t really spending a lot of quality time with them. And, so, in the back of my mind, I always thought about my time at the Federal Reserve and policy work. And I got a call one day from the Board of Governors that said, “Hey, we have an opening. Are you interested?” And, so, that’s how I kind of steered myself back to the Federal Reserve System.
Suiter: When you were teaching, did you see more women in economics classes than you had in your own undergrad classes?
Ihrig: So, I think in undergrad econ it is a little more evenly split, women and men. So, that was true even when I was at Carnegie Mellon as an undergrad. But I guess everybody’s kind of aware of the issue that there seems to be a lot of women in undergrad, but then somehow we start losing them as we try to look in careers and higher educational attainment.
Suiter: So, in returning to the Board of Governors and doing the work that you currently do, you feel as though you’re making that contribution that you were seeking?
Ihrig: I do. One of the things I think about the Board that I really like is the ability to move around. And, so, you don’t get in a rut. You can challenge yourself. And, so, I’ve moved from the International division to where I am now in the monetary affairs division. And, as I’ve moved up, I’ve also become more and more policy oriented.
Suiter: Okay. And, so, that ability to kind of expand your horizons and move and try different things is one thing you like about the Board. What else do you like about being at the Board of Governors?
Ihrig: One of the surprising things at the Board is that we have four research divisions. And in those four divisions we have, I believe, almost 400 economists. So, if you want to think, “Hmm, I want to think about this very small, nichy project.” I bet there’s going to be someone else that you can talk to about it. But I think the other thing I really like about the Board, which I mentioned, was the fact that you can change. If you want to focus a lot on research, there’s jobs for you. If you want to focus on policy work, there’s jobs for you. And you can change that over time. And one thing for me is, I have a husband, I have a family. And, so, I’m able to change what I’m doing. I walk into the building and I go to a different floor. I go to a different office. And I’m working on different projects with different people. But I didn’t uproot my family and move them to a different location where everybody has to start over. So, I was able to, over my career, challenge myself a lot by moving around, without influencing my family.
Suiter: That is really a terrific thing for anybody.
Ihrig: Yeah. Work-life balance is really hard. And, so, I think that’s one big positive thing. If you can be in an organization where you can move around and not have to worry about affecting your young children. And I know that you know children moving around sometimes can be stressful.
Suiter: Well, you have a leadership position. You have people who report to you. Do you find yourself maybe drawing young women into economics or mentoring colleagues, junior colleagues, or R.A.s at the Board who are studying economics?
Ihrig: Yeah, so, early in my management career I was overseeing a section of about 15 people. And, so, at that time specifically I had to kind of manage day to day, month to month, year to year, the junior staff. I tried to make it a point, when I was talking to the young women, to find out what they were doing and also talk about kind of their strengths and how could they play to those strengths. I think that—I was trying to do that across everybody. But, there was definitely, when you look at men versus women, you could see a difference in kind of their self-confidence in what they’re doing, or self-promotion, self-awareness of their skill set. So, I tried to talk to the women and make sure that they were as confident as their male counterparts. And to kind of sell themselves. And what were their skill sets? What were they doing? Especially as these young women were coming straight out of undergrad school. This was their first job. It’s a two-year commitment and then you’re kind of expected to leave the Board and go on. So, a lot of these people had to then go interview for other jobs. So, they’d come to me to write rec letters. So, I talked to them about, “What skills you want me to emphasize?” And then I’d hear and say, “Well, you know, you should also mention this,” or “sell it this way,” or “talk about how the contribution is.” Because a lot of people never really have to do a lot of job interviews at the age of 21 to 23.
Suiter: I think that would be very helpful, too, for them going forward. Selling themselves there, but then also drawing back on that experience when they have to again, they finish the next level of education and want to move on to a job. They’ve got to think again about how they’re going to package themselves and sell this in a resume or a letter.
