Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve recently gave an 18-page speech at her alma mater, Brown University, on the topic of women and work.
Here are the highlights from her speech, which is titled ‘So We All Can Succeed: 125 Years of Women’s Participation in the Economy’. The title of her speech is inspired by Nobel Peace Prize Awardee, Malala Yousafzai, who had earlier said “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back”.
Yellen spoke about the history of women and work, starting from the end of the 19th century. She spoke about how women were deprived of a good education, and only 54 per cent of those aged 5 to 19 were in school in 1890.
She also spoke about how women who tried to seek education were often ridiculed and discouraged. “Ruth Pederson, a member of the Class of 1919, said some professors didn’t want to teach women and prohibited women from taking their classes. Margery Leonard [Class of 1929] remembered one Boston University professor who urged her to drop out of law school.”
As the 1930s came around, more women in America joined the labour force. However, they dropped out as soon as they got married. Labour force participation for married women was 12 per cent compared to the 50 per cent participation for single women.
Between the 1930s and mid 1970s, women’s participation kept rising, Yellen said. By 1970, 40 per cent of married women participated in the labour force. This is because of the advent of mass high school education, demand for clerical workers, and modern appliances which made it more feasible for married women to work outside the home.
Still, women were regarded as secondary earners, Yellen said. For example, even while it was becoming more common for women to teach at colleges, they could not rise up at the same rate as men. Yellen gave the example of her relative Betty Stafford, who even after earning her Ph.D, remained an instructor on an ad hoc basis, while her husband who was also a Ph.D rose up the ranks.
Women’s participation rate peaked in the late 1990s, and has plateaued since then. Women still earn about 17 per cent less than men, and do not reach the highest echelons of their professions
Yellen then outlined how as women gained experience, a new model of the two-income family emerged. Changes in attitudes were supported by changes in society. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978 and measures were taken against sexual harassment in the workplace. Access to birth control also gave couples access to family planning.
And by the 1990s, the labour force participation rate for women between the ages of 25 and 54 had reached over 74 per cent, with more women becoming doctors, lawyers, managers etc.
The participation rate peaked in the late 1990s, and has plateaued since then. Women still earn about 17 per cent less than men, and do not reach the highest echelons of their professions.
Yellen spoke about how workplaces, which require long hours, would have a disproportionately large effect on women, who continue to bear the lion’s share of domestic and child-rearing responsibilities.
She suggested implementing paid leave at the time of childbirth, improving access to affordable and good quality child care, and increased availability of part-time work. Evidence suggests that if the United States had policies in place such as those employed in many European countries, female labour force participation could be as high as 82 per cent, she said.
Yellen is the first woman to head the Federal Reserve.