Women in Economics: Sharon Donnery

March 23, 2022

This 27-minute podcast was published March 23, 2022.

Sharon Donnery

“We're here to serve the public, and I think it's really important that in doing that we represent the society that we serve, all different dimensions of society,” says Sharon Donnery, the first woman appointed deputy governor of the Central Bank of Ireland. She talks with St. Louis Fed Media Relations Coordinator Maria Hasenstab.



Maria Hasenstab: Welcome to the St. Louis Fed's Women in Economics Podcast Series where we interview women who are making their marks in the field of economics. I'm Maria Hasenstab, your host.

In this episode we'll be talking with Sharon Donnery, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Ireland. Sharon, thanks for joining me.

Sharon Donnery: Hi, Maria, and hello to the listeners. And thanks a lot for having me on the podcast. I really appreciate the chance to talk to you.

Hasenstab: Well, we're so excited to talk to you. Sharon, as the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, you are responsible for so many things; for leading the financial stability, economics and statistics, and financial operations of the Central Bank. Tell me about your role and your work.

Donnery: Well, as you said, first of all you mentioned some of the areas that I'm responsible for in terms of my line of management. I suppose I might talk a little bit about them for a minute, but then I do have sort of a broader set of responsibilities across the organization, and then some kind of international responsibilities as well, so we might just go through those quickly if that's okay.

So you mentioned the areas that I have responsibility for there. So financial stability, economics and statistics, and financial operations. So basically, all of the Central Bank of Ireland’s work in those areas, whether it's our published economic analysis and research, all of the statistics that we collect on the financial system and that we publish, our financial stability work, including work that we do around big policies like we have mortgage lending rules for example, capital requirements at a macro-credential level, all of that work I'm responsible for. And then the Central Bank's balance sheets, and our financial investments for example, and also a lot of work that we do around payments. So that's my sort of line management responsibilities, and any of the bank's work that goes into public domain. For any of those areas, for example, I deal with all of that.

I am a senior executive at the Central Bank of Ireland, and I'm also a member of our Board, which is called The Commission. So I also have wider responsibilities for running the organization and how we manage and lead the organization, and that takes up quite a bit of my time. And then I have a number of international responsibilities. And so I'm sure your listeners know, Ireland is a member of the Eurozone, so we're part of the European System of Central Banks. But our monetary policy is made by the ECB in Frankfurt and our governor attends the Governing Council at the ECB, and I'm the governor's alternate, so his sort of deputy member in the Governing Council, so I attend the Governing Council. There's a lot of international work and international committees that I attend as a result of that.

Then a big part of my work is also I suppose communications and stakeholder management. So representing the bank in public, giving speeches and interviews, but also engaging with members of the public, outreach visits and so on that the bank is also involved in.

And then I suppose our political accountability. So like yourselves at the Fed, we also have important accountability responsibilities to the Arch Parliament. And part of my job is also managing some of that. So I'm really lucky. I have a very interesting job, a very broad set of responsibilities, which is all really interesting and very motivating. And of course, being at a Central Bank, it's all in the public good, or for the public interest, which I think is a key motivator for me and for many of my colleagues.

Hasenstab: You are actually the first woman to be appointed to the role of Deputy Governor. How does that feel and why do you think it's important that more women and members of underrepresented minorities enter the field of economics?

Donnery: Yeah. So the personal part first. I mean, obviously in terms of my career, and I'm sure we'll talk about this. I mean, I started my career as an economist at the bank many years ago. I won't say how many years ago, but quite a number of years ago. And so from a kind of career progression and development point of view, to work your way up through an organization and ultimately become Deputy Governor obviously was a matter of great pride and very fulfilling. And to also be the first woman, I think for me personally meant quite a lot. You know, there have been many other female economists who've gone before me in the organization sort of charting a path in terms of making our organization more diverse. But for me personally to get to that role and to have the opportunity that goes with that role, not just in terms of the work that we've just been describing, but I suppose also the opportunity, it has given me to raise issues around diversity and inclusion and particularly gender diversity, that has been a real privilege.

