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Plugging The 'Leaky Pipe' For Women, Minorities In Economics


A busy week at the U.S. Federal Reserve. The central bank announced it would end its stimulus program after six years. And later in the week, the Fed's chair, Janet Yellen, gave a speech about diversity in the field of economics. She said the profession, which seems to be dominated by white men, would benefit from a wider variety of viewpoints and pointed to what she called a leaky pipeline that's prevented women and minorities from making it into the top ranks of academia. We're joined now in our studios by labor economist Julianne Malveaux. Dr. Malveaux, thanks very much for being with us.

DR. JULIANNE MALVEAUX: It's absolutely a pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What do you make of that leaky pipeline analogy?

MALVEAUX: It's absolutely the case. When you look at the research from the past, white males were the norm. It was not until the '70s that folks like Janet Yellen and others introduced women into, essentially, the research - just the research. I think that some of my work and others began to introduce black women, but by and large you're talking a white male space.

Janet talked about diversity of ideas as well as diversity in terms of input. And what we often see - the Fed has done a great job under Bernanke to talk about holding interest rates down for economic recovery, especially since Congress has not. But at the same time, what we see is almost an indifference to the plight of African-Americans and people who are lower-income.

SIMON: Is that the job of the Federal Reserve though?

MALVEAUX: Not necessarily. Well, I think the Fed, you know, they've got 300 PhD economists there. They've got an office of diversity and inclusion. I think here's their job - go out to some of the schools, graduate schools especially, and recruit. And let people know this is what you can do at the Fed. When I look at the Survey of Consumer Finance, for example, that reports on wealth - and the most recent one came out - 2013 came out early this year - they aggregate Africans-Americans and Hispanics or, basically, nonwhites, and the two groups have very different kinds of mobility. And I think that with an African-American economist were there, there might be something different.

I worked for the Council of Economic Advisers in 1978, and I remember that there was a line on the unemployment data that said nonwhites. And with my lovely, diplomatic self, I went and said, well, you know, how come we can't disaggregate that? And they did. No one had ever said to them - I mean, I won't say no one, but I know that I fussed, and they said OK, we can disaggregate that.

SIMON: No one had ever seen that as a problem from their perspective?

MALVEAUX: Yes, and when you have, you know, different kinds of indicators, it is kind of a problem. So I think with the Fed, it's not their job to count. This is not an affirmative action thing, but I think what it is their job to do is to do outreach.

SIMON: Earlier this month, Dr. Yellen talked about inequality in the country, saying it greatly concerned her. Should the chair of the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, be issuing these periodic opinions? Does it in any way damage the working relationship she has to have with people of all political persuasions?

MALVEAUX: I don't think so. When you look at Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, they probably - Bernanke did talk about inequality. Greenspan did not, but he had these projections that were all over the place. Every time he spoke before Congress, you could see the Dow move. So he had enormous influence on banking. So I don't think that Yellen's comments are out of order. I think the question becomes what kind of policy comes out of the comments. And she is not a dictator. She's got other people in the Fed, she's got to run things by them, but I think she's speaking to a concern. And it's a concern, Scott, that everybody in our nation ought to have.

SIMON: Julianne Malveaux, labor economist and the former president of Bennett College for Women. Thanks so much.

MALVEAUX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.