How three women shattered glass ceilings to become the first female chief economists at global banks

by Lucy Meakin and Jeanna Smialek

Bloomberg

There’s a particular telephone conversation that HSBC Global Chief Economist Janet Henry has down pat.

Here’s how it goes: “You get a call from a headhunter,” she says. Then Henry inevitably finds herself saying, “No, I’m not interested.” But it doesn’t end there. “They always say, ‘Do you know anyone that might be?’ I give them men’s names because I’m always curious to see if they’ll say — and they do say — ‘Yes, but do you know any women?’ “

As one of a handful of women leading economic research departments at global banks, Henry is well-positioned to observe the recent shift in demand for greater gender diversity within her profession. She looks back on her own experience as she sips tea from a disposable cup in a noisy cafe at HSBC Holdings PLC headquarters in London’s Canary Wharf. When she joined the bank in 1996, she was the only woman on its global economics team. Now women account for 13 of her 39-strong global group.

While there’s still nothing like equality in numbers with men, women are taking on prominent economic roles at major banks from Wall Street to the City of London. Henry is joined at the top by Catherine Mann, who became global chief economist at Citigroup Inc. in February, and Michala Marcussen, who was named Societe Generale SA’s group chief economist last year.

In that role they make big calls, identifying trends that can form the rationale for a bank’s decisions. Henry, one of the first of her peers to forecast that the European Central Bank would undertake quantitative easing, more recently warned that the “