And I mean, you asked then about the sort of wider issue, why I think it's important for women to be represented in this way, and indeed many minority groups and so on. And for me, it comes back to what I said to you at the beginning in terms of my role and a key motivator being about the public interest. So we're here to serve the public, and I think it's really important that in doing that we represent the society that we serve, all different dimensions of society. And I think the best way for us to be able to do that effectively is to make sure that our staff, also our representative of society and the public that we serve.

I think the other thing as well is we are a very broad central bank in terms of our mandate. So some central banks maybe are more exclusively focused on monetary policy, or they may have financial stability responsibility. We are also the regulator in Ireland, so we have a very broad set of regulatory responsibilities in terms of credential regulations, but also consumer protection. With that kind of diverse mandate, I think you also need diverse skills, diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences so that in fulfilling our mandate we're thinking in a very open way and bringing very many dimensions.

And maybe the other part that's quite important for me, in particularly coming from Ireland, you know, many of your listeners will know that Ireland experienced a very significant financial crisis at the time of the global financial crisis, but there were some very particular challenges in Ireland. One of the big criticisms of some of the state institutions in Ireland at that time, including the Central Bank, but also I think a bit more broadly in terms of our financial services industry and so on was around groupthink. And the way I think many of the risks led up to that crisis had been missed partly as a result of groupthink.

And so for me personally, diversity as a mitigant to groupthink is extremely important. I think for us as an organization here at the Central Bank, having learned from that crisis about our own approach, having a very kind of questioning approach that's very based on evidence and debate in that evidence and what conclusion we draw from it, but also that as a regulator, how do we sort of drive into the financial industry to also make sure that they have a diversity in the industry, and that the firms that we supervise are also mitigating groupthink. So I think all of these different dimensions together, I mean for me personally, but also for our organization, that broad representation is an extremely important part of what we think about and an important of fulfilling our mandate.

Hasenstab: Yes. Diversity and representation are key to avoiding groupthink. Thank you so much for that. You were appointed deputy governor in 2016, and you were acting governor briefly in 2019. Prior to that, you held a range of senior positions at the bank, including Head of Consumer Information and Head of Consumer Protection. You also represented the Central Bank of Ireland on committees of the European Banking Authority, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. What tools did you use for success in this male dominated environment?

Donnery: Yeah, so I suppose I'd make a distinction maybe between earlier on in my career and later in my career. So when I started at the bank, I was an economist. I was working in monetary policy. And Ireland was just about to join the Eurozone and the single currency was just about to be introduced. And a lot of my work was around the preparations that we were doing in the Central Bank for joining the Eurozone, and I mean ultimately even the introduction and sort of Euro denomination notes and coins, and the new single monetary policy and so on. And at that time, I'd say very little of my work involved sort of external engagements and dealing with the financial service industry. And while some of my work involved working with the ECB, it was relatively limited. But as I began to move through the organization, and I did for a period move into supervision for example. Supervising at the financial services industry, because as I said we have this very broad mandate. So as I moved through the organization, also as I became more senior, I think this male domination environment that you described came much more forward. I think everybody knows that financial services industry in particular is quite male dominated. And also that is an issue I think partly in the economics profession, and also to some extent in central banks.

And so I suppose a couple of things that have stood to me during that time, first of all, is about sort of your own self-confidence and your own way of going about things, and thinking about how you approach your work, and how you sort of engage with all of those different people, different stakeholders. And I know from talking to many female colleagues over the years, many of us struggle with self-confidence from time to time, or particular times in our careers. So I think finding ways to sort of support yourself and to support your own self-confidence in terms of your career, I found that really important. I found mentoring really important. And I've been very lucky throughout my career to have a number of people who supported me, guided me, mentored me. And I think it's really important to say they're both male and female. I've had a number of colleagues I've worked with who – you know, male colleagues who are very supportive of me personally, but also very supportive of women having opportunities and having roles, and also I think more broadly supportive of sort of diversity and inclusion.

And maybe the other thing which I personally struggled with I think earlier on in my career was around networking. I probably didn't really appreciate how important that was. And if I look at my job now, a huge part of my role now is working internationally, being on different committees and groups, dealing with stakeholders, dealing with the industry, as I mentioned, communications, political engagement and so on. So kind of getting to know people, being out there, talking to people, having contacts in various places, whether that's academia, or the central banks, and other organizations and so on, and people that you're dealing with, I think this is really important. And for me personally, I would say it's something that I underestimated the importance of earlier in my career, and certainly as I became more senior and maybe did other things outside of sort of working purely in the economics world, those aspects became much more important. So I think it is something that I would highlight.

Hasenstab: Thank you so much for that. So let's back up. Let's talk about your education and how that prepared you for your work in central banking. You have a bachelor's degree in economics and politics, and a master’s in economics from University College Dublin. How did you choose to study economics? And how did your education prepare you for your current work?

Donnery: Yeah. So I always say, even though it might sound a little bit strange, that I never sort of set out when I was going to university to become a professional economist. I never set out to sort of work in a central bank. And most certainly, even when I joined the Central Bank of Ireland, I mean, it was beyond my wildest dreams that I would one day become deputy governor. So I didn't have some sort of clear chartered plan, and I hope people find that quite reassuring. I don't think it's always necessary when you're quite young going to a university and you're sort of embarking on that, things won't necessarily always work out as you expected or as you intended, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. So for me personally, I was actually quite young when I was going to university. Certainly about a year younger than many of my classmates. I was unsure I think about what I wanted to do in terms of my future career. But I certainly was sure that I was sort of interested in the social sciences and so on. And so I suppose that was what led me originally into studying economics and politics when I went to UCD originally.

Then I decided to stay on and do my masters. And as part of that, I got an opportunity to also have a teaching post at UCD as a sort of tutor. And that was a really interesting opportunity, and that led me into sort of academic posts after that. That I think is true for many economists who sort of reach a point about, you know, are you going to go down an academic road or are you going to do something else. And for me at the time, the Central Bank I think very eminent in terms of having a very strong reputation around economics and the type of analysis and work that goes on in central banks, and also around obviously the opportunity to be involved in policy making. And an opportunity came up to join the Central Bank. And I have sort of gone on from there as we've been talking about.

So I think in terms of how my time and my education prepared me for my current job, I mean obviously having a very strong foundation in economics is very important in terms of what I do now. I think the fact that I studied politics has also been quite beneficial, because so much of what we do has to do with kind of political economy, society, and sort of the way that the political environment and the risks that arise from the political environment, even if you look at some of the geopolitical issues that we're dealing with now, you know, how they affect the economy, and how they affect the decisions of central banks has proved very relevant.

But I think there are also things maybe that you don't necessarily get an opportunity to think about so much when you're in the education system, but they are quite important to think about your career. So communications and learning fields around communications. And I hope I'm effective with communication with your audience today, but knowing your audience and thinking about how you tailor or adopt your communications to your audience. And I think the other thing, which is true very much for central banks, but I think true for many employers in terms of your career, is around teamwork and collaboration. So we have an awful lot of experts working here in the Central Bank. Deep technical experts, economists, lawyers, accountants, policy analysts looking at all sorts of different issues, and they need a lot of expertise on a lot of deep skills. But they also all work in teams, either teams in their own local areas, their own divisions across the bank, across the European system, with other central banks globally, and we do from time to time work with colleagues in the Fed for example. And so also thinking I think in terms of your career about developing your skills around that teamwork and collaboration, I would say.

Hasenstab: Recently you shared a virtual fireside chat with Mary Daly, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Mary was actually the first person we interviewed for this podcast series when it launched back in 2018. At that time, Mary shared really powerful stories about the mentors in her life.

Tell me about the mentors in your life who helped build your career. And are you doing things to help draw more women into the field?

Donnery: So first, I mean, it's lovely for me, a real privilege I think to join you here following on someone as inspirational as President Mary Daly, and we've been very lucky, as you say, and she joined us virtually for a Fireside chat earlier this year. We were also lucky enough to host her here in Dublin a couple years ago. And I have talked to her, herself, about sort of this issue of mentoring. And as I said, I did mention it.

So for me, I think it is something that has been quite significant in my own career. I mean, first of all, I think everybody has ups and downs in their career. You know, time when things are going really well, time maybe when you have some disappointments. Time maybe where you feel your career has plateaued a little bit and you might feel a bit frustrated. And I think finding ways, whether it's talking to a colleague, or having some support, or having some mentors maybe to help and advise you through that, it's really important.

So I'd say in my case, to highlight maybe two particular times where I've found mentoring really beneficial. So I have a family, and one of the things I've had to carefully manage myself is work/life balance. And what I would have done, for example, on maternity leave and taken time out for work very early on when the children were younger, I had a really good mentor at that time. It happened to be a female, but she was very supportive I suppose of sort of, for me, was uncharted territory. You know, you're dealing with this very new change in your own personal life and trying to balance that with also wanting a career, trying to delineate between home and the office, trying to get the time balance right. And I certainly found that very beneficial and she was very, very supportive of me at that time. I think it really helped me through some of the challenges at that time.

The other time I would say, and in this case it was a male mentor, and this is why I think for women who are thinking about their careers, I think men can also be very supportive and a very important part of our career development. At another time I suppose when I would have felt maybe uncertain about my career path ahead. Where I was going what did I want to do? What did I want to achieve? What might be good choices? And someone at that stage I think who spent a lot of time with me talking about developing my own skills and capabilities, as we've been talking about there. And also I suppose the self-confidence to take opportunities. For me, a lot of my career has been about being lucky enough maybe to get opportunities, but also being brave enough to take opportunities when they've presented themselves. And I think in that case, someone who really helped me think about how can you sort of have the self-confidence or how can you find the time or whatever it is to sort of take opportunities when they present themselves and sort of make the most of them in terms of both the learning experience and what you can get out of it, but also what you can offer in terms of the skills, the background, and diversity and so on that you can bring to a task, or a job, or being on a committee, or a working group, or doing some particular piece of work.

So I think I personally have found mentoring quite important and it's something I think that I also try to do in terms of thinking about other colleagues and being supportive of them. Maybe thinking more broadly about sort of drawing women into the field of economics, and I think that is something that we know is a big challenge. I mean, there are various things that we would do here at the Central Bank in terms of I think similar to yourselves, we would have engagement with students. Whether that's at universities. We have some competitions that we run for school students, for example. Colleagues at the European Central Bank, so in that wider Euro System, also have some programs around offering master’s degrees, scholarships towards tuition and so on. The ECB also has initiatives around promoting diversity and gender balance more broadly in central banking.

You mentioned President Daly, and when she came to visit us earlier this year on this virtual visit, we were celebrating an old Irish tradition which is called Nollaig na Bhan, which is the Irish language for Women's Christmas. I mean, in the past long ago, this was a day when traditionally women had some time off after being very busy over Christmas. But at the Central Bank in the last couple of years, myself and some of my colleagues have been trying to use this old-fashioned tradition to promote more of a debate around women in economics and the roles that we do. So we've had a number of events trying to I suppose encourage a debate about our field, our profession, and encouraging more women to get into it. We had an event talking to colleagues in STEM, so another sector I think that has some challenges around diversity and what we can learn from then. And then this year we were lucky enough for President Daly to join us to talk to us about her experience. And I think she's really put diversity and inclusion front and center at the San Francisco Fed and to talk to us about some of her experience. So I suppose we're using various things like that, and to also think about how can we promote economics as a profession for women, particularly I think given some of the benefits that that brings.

Hasenstab: We want to lift up and inspire women to know that they should consider studying economics and working in this field. One way we do that is by sharing our challenges and how we made them opportunities. So what challenges have you faced? And how did you convert them to opportunities or overcome those challenges?

Donnery: Yeah. I'm not sure if they were really challenges that I faced just because I was a woman in economics. I would say there's been certainly challenges in my career I think because I've been a woman. And as we were talking about earlier, I worked in what has been a quite male dominated environment if you think about the financial services industry, or the economics profession, or even central banking. And I think that has presented some challenges. I would highlight what I was talking to you there about earlier about that sort of time in my career, I suppose, around when I first had my family and trying to decide was I still going to have a career, how would I manage that, how could I get the right balance. And I suppose I've had to learn to be quite disciplined about my time. You know, trying to have a distinction between my home life and my work life. And prior to that, a quote I think it's Madeleine Albright, about women feeling guilty for being at the office when they feel they should be at home, and feeling that they should be at home when they feel they should be at the office. And while I had to sort of manage some of that, so I think I found that particular time in my career challenging. But the opportunity in that, I suppose, was also to learn about sort of managing your time. What do you actually spend your time doing? What are the most effective things that you can do? If you think about your own role, where is the real value added, I suppose, that you are bringing to a role and thinking about the time that you spend on different things, and do you have the right balance, even in terms of your work. Never mind sort of balancing your time at home.

I think then more broadly in economics, I started my career as an economist. That was my day job. I was working in that professionally, including doing analysis and research. I previously spent some time in the academia. And I think sometimes maybe as economists we under appreciate maybe the value of our skills in other areas, and seeing some of the opportunities I think that economics can really present. As I said, I've been very lucky. I work in a central bank that has a very broad mandate. I've spent time in consumer protection. I've spent time in supervision, you know, supervising some of the biggest banks in Ireland after the financial crisis, for example. I've done a lot of work in policy making. So I think economics is a really strong foundation for doing other things as well and bringing those kind of analytical skills and the things that we have as economists. So I think that can be challenging sometimes, you know, thinking about where do I want my career to go. Do I want to stay working in the field of economics? Do I want to work in academia? But in fact, I think the opportunity in that is that it can be a real bridge into many, many other areas where your skills are also very valuable. So I would see an opportunity in sort of thinking about your career very broadly, and thinking about sort of how can you use your strong economics foundation in sort of other ways or other applications, I suppose. And that would be the opportunity I would see there.

Hasenstab: Sharon, is there anything else you'd like to discuss about women in economics?

Donnery: Yes, I suppose something that I have always found very powerful as a central banker and as a policy maker, and I guess this is probably your experience too as a central banker, is the banking importance of evidence-based policy making. So maybe this is something that really drives us here at the Central Bank, and I think it's something that's obviously really important to economists. Okay?

And then when we're making these policies, they obviously effect society. So I think we really have to think about, well, what is the evidence based by society? And what does that tell us about sort of what we need to do and how we really need to serve that society? I think if you look at recent experience around COVID, for example, we know that COVID has affected different sectors of society very differently, different sectors of the economy. But we also know that it has affected gender. So women and men very differently, labor force participation for example of men and women quite differently. We know there have been income inequality issues around some people who have been very badly affected, other people who have built up a large savings.

So I suppose the important message for me about that is you have to look at the granular data sometimes to really sort of understand what's going on, and to make sort of really good policy. And I think and the diversity and economics are a bit like that. We also have to be tuned in to some of the sort of granular data, so with the underlying things that are going on, and make sure that whether it's gender or any of the other things that we do, that we really have that perspective in our policy making. And I suppose all of that ultimately brings me back to for us, as central bankers, the motivation around the public interest, and the public good, and the society that we serve, and doing the best we can to make the best judgments possible, but also to reflect that society as well.

Hasenstab: Well, thank you for tying that back to these current issues. Sharon, I want to thank you so much for your time today.

Donnery: It's been my pleasure. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

Hasenstab: To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon, or wherever you listen to your podcast. Thanks again, Sharon.

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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