Ihrig: Yeah. And I think, you know, outside studies tend to show that women and men are very different in this avenue. hen I became a manager and I saw these research assistants, male and female, rotating through the same jobs, but then selling themselves on their kind of annual review very differently. I wanted to make sure the women were aware of how they were coming across and how to best sell themselves for future career choices.
Suiter: Yeah. I think that’s really valuable. I see that with young women that I work with here, as well. And I think that’s a great way to help them be better in the future for their own sake.
Ihrig: Yeah. I think that’s one way we can make a contribution, right? It’s not just in the current job, but setting someone up for being better in their life.
Suiter: I agree. So, we talk a lot in the economics profession, I think particularly, recently. Although, over time, I know it’s been a conversation about women in economics. But I think the past couple of years the topic has risen again to the top of the list. And, so, why is that so important for the discipline of economics, for the field of economics, to have women and minorities engaged?
Ihrig: Well, I think that studies show that the more diverse the group working on a project, the better the outcomes will be. With diversity comes different ways to look at an issue, to think of different solutions on the issue. So, you get a better product when you have a diverse group. And I think it’s really important in the Federal Reserve System, especially at the Board where we do a lot of policy work. So, you’re looking at the data. And if you have very common people, they all look at the data the same way. And, so, you might not see all the different things that are happening in the data. Or, if we’re writing a memo to the FOMC about, “Here’s three different ways you can tackle the issue.” Well, maybe there’s five. So, if you don’t have a diverse group, you might all be thinking of only those three ways instead of thinking about, “Oh, there’s really more and maybe a better way to do it.” So, I think of diversity, women and minorities in general—it’s good to have them in the group just so that we make sure we cover all of our bases.
Suiter: What are your current research interests? What are you doing now?
Ihrig: So, as I said, I’ve been very fortunate at the Board to move around to different divisions. And, actually, the Board also sent me to the Council of Economic Advisers for a year. So, during the crisis, I was over on loan to the Council. And, as you would imagine, during the crisis you worked on a lot of policy work. So, talk about balancing home life with family. That didn’t help, didn’t work very well that year. But, I knew it was going to be a busy year. And before I decided to go there, I brought my whole family together in the kitchen table. And I said, “I got this call. Should I even interview?” Like, “Is this something our family is worth committed to for a year?” And we all agreed yes, it was a good opportunity for me. So, as a family, we made that decision. So, that pulled me into policy work and I got addicted. After that year, and I had to come back to the Board, I thought, “What do I want to do?” And, so, I applied for the position in monetary affairs that worked on monetary policy implementation. For the past decade I’ve been working on different ways to help the FOMC think about stimulating the economy. When I first came to monetary affairs in 2008, 09, 10, we were working on what were called large-scale asset purchases. They’re purchasing lots of securities to help pull down long-term interest rates. And then, after that helped to stimulate the economy we have to recover and now tighten policy. Then I started working on, “Well, how would the FOMC want to start raising interest rates from the zero lower bound?” Last year I started working on, “Well, how can we normalize the Fed’s balance sheet with all these asset purchases? How can we stop holding as many as we do?” Those are kind of the monetary policy implementation, monetary economic issues I’ve been working on. And I’ve really enjoyed feeling like I’m making an impact at an historical time in the Federal Reserve System.
Suiter: That’s great. And you mentioned that earlier and I saw some literature where young women in particular, they want a career where they can make an impact. They don’t see economics as that career path. But hearing from you and others in the field, women in the field, who talk about that, I think it’s so valuable for those young women to recognize that they can have an impact through this field.
Ihrig: Yeah. And the field’s so diverse. I have a friend who’s in health economics. I have another friend in labor economics. I’m in monetary economics. You look across all the field and there’s really important policy issues that just need very thoughtful, rigorous analysis on. So, I think, no matter which area of economics you go into, you can really make an impact.
Suiter: It sounds like you have sort of a support group, a coffee group, that you can talk to about work/life balance issues or other things.
