The year was 1994 and about a dozen of us sat in the SUNY Empire State College (ESC) group-study room at the edge of the New Paltz campus watching a video on an old-school TV. A man with outlandishly styled hair and curiously feral demeanor was outlining a list of policy changes he claimed would bring transparency and fairness to United States governance, to the applause of his Congressional colleagues.
Our Contemporary Economic Problems professor, a brilliant woman named Mary Goldman, turned off the player and faced the group. “Folks,” she said, “they give it a lot of patriotic window dressing, but the fact is, these policies on criminal justice and spending and so-called common sense legal reform are all meant to tilt the table seriously in favor of the bullies and monied interests, and should they prevail, we are pretty much f*cked.”
It pains me that I had to do some serious digging to recover Mary’s last name (ESC mentors were first-name folks) when she was so clearly absolutely right, prescient in a way that none of the pundits of the day managed to be. In that slightly dusty little circle of desks she pretty much laid out for us what would happen to the US economy in the coming couple of decades as a result of further abandoning collective community uplift in favor of weaponized corporatism and punishing the poor, making the point that such policies couldn’t possibly be sustainable and repeated bubbles and busts would result, and that people were being sold a fatuous populism as a cover for economic evisceration. Welp.
Just maybe, we need to pay more mind to women in economics.
Of course, women have long been central to economic life, performing vast amounts of the work that adds value and livability, not to mention miraculously bringing forth whole new humans. This absolute centrality, I’ve always felt, has something to do with the need that some men—not indicting the entire gender here—feel to commodify, confine and control us.
Their loss. A 2017 Cloverpop study of 600 business decisions found that diverse, inclusive teams made better decisions 87% of the time, twice as fast and with 60% better results, and needed only half the meetings to do it. Gender-diverse teams made better decisions 73% of the time; adding diverse ages and geographic backgrounds kicked it up another 14 points. Beyond that, writes Cloverpop founder Eric Larson, research from Bain and Co. “shows that decision making effectiveness is 95% correlated with financial performance.”
Cloverpop studied private businesses, but the implications for the public sector and the common good are clear: we need all possible hands on deck to resolve the economic inequality that is currently swamping so many ships of state, in the US and elsewhere.
It’s not as though women haven’t offered their voices to the conversation. Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, English suffragist leader and friend of John Stuart Mill, wrote Political Economy for Beginners in 1870, and in 2018, she was named Influential Woman of the Century in a BBC poll. Another British woman, Joan Violet Robinson, became a Cambridge University lecturer in economics at 34 and the first woman to be named an “honorary fellow” of King’s College in 1979, is widely acknowledged as a seminal contributor to post-Keynesian economic thought.
The US has had a few history-making rock stars too, from social work pioneer Edith Abbot—who helped write the US Social Security Act in 1935—to Macarthur Foundation Genius Award winner Alice Rivlin, who served as founding director of the Congressional Budget Office in 1975 and was later vice-chair of the Federal Reserve.
For some strange (a-hem) reason or other, women economists have often paid more attention than their male peers to issues of structural inequality. Not everyone wants to hear the news; new findings from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that women lecturers in the field are more likely than those male peers to be asked patronizing or hostile questions.
Women represent a clear minority of those in the field of economics,a little less than a third at the graduate studies level, and the disparity grows larger the farther up the career ladder one looks. According to a 2018 New York Times essay by Justin Walters, the biggest reasons are the same issues that afflict women in a great many professions perceived as influential: lack of credit given where it’s due, biased evaluations, sexualization, and trivialization.
Yet, as in just about every endeavor, women economists…persist. At the federal level, there’s the success of Janet Yellen. At the Hudson Valley level, Woodstock native March Gallagher was sworn in as the first woman elected Ulster County Comptroller on January 1, 2020. In the proud tradition of Millicent Fawcett and Edith Abbott, Gallagher keeps a laser focus on the connection between economic policy and justice. As a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, she worked to get her college divested from South Africa’s apartheid regime. As a candidate, her slogan was “Shine a light and follow the money.” As comptroller, she has focused on transparency, releasing a groundbreaking Popular Annual Financial Report and making lists of signed county contracts public.
Across the river at Bard, the Economics Program factory is gender-balanced and geographically diverse, led by Director Kris Feder. Her research interests showcase the holistic thinking women bring to the field, focusing on environment and ecology, food and agriculture, justice, and economic anthropology, among other things.
Economics uninformed by an understanding of anthropology, justice, community, and ecology can never solve the dilemma that’s got the world economy firmly stuck on its horns. Nothing short of an evolved understanding of exchange that is rooted in love can do that. Another member of the Bard economic team, Hudson Valley Current economist Dr. Leanne Usher, has put it succinctly: Can a community, with community goals, unite rather than being prisoner to the financial sector?
Globally, nationally and locally, the question has never been more urgent. And when we get to yes, we’ll have women in economics to thank.