Friday, September 22, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Janet Yellen on holding women back

In America, the chair of our central banking Federal Reserve System (known familiarly as "The Fed") speaks frequently, but with care. Pronouncements by the Fed chair--currently economist Janet Yellen, the first woman to hold the post--are read like tea leaves for signals of change in the economy, and hold great weight. The Fed chair's speeches are transcribed and published routinely to aid in that tea-leaf-reading. And like tea leaves, boy, are they dry, the result of all the anxiety around these formal speeches. I like to imagine the Fed's offices with the motto "Neutral language a specialty" carved above the door. Forget your storytelling and personal anecdotes. Good, solid, plainspoken economics are the thing.

In a speech the New York Times called "unusually narrative and unusually personal," Yellen broke with that pattern at her alma mater, Brown University, for a conference marking the 125th anniversary of women's admission to the university. Also unusual was the coverage it drew, from the likes of the New York Times, Bloomberg, Fortune, and other financial press

While her premise--that the economy could grow more if working women had better support--was fiscal in nature, the speech was peppered with examples of real women who had studied at Brown, and experienced setbacks in their efforts to pursue learning and careers. One of them, a mathematician who graduated in 1923, was Yellen's husband's aunt, Elizabeth Stafford Hirschfelder.

It was the mix of the two styles--personal and plainspoken--that made this speech a success. Noting estimates that the U.S. could boost its yearly economic output by 5 percent if women could participate at the same level as men in the workforce, Yellen said:
Evidence suggests that many women remain unable to achieve their goals. If these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of many of our citizens and incur a substantial loss to the productive capacity of our economy at a time when the aging of the population and weak productivity growth are already weighing on economic growth.
Let's reflect for a moment on what "participate at the same level as men in the workforce means." Not having to endure and fight harrassment, nor having to quit a good job because of it. Getting hired at the same rate as men, and having as many opportunities to move and find opportunity. Getting the same rate of pay and advancement and benefits. Not having to leave the workday or meetings or business trips early to handle childcare or home chores. Not having to secure childcare. Not having to use personal vacation time for any of the above. Having equitable parental leave. And that's just the short list.

"We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back," Yellen said, quoting Malala Yousafzai, who served as her inspiration for the speech. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • It does make a difference when women speak on women's issues: I'll let Bloomberg say it: "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." And I'll add: Those men could have tackled this economic issue at any time, of course. But they didn't. So here again, women pick up the slack to highlight their issues.
  • Enliven data with real people: In addition to her own relative, Yellen drew on examples of real women graduates of Brown University from the points in history she wanted to illustrate, taking their stories from oral histories collected by the university. And from time to time, she used herself as a reference, noting that in her own profession of economics, she's an anomaly as well, since just one-third of the Ph.D. degrees issued in the field go to women. Even today.
  • Finish the thought: It's been said many times that once women decide to have children, their advancement is limited, particularly in high-powered professions that require long hours and overtime, or excessive travel. Often, the conversation ends there, a fait accompli. But Yellen completes the thought with what could be, if we just tried a little harder: "Advances in technology have facilitated greater work-sharing and flexibility in scheduling, and there are further opportunities in this direction. Economic models also suggest that while it can be difficult for any one employer to move to a model with shorter hours, if many firms were to change their model, they and their workers could all be better off." Hint, hint.
The Fed published the speech here, and you can watch it in the video below. Yellen's remarks begin at the 11:42 mark, but don't miss the sparkling introduction given by Brown University President Christina Paxson that precedes it.

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