• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Maternal Monetary Policy

The Yellen nomination.


October 17, 2013

I have a memory from the first time I tried to publish anything in economics. I sent off a paper that I was pretty proud of, and waited for a reply. I was shocked to receive a rejection letter, although it was one that left a little room to revise and resubmit the paper, should I come up with data that I already knew was not readily available. Looking back, I realize that the paper was just awful, and fully deserved to be; it was pulled almost directly from my dissertation, and did little to motivate the reader (or referee) to progress beyond the first paragraph. It was my first rejection, and I was crushed. But I found the most shocking part of the experience to be that one of the referees called me “she” on various occasions in his report. I knew that the process was supposed to be blind, and in those days I used only my first initial in most of my correspondence, something that probably immediately alerted any editor to the fact that I was a woman. How did this referee know that I was female? I asked a senior member of my department about this, and he suggested that it was the referee’s way of insulting me, of making it clear that my paper deserved to be rejected. “Oh,” I said, and walked away, once again being reminded that women were not equal partners in the worlds of math and economics.

This is one reason why I am so thrilled that Janet Yellen has been nominated to lead the Federal Reserve Bank, the central bank of the United States. Not only will she be the first woman to hold this position in the United States, but she is also a fellow “Mama, Ph.D.”

When you think about it, who better to run monetary policy in the United States than a mother? In most homes it seems that the mother is the family member who is most in touch with family finances. It is usually the case that we pay the bills and make the budget stretch even when it looks like it can’t be stretched. When big expenses arise or people lose jobs, it is often the mothers who find ways to make sure that other family members, especially the children, do not suffer. For women in past years, such as frontier women in the U.S., this sometimes meant going without food themselves so that their children could eat. For modern women, this might mean taking out small loans to cover expenses until things get better. Who, then, would be better at understanding the implications of an increase in the interest rate paid by consumers on credit cards and on mortgages than a mother?

I remember the days of caring for a young child, and recall how everything else got put aside to take care of that baby. My own plans were not considered, and any illusion that I had of myself as important got left at the door as I ran out of the house to teach a night class, wiping “urp” off my sweater as I handed my daughter to my husband who was returning from his workday. I think of the folks in the government who almost sent the world into a financial tailspin, and know that most mothers would put their own reputation second to the needs of those they care for.

I also laugh when I remember the days when my daughter was very young and I tried to straighten up our living room (silly mommy!), putting toys and crayons away. As I did so, I often felt like the person at the end of a parade who swept up the droppings from the horses who had passed by. I remember that as I tried to clean, I was momentarily successful, only to be followed by a toddler who immediately took everything I put away and pulled it out again. I have to believe that a mother would have experience at cleaning up the messes of those around her, and that such a skill may be useful in designing monetary policy in a world where those who are supposed to create fiscal policy sometimes cannot seem to get along.

Of course, Dr. Yellen would bring many other skills to the job, such as an employment history at the Federal Reserve Board and a stellar background as an economist who has taught at some of the world’s most respected schools. However, it is her background as a mother that most intrigues me. That, and the idea that with her at the helm of the central bank of the largest economy in the world, perhaps it will no longer be considered an insult to use a female pronoun when delivering someone bad news about a journal submission.


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