Ihrig: Yes. I think that’s changed over time. When I first came to the Board in the International division, we had a women’s lunch. And any of the women, you would just grab your lunch and we’d go to a big conference room. And at the time, the head of our division was a woman and she would come. And sometimes we’d talk about policy issues and sometimes we just chatted about whatever with whoever was sitting next to us. As I moved around, I lost kind of that women’s group. And I have to say that now that diversity and inclusion is becoming a bigger issue at the Board I think there are—there’s a women’s group at the Board. Recently in my division we started a women’s gathering. So, I think we’re becoming more cognizant of the importance of having that women network. I’d say, over the past five years or so, it’s been more informal with colleagues of mine that have been friends.
Suiter: Yeah. I think that’s really valuable. I often talk with young women here and say they need a support group. They’ve got little kids and they’re trying to figure it out. Are they behaving the way other little kids behave? Even just those kinds of questions. Having another woman who says, “Oh, yeah. That’s normal. Don’t worry about it” is valuable. So, you mentioned you have a daughter—
Ihrig: I do.
Suiter: …and she’s in college. Is she following in your footsteps as an economist or…
Ihrig: Well, not economist, but she is a math major.
Ihrig: So, she took AP economics in high school. And as she was nearing the end, studying for the AP exam, I said, “So, you know, you’re coming to the finish for this. What do you think?” And she says, “You know, I just can’t wait till it’s over, because I’m never taking an econ class again in my life.” And I thought, “Oh, just stab me through the heart.” But she is a math major and I think that will provide her with lots of opportunities going forward. And I encourage everyone to follow what they're passionate about.
Suiter: So, what kind of advice did you give her when you sent her off to college?
Ihrig: I sent her off with, “Be strong. Stick up for yourself. You’re going to be the next generation of women. You have to make a small incremental change.” So, I’m hoping with each generation, as women become a larger part of the work force, these issues that we’ve been talking about become more self-aware from within us and with our colleagues in the system and in the community. That the needle of fairness, equity just moves a little bit with each generation.
Suiter: That’s great advice. She’s lucky to have you as a mom.
Ihrig: Thank you.
Suiter: Do you have anything you’d like to add about women in economics?
Ihrig: No. I think that we are making small progress in that we’re becoming a larger number. But our numbers are still very small at the higher echelons, with Ph.D.’s and how far they’re advancing. I was very lucky to work under Chair Yellen. And she was a great mentor. And it was really nice to have someone in that position at the Board. I think all the women economists at the Board were very proud to have her there. And, so, I think that she made a nice face for us on Time magazine and within the Federal Reserve System, and I think, just in the community at large of people seeing a strong, very intelligent woman at the top of an organization.
Suiter: I’m so glad you mentioned that, because that was a question that I had wanted to ask: What it was like to work for a chair who was a woman? And it sounds like it was a great experience.
Ihrig: It was. I know, for me and the colleagues that I talked to, we all really liked her as a person and as a very smart, thoughtful individual at the top of our organization.
Suiter: So, we often have young women here who are in AP classes. They’ll come in for a special program and, when we talk to them, we always say to them, “If you want to be a rock star. If you want to make a difference, be Janet Yellen.”
Suiter: Be a macroeconomist and go to work for the Fed. So…
Ihrig: So, I think, if you look at least in the Federal Reserve System at the top level, we have some very strong, intelligent women that are helping to move policy forward.
Suiter: And put a great face on economics as a field where women can make a difference. It makes me very proud to be associated with the Fed for that reason.
Ihrig: Yes. I think all of them have made contributions on their own that if you just looked at their portfolio of work, you would say, “Wow. This is a really smart, intelligent individual.” And I think, in the end, that’s what women want. We don’t want to say, “Oh, we’re a woman economist.” We just want to say, “We’re an economist.”
Suiter: Exactly. And to be treated with the same respect because you have that body of work.
Suiter: …that qualifies you for what you’re doing. I agree. Well, I want to say thank you very much for joining me today. I really appreciate having you.
Ihrig: Thank you, Mary.