Women in Economics: Lael Brainard

November 14, 2018

This 16-minute podcast was released Nov. 14, 2018.

Lael Brainard | Women in Economics Podcasts | St. Louis Fed

“It's still a very important challenge to get more women and more minorities into the economics profession,” says Lael Brainard, in the photo above. Brainard is a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. She talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the St. Louis Fed, about women in economics at the international level, her time as the U.S. representative to the G20, her focus on financial stability and more.

They also discuss why more women and minorities are needed in the economics field: “The debate is different when you have more, different kinds of people represented, that, interestingly, decisions are generally better, and that the decision-making process includes a broader set of considerations,” Brainard says. “So not only is it something that I think we all feel better about, but it actually has been shown to lead to better outcomes.”

View photos of Brainard's visit to the St. Louis Fed, April 3, 2019.


Mary Suiter: I'm Mary Suiter, and you're listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the St. Louis Fed’s Fed's Timely Topics audio channel. Today I'm here with Lael Brainard, a member of the Federal Reserve System, Board of Governors. Thank you for joining us today.

Lael Brainard: Thank you.

Suiter: It's a pleasure to have you. I'd like to start by just asking about how you got into economics. I know your BA is a multidisciplinary degree that included history and government, political and social theory in economics. Out of that, how did you focus on economics for your graduate work?

Brainard: So I think I had always been interested in how different economic systems provided different opportunities for the citizens of those countries. I grew up overseas. I lived in a country that was communist for a period of time, and returned to that country after it had adopted a more market oriented economy. And I had the opportunity to see just how different economic systems led to more or less opportunities for individuals to have creative ideas, bring those ideas to market, pursue their talents. And so it was natural for me to be interested in economic policy.

Suiter: Were there many women in your undergraduate classes?

Brainard: There were very few women in my undergraduate classes, and I really can't think of any women professors in my undergraduate program. I'm happy to say that that has changed in the subsequent years. But no, it was a very lopsided set of students that self-selected into those programs.

Suiter: And what about as you moved to a graduate school? Did you see more women?

Brainard: No. In fact, one of the things that was notable when I originally joined my Ph.D. program and, you know, it wasn't preordained that I would go into economics. It was really only after some professors and some experience in the working world convinced me that an economics degree was a really valuable approach to addressing some of the issues that I cared most about. But even then, as I was thinking about different Ph.D. programs, there was a professor at the Ph.D. program I ultimately joined who called and said, “Hey, we're really putting an emphasis on having more women in our programs,” which really made a difference to me. Now, when I arrived at the program, it looked a bit better than other Ph.D. programs, but by the time I graduated there were very, very few women who graduated along with me. So it's still a very important challenge to get more women and more minorities into the economics profession.

Suiter: So you obviously persisted and completed your Ph.D. Who were your mentors that helped you along the way?

Brainard: Well, it was interesting. There were very few women professors in my Ph.D. program, but I was fortunate enough to work closely with two of the very few that were there: Kala Krishna and Susan Collins. And I remain in close contact with Susan Collins to this day. I also worked very closely with Paul Krugman and continued to look to him for interesting ideas.

Suiter: When you were teaching economics at MIT, did you notice any change in the number of women at that point in the classroom?

Brainard: So at MIT, similarly among the faculty, Ph.D. economists remained very rare. And among students, I mostly taught master students, and there it was a more balanced mix. But I would say during the time I was teaching, it was still an uphill battle to get women and minorities interested in and to really put themselves forward for Ph.D. programs.

Suiter: What was it like to serve under Chair Yellen, the first woman here at the FOMC as a chair?

Brainard: So I think one of my motivations for coming to the Board was that opportunity to serve and to support the first woman chair of the Board of the Federal Reserve System. And I said that in my opening remarks here that that was an inspiration to all of us, men and women alike. I also had the pleasure of the first time I went into government. I worked for, and in fact was brought into government by Laura Tyson. So the first woman head of the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisers. So, you know, for me being able to work initially with Laura Tyson when I was very young, early in my career was very exciting.

Suiter: Could you talk just a little bit about your role when you served as Deputy National Economic Adviser and Deputy Assistant to President Clinton?

Brainard: Yeah. So when I was working as Deputy National Economic Adviser, we had just created the National Economic Council, which was intended to coordinate policy across all of the economic agencies, much the way the National Security Council had been doing for decades. It was an exciting time. Again, I got the opportunity to work with Laura Tyson, so my first woman boss. And we worked on some really important challenges, in particular during the time when I first arrived the Mexican economy experienced a very severe financial crisis that spilled over into the U.S. economy. So that was my first firefighting financial crisis responsibility. And then a few years later, we had a series of financial crises that ricocheted from Thailand to Korea, and Indonesia, and Malaysia, and then ultimately to Brazil and Russia. And again, I put on my firefighting uniform and was the person at the White House responsible for coordinating across the other economic agencies. So it was a very dynamic time in the U.S. economy and a very challenging time in the global economy, and it certainly prepared me well for my subsequent financial crisis related responsibilities.

Suiter: You were obviously mentored and learned a great deal from the women that you worked with. I'm sure from the men you worked with as well. But from the women that you had as mentors. So how do you mentor and who do you mentor in the profession?

Brainard: Yeah. So I do try to be mindful that it’s daunting to be in a room where most of the people may look different and where there are very few people that look like you sitting around the decision-making table, and try to go out of my way to, first of all, make sure that those tables where decisions are made are as representative of the broader society as they possibly can be, and that younger people can see themselves in the decision-makers as potential role models, as achievable goals for their own careers.

