Former Fed economist accuses profession and central bank of sexism

by Reuters
Wednesday, 29 July 2020 23:27 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Federal Reserve Board building on Constitution Avenue is pictured in Washington, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

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Claudia Sahm said her work was questioned and demeaned, and she was not informed of her right to complain about the harassment

By Jonnelle Marte

July 29 (Reuters) - A searing blog by a former Federal Reserve economist accused the economics profession generally, and the Fed in particular, of discrimination against her and other women, prompting the central bank's head - Jerome Powell - to say that women had experienced unfair treatment "for far too long."

"Everyone who is privileged enough to hold a PhD in economics should reflect on our toxic culture," Claudia Sahm, who is now the director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, wrote in a blog post published Wednesday. "Economics is a disgrace. The lack of diversity and inclusion degrades our knowledge and policy advice."

In the blog post, Sahm singled out several prominent male economists for their interactions with her or remarks on gender more broadly. Sahm detailed incidents in which she said male colleagues at the Fed and male economists elsewhere questioned her expertise and demeaned her work. She also said colleagues did not inform her of her rights to file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the harassment she said she experienced.

The Federal Reserve did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Powell was asked about it during his news conference on Wednesday following the central bank's latest policy meeting.

Powell said he had not read the blog, but acknowledged the U.S. central bank could do more and should do more to establish a diverse and inclusive workforce, and that doing so was a high priority for the Fed.

"It's fair to acknowledge that there's been a lot of pain and injustice and unfair treatment that women have experienced in the workplace, not just among economists," Powell said. "And at the Fed it's been going on for far too long."

A survey released last year by the American Economic Association found that 30% of female economists said they had been discriminated against in the field, compared to 12% of male economists.

While the federal government hires more women and minority economists than academia, the pace at which they are being hired remains slow, according to a study from the Brookings Institution published last September.

The share of female economists at the Federal Reserve, which includes its headquarters and 12 regional Feds, was unchanged at 24% of the workforce between 2013 and 2018, the study showed. The share of minority economists has risen to 25% from 22% in 2013.

Sahm, who also served on former President Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, is the author of an eponymous rule that can help determine the start of a recession. The Sahm Rule finds that the economy has just or is about to enter a period of contraction when the three-month average of the unemployment rate rises half a percentage point above the low of the previous year.

In the post, Sahm wrote about her struggles with mental illness and bipolar disorder and called on universities, the government and lead economists to provide a more welcoming and respectful environment for women and minorities.

"Efforts to change our culture are cheap talk if we do not act," she wrote. "Instead of a victory lap, we should be ashamed of the lack of progress and the sloppy implementation."

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte, additional reporting by Ann Saphir and Lindsay Dunsmuir Editing by Dan Burns and Rosalba O'Brien)