Transcript of Question & Answer Session Women in the Economy and in Economics


Well, thank you very much, that was very interesting, and I just had a practical question. So maybe you could talk a little bit about how after university you got into the field, and I was just wondering what sort of entry level jobs or what’s the first step there to get into a career in economics?

Luci Ellis

Well, I guess the lesson from my career is that sometimes things happen by accident. If someone had told me when I was an undergraduate that I would not only end up at the Reserve Bank, but I would end up an Assistant Governor, I would never have believed them. So my super villain origin story is that I was working at a stamp and coin shop, like a collectables shop, while putting myself through university in the eighties, and that shop happened to be the Australian distributor for a brand of luxury stamp albums made in Leipzig, East Germany, back when there was an East Germany, and the Berlin Wall came down and the company didn’t send their annual order and my boss lost lots of money, and I was his only employee and he had to lay me off.

So I went to the head of the Economics Department at uni and I said, “I can’t do Honours without another source of income,” and he said, “Apply for this Reserve Bank internship. You work with them over the summer and then they’ll pay you a stipend through the year,” and I went, “That sounds good.” I gave it a shot. I got the job, and here I am. So I guess the lesson I would draw is, sometimes things happen by accident. I mean, there’s a lot more to it. I really liked the job and I’ve never seen reason to leave. It is a fantastic place to work. It’s been very supportive of my career and, you know, let me burn my long service leave at half pay to finish off my PhD over six months, and do things like that, so it’s very supportive of study.

But I guess, you know, the answer is that, you know, and I’m conscious I’m speaking to an audience with a lot of young women in it, don’t have a five year plan or a 10 year plan. Have values and goals, because things will happen that you never expected, and it’s just about your values. So I think my core value in all of this was about understanding the world and doing good for the community through that understanding. So that’s how I ended up at the bank.


Thank you. My name’s Allison. I’m at the Department of Finance and I’m a postgraduate of the Department of Political Economy at Sydney Uni. For me, looking at some of these graphs and looking at the trends, we’re seeing, yeah, a decrease in female enrolment in economics, but also an overall decrease in numbers. I think a big part of the story for me is around the increasing prevalence of neoclassical economics and purest approaches to economics, and I think since the GFC we’re seeing, you know, lingering effects of low growth, low investment and more and more interest in other forms of economic methodology. So I wondered what your thoughts were on increasing women’s involvement in economics by improving or advocating for pluralist approaches to economics.

Luci Ellis

Thanks for that. It’s a very good question. I actually gave a speech about this a couple of years ago at the Paul Woolley Conference, and I’m not telling you the year because I can’t remember which year I gave speeches in four consecutive years to that conference, but it was called Stability and Diversity, and I talked about the role of diversity of fields, particularly in terms of understanding financial stability and what we could learn from, for example, actuarial studies, mathematic statistics and pretty much any quantitative discipline, and that there’s techniques that we can learn.

But the other point I made is that actually, the mainstream of the field, that is to say the less ideological version of the mainstream of the field, actually had a lot to contribute in terms of that understanding, and I cited a whole bunch of papers that were tenured professors getting published in top journals that were actually really insightful, and particularly finance. So, you know, one of the most powerful sort of models to understand, things that went wrong in the Global Financial Crisis, was Diamond and Dyvbig’s paper from the eighties, which was in one of the top journals in finance and is still, you know, really relevant today.

I fully agree that sort of the political world is an important layer of understanding, and that’s exactly the points that I made. But in the end, what’s really powerful is, you know, evidence and data, and I think when you say, you know, the increasing prevalence of neoclassical economics, I think that was sort of a, you know, it would break my heart if people were shying away from economics because they believed that that’s what economics was. If you look at most economics departments, there’s so much going on that isn’t narrowly ideological and is evidence based, and so, I guess what I would encourage is to let people know that mainstream economics is already pretty eclectic, but it’s just about which voices you listen to. Thank you for the question.


You mentioned earlier that some of the people in the workforce now were still entering the workforce in times when, I guess, values about women in the workforce were quite different. Certainly my sister-in-law, who’s only a few years older than me, was told that there was no point her studying beyond year 10 because girls just got pregnant, and this was in the early nineties. So it takes a while for some of these, I guess, old ideas to work through the system. Do you think that intervention is something that we actually need to improve the experience of women in economics to get more in economics, or do you think it’s just a generational thing and it will take some time for, I guess, some of these older ideals and values to work their way out of the system, and as the new generations come in they will just naturally be more equal?

Luci Ellis

That is a fantastic question, and the first point I’d make is that, you know, these attitudes aren’t even necessarily old and dying away. I don’t know if anyone read The Australian this morning, but on page three there was an article about a woman, you know, with an antidiscrimination case on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity leave and how her return from maternity leave was handled, and without knowing any of the details of the case. But in the story it mentioned that 49 per cent of mothers reported in a Human Rights Commission survey - and I hope I’ve just got all those facts right from reading it in the paper this morning - that 49 per cent - I remember that number - nearly half, almost exactly half of mothers reported some form of discrimination in relation to pregnancy, child birth, return from maternity leave, flexible work, and that’s now. That was a 2014 survey.