I mentor young women. I also of course mentor young men, but I do look for people that may be less likely to pursue an economics degree or want to come work at the Federal Reserve Board, and sort of go out of my way to make it demystified, accessible, and to make them feel like they belong here. And they, too, need to be at that decision-making table. There's a lot of research now, which happens I think to coincide with what I would have intuitively kind of gathered from a lot of my own experiences that the conversation is different around the table, the debate is different when you have more different kinds of people represented, that interestingly, decisions are generally better, and that the decision-making process includes a broader set of considerations. So not only is it something that I think we all feel better about, but it actually has been shown to lead to better outcomes.

Suiter: Well, that certainly supports having diversity in the profession. Could you talk about your experience as a woman in economics at the international level?

Brainard: Yeah, so, I have a memorable story from my time as the representative to the G20, which are a group of countries that are probably the 20 largest economies in the world. It includes emerging markets as well as advanced economies, and you know, the U.S. of course participates in the G20. And I was a finance deputy. So there are finance ministers and central bank governors meet and there are deputies to that process, and I was the first woman deputy to represent the U.S. Or I suppose, yeah. I think that it was actually the first woman deputy to represent the U.S. And you know, it was in the midst of the financial crisis, so we met frequently and we had a lot of pretty intense debates about what the response to the financial crisis, which you know, moved from the U.S. around the world, should be. And I remember at the Korean meeting of the G20, the Korean delegation asked the delegates to gather for a photo in the middle of these debates. And so we all left off our debates, went and got a picture taken and later that afternoon they distributed the pictures to each of us at the table. And I remember my colleagues sitting right next to me picking up their picture and kind of glancing at it, and then looking at it a bit harder, looking at me. And one of them leaned over and said, “Did you know that you're the only woman in this room?” And I of course had noticed, but it was interesting that they had not. And it was also interesting that the next year several of those delegations also had women representing them.

So I think sometimes we simply need to look around a little harder to realize that we need to work harder at making sure there is more balanced representation in those decision-making rooms.

Suiter: Wow. What a fabulous story. You were founding director of the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution where you built a research program to address global economic challenges. Could you talk briefly about what some of those global economic challenges are?

Brainard: Yeah. So we were very focused on the implications of China's rise for, for instance, workers in the United States and how it would impact supply chains globally, the implications for global capital flows of having a very, very large economy with a very managed exchange rate and a very rapidly growing current account. We focused on poverty in a good part of the emerging market and less developed country economies, and also focused on America's role in providing a more robust, more resilient international system.

Suiter: Earlier you said that when you chose economics, you chose it because you saw it as a way that you could make a difference in the issues that you care about. And when I work with young women, for example, high school aged, they're very concerned about making a difference in the world, but they often see the path for that to be political science or history. So could you talk just a little bit about how economics is the path to making the change you want to make in the world?

Brainard: So economics is frequently not thought of as directly relevant to the kinds of problems that we see families struggling with or businesses struggling with. Often I think there is a sense that the political system and perhaps pursuing a legal degree is the most impactful way to affect those challenges. But the reality I think is that there is nothing that touches everybody so pervasively as our economic system, and that to the extent that we do want to ensure more opportunities for underserved groups or more challenged groups, that understanding how the economy works, how businesses are formed, how capital is attracted to provide opportunities for businesses to grow and ideas to be brought to fruition, all of those things are really well approached through economics. And I think for a lot of people, they take a beginning micro course or a macro course and there’s just a lot of graphs and equations, and it’s harder for high school students or perhaps even undergraduates at college to see, well, how does that graph relate to the fact that, you know, there are people in my city that don’t seem to be able to get jobs.

And so what we try to do here a little bit at the Fed is we've got some of our RAs, our research assistants, who are out in our local high schools, particularly in challenged areas, trying to bring some of those economic curricula to life by asking them to apply the tools that they learn in an economics class to something that’s in their neighborhood. And we brought a group around the Board room actually a few months ago, and it was really impressive the way that students had managed to make the connection between the tools, the analytical tools that you get in economics, and some of the very concrete challenges that were facing their neighborhoods. So my sense is that actually economics is a much more practical set of tools than many other disciplines to address social problems and policy challenges that we care about in our neighborhoods.

Suiter: What are your current research interests?

Brainard: So I am very focused on financial stability, because that’s one of the areas that I am responsible for here for at the Board. You know, we’ve all seen what a devastating impact a financial crisis can have on every family in our economy, but particularly on those that are most fragile. And so getting out ahead of those kinds of crises by doing a much more systematic job of trying to track where financial imbalances may be growing and making sure that our banks have the capital in liquidity to be resilient to those kinds of vulnerabilities, that’s a very new field for the Federal Reserve to be engaging in, and it’s something that I think can have a really beneficial impact over time for our financial system, but most importantly for American families.

Suiter: Wonderful. Thank you. When you hear the phrase women in economics, what does that mean to you?

Brainard: Well, I think it’s just an enormous opportunity. I think the more we can get women engaged in and excited about economics, along with not only do we have an underrepresentation from a gender perspective, but we also don’t see a lot of representation from African Americans and Hispanic Americans in the economics profession. The more we can get women and other groups that have traditionally been underrepresented interested in economics, the more I think we’re going to have a dynamic profession that really does go out and solve problems that we all care about.

Suiter: I just want to say thank you so much for being a role model for women, for girls. When I work with high schools and college young women, I often point to Chair Yellen and to you and say, “If you want to make a difference in the world, be an economist. If you want to make a difference in the world, do monetary policy. You know, make a difference in a big way.”

Brainard: Yeah. I agree with that to sort of see there’s a path for somebody that looks like them.

Suiter: See there's a path. “I could do that. I could do that.” Because many of them don’t. So thank you very much. And thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. To hear more about Women in Economics podcasts, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That's one word: Stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. Thank you.

Brainard: Thank you.

This podcast features conversations with women and underrepresented minorities who are making their marks in the field of economics. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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