Central banks need
In women we trust: time is ripe to increase gender diversity in central banks
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The 2007-2008 crisis raised numerous questions regarding the world of central banking. Central banks as institutions perform the social mission of producing a public good – macroeconomic stability and prosperity – by achieving their targeted macroeconomic objectives. However, central bankers are not democratically elected and instead are appointed by politicians on the basis of their competencies, namely their ability to reach the targets defined by the “principal”. Likewise, democratic institutions do not fully control the actions of central banks, particularly because of their status of political independence: although the chairperson of central banks is accountable for the central bank’s decision, such an accountability often merely consists of addressing a speech to a Parliament (see the relationship between European Central Bank and the European Parliament for instance).
Thus, central banks ought to ensure people place confidence in their actions, and central bankers must demonstrate that they are not elites disconnected from the will of people. Reciprocal trust between central banks and the polity is the cornerstone of central banks’ performance, and of their broader social legitimacy.
The 2007-2008 crisis resulted in calls on central banks to redefine and broaden their missions in a way that better reflects the social consequences of their actions in an increasingly complex economic context. Central banks can no longer be seen as “black boxes”, which provide a purely “technical”, disembodied image of their operations, actions and missions, and central bankers should shed their – negative – reputation as a closed-off group. Through their performance, central banks must redefine their relations with society in order to be perceived as legitimate and reliable. Facing this new challenge, central banks badly need new tools and expertise, and perhaps also new staff with new skills. Moreover, as institutions embodying the will of people, their internal structures must really embody what society is.
Against this backdrop, the issue of the presence of women in central banks comes to mind. Indeed, there are still few women governors of central banks. Today, there are still only 14 women central bankers among the 160 central banks worldwide: Aruba, Belize, Cuba, Curaçao and Saint-Martin, Cyprus, Ecuador, Lesotho, Malaysia, Republic of Macedonia, Russia, Samoa, San Marin, Serbia, Seychelles. We should add a fifteenth, namely the European Central Bank, because Christine Lagarde has just been appointed recently as the forthcoming governor of this institution.
However, we should be cautious with such a change: Lagarde’s nomination is still the tree that hides the forest. Specifically, central banking remains a Man’s world. In the table below, we find indexes built with the weighted presence of women in central banks as chairs and deputy governors, i.e. the top ranked positions:
Gender balance index score 2017-2019 (in percent)
Source: Author, from OMFIF analysis, 2018, 2019
Of course, in dynamics, the situation has changed, but in degree and not in kind. There are still many obstacles on the way for women in central banks, preventing them from occupying high ranked positions, and even sometimes to get a job in these institutions.
At the first glance, the culture and the history of the countries matter to explain that. Indeed, some countries have a tradition in placing women in the national institutions such as central banks while other have not. For instance, many former or current communist countries have been pioneers in having women ruling these institutions. The former East Germany was the first in the world to have a woman central banker in 1950. Likewise, China (1985), Laos (1988), Poland (1992), Hungary (1993), Russia (1994, 2013), Byelorussia (1996, 2001), Kirghizstan (2011), Serbia (2003, 2012), Turkmenistan (2003 and Ukraine (2004) followed the path. Additionally, let us mention that there is a significant negative relationship between the weight of religion in ruling the country and the likelihood to find a woman governor of central banks (but with the noticeable exceptions of Ecuador, Israel and Malaysia).
However, according to our own recent research, the following four factors seem to be the more discriminating for women in central banks, both at the top-level positions and in the other positions within these institutions.
The position factor: Occupying a top-ranked position in central banks requires to have been working in these institutions for years before. Therefore, although around 70 percent of women governors were previously members of central banks boards or in charge of a department in these central banks, there is still a vicious circle at the expense of women in this field. Indeed, since central banks recruit men in priority, women will face difficulty to enter the field.
The academic background factor: Governors of central banks hold Phds in Economics, and logically, this is the case for women central bankers. Around 41 percent of the latter earned a Phd in economics before becoming governors. However, although the number of women in economic studies have increasingly risen for more than twenty years, the proportion of women is also far lower in macroeconomics and finance – the specialities required in central banking.
The ‘Glass ceiling’ and ‘Role models’ factor: Even though there are women working in central banks who have the right academic skills, women encounter resistance from men. The main problem for women is that they do not have enough connections with politicians, which is a requisite condition for central bankers to build an efficient network for their career. Moreover, since there are still only few women governors, women students in economics cannot really rest upon models on which they could identify themselves. For instance, our recent research shows that mandates of women central bankers do not give rise to a second mandate for another woman.
The ‘attitudes’ factor: To be accepted by the community of central bankers, women governors must be able to follow the mandate of most central banks, which is prioritizing the combat against inflation. But the latter has become over time the normal rule to follow in order to be respected by the community of central bankers. Therefore, one of the features of the “culture” of the community of central bankers is to accept to prioritize low and stable inflation as an objective per se. . Women are sometimes accused to not have the right ‘attitude’ associated with the culture of central banking, being either too risk-adverse or too ‘lazy’ towards inflation. Therefore, women central bankers tend to overconform to the ‘male models’ in the field, entailing a kind of essentialization of the métier of central banker.
All in all, in our view, the conjonction of the previous four factors leads to a discrepancy between power and authority at the expense of women in central banking. Such a discrepancy has two meaning : first, it is difficult for women to exert the power associated with the position of central bankers ; second, when they succeed in getting this power, the authority they embody is not legitimated by other actors of the field.
Therefore, the main issue we shall now address is: what to do? We elaborate on the following two proposals.
To hire more women in central banks is mandatory. This should be an objective per se – it is neither normal nor fair in a democracy that institutions embodying the system are not gender-balanced – and also for the benefits of the institution itself. If quotas are a potential solution, we argue that to change central banking’s culture to promote new types of attitudes and leaderships in central banks in favor of women is more important. ‘Outsiders’ will be accepted by the community only if ‘insiders’ change their mind.
To redesign central banks’ internal organizations. We do believe that a more gender-balanced internal organization (defined by a rise in both the total percentage of women within central banks and in the number of women in managerial positions) could help central banks to improve the management of the complexity of information. Gender diversity – and diversity at large – should be promoted by central banks, particularly because of their new missions and mandates.
Vallet Guillaume. 2019. "This is a Man’s world: autorité et pouvoir genrés dans le milieu des banques centrales". Revue de la régulation, 25 (1)
"The necessary winds of change : Empowering women in central banking", Conference on the Future of Central Banking, May, 28, 2019, Talloires (France)