Pregnancy and childbirth are not a universal female experience, but they’re a uniquely female experience. So it’s telling you that those attitudes aren’t completely gone. It’s not old hat. There are still conversations we have to have. And so taking the point about your question specifically about economics, you know, the fact that economics is an outlier amongst STEM fields, there’s a conversation we need, and that’s about US academia and I haven’t seen, you know, I don’t believe there’s been an equivalent study in Australian academia, but I think it shouldn’t sort of surprise you if that’s also true here. We need to have a conversation about why economics is an outlier, because it’s pretty obvious it’s not about merit selection. So yeah, we need to have some sort of conversation about that, but I don’t know if I’m the one to suggest specific remedies. Up the back there’s a …


Just inspired by your experience. You talk about when you lose the job you go to the head of the department and you talk about your situation. I think you are quite initiative in that action, and what I observe is - I mean, the literature talk about women do not ask. Could you talk about how we should behave, be initiative and not aggressive, like in a way that is regarded as not good?

Luci Ellis

Well, I mean, that is an excellent question and I mean, I don’t know if it was initiative or just desperation, you know, I was really running out of options at the time. But I mean, there’s another gender angle there because I think one of the things we know is that female students are more likely to be self-supporting than male students, and again, that comes back to expectations within families and who they support and who they don’t. I should point out that my own family were extremely supportive of education and I don’t have any brothers. I’m not saying, you know, that, but I think, you know, it really comes down to attitudes in families and that attitudes that those families have about what’s appropriate for their daughters versus their sons.

But you also point out, and a really important thing about, you know, the women don’t ask phenomenon, and if we do ask we get caned in a way that men don’t for asking the exact same question. So when we talk about unconscious bias and outcomes in the workplace, it’s not just about, you know, having to sort of tick a box, you know, we’ve got this policy and that policy. It is about how people respond to males and females displaying the exact same behaviour, because, you know, the gender roles are stereotypes and men and women and boys and girls have different ranges of interests, and they’re largely overlapping. So, and yet we respond differently to a woman asking the same question as to a man. I don’t know how we solve that, because it is a society-wide phenomenon. There’s a couple up the back, one on this side. I saw that hand go up earlier, but Sharelle, you’re the boss of who gets to …


Hi. I’m Danika. I’m from Treasury. I was just interested in hearing about the RBA’s experiences with generating buy-in to the diversity agenda. We’ve got quite a similar journey to the RBA in terms of getting graduates and that sort of thing, so I’d just be interested in hearing any practical tools or ways you’ve gone about ensuring that everyone’s included and everyone feels as though diversity can be good for them, even if they are young, male, etcetera.

Luci Ellis

I mean, that’s a great question, and I think it’s really important for people to understand that diversity is actually about merit selection, that nobody can seriously believe that 90% of the talent in economics is male. No one can seriously believe that, you know, 80% of the brainy people in the world are male. No one would agree with that stated blindly. So how do we end up with these certain patterns? Of course, you know, there are societal expectations and people’s choices around their career choices, and you know, I mentioned that, you know, there are plenty of fields where you’ve got a lot more female than male students, and you know, caring professions.

There’s a lot of discussion about sort of the cultural issues in finance and trading and, you know, they do all these testosterone tests and you know, who trades and who takes risk. Maybe funds management should be like reconstructed as a caring profession. So we’re caring for people’s money. I’m actually serious with that proposal. Because, you know, I think how we socially construct these things is really important, but in terms of how we work that, I mean, I didn’t really sense a need, either under the previous leadership or under the current leadership, to get buy-in, because everyone bought into it already. We all got that, you know, it didn’t make sense for, you know - and I think the main thing that changed was instead of saying, “We can’t really do better than 30% of graduate recruits, because 30 per cent of the student base are female,” and we kind of said, “Yeah, but you know, nobody goes into a male dominated - no female goes into a male dominated profession in order to be mediocre, you know, because you’ll just stick out really badly.”

So there’s a self-selection of the women who do go into a male dominated discipline, or indeed the men who go into a female dominated discipline, let’s be honest about it, are not there to be mediocre. They’re self-selecting and they’re more likely to be good. So you should almost expect if you’re trying to get sort of the right tail of the distribution, you should actually do better on female participation than the student body as a whole. That would be my argument, and that’s not so much my observation of the Reserve Bank, but my observation of the profession world wide is that sort of the mediocrities are even more disproportionately male than the profession as a whole, and that’s probably the thing that will get the headline, and you know, maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s my observation. So, you know, there was never an issue with getting buy-in because we all bought in already.

Ebony Bennett

Hi, Ebony Bennett. I’m the Deputy Director at the Australia Institute. Kind of spinning off that a little bit, not talking directly about recruitment or buy-in, but operating in a male dominated field where, as you’ve discussed, even female economic commentators struggle to be heard or have their voices elevated. Seeing as this is the launch of the Women’s Economic Network, I wondered if you could comment on any strategies or, I guess, observations from years working in this kind of environment about supporting other women, finding other women and elevating other women. I’m just thinking of the Obama administration, the women White House staffers, for example, tried to repeat the ideas of their female colleagues so that they weren’t kind of drowned out in meetings for example. Do you have any observations on supporting other women?

Luci Ellis

Well, based on the research that I cited earlier, write papers with them, you know, make sure that, you know, you’re writing papers on your own or with other women, because that way they can’t give the credit to a man. That’s one thing. Actually, in fact, one of my former co-authors is in the room and, you know, I have tended to write papers with women, and not out of any bias. I’ve enjoyed writing papers with both men and women, and I’ve written quite a few on my own, and that’s sort of accident, but you know, having read that research now, that probably didn’t hurt me.

Yeah, I think those are all really good ideas and, you know, I mean, I think in a public policy world, I think we need to make a distinction between a sort of academic world where your publications matter and your reputation matter for your progression, versus public policy world, which is really where it’s not about you. It’s about getting the right results and the right policy outcomes, and sometimes getting the man to think it was his idea is actually the right thing to do in a public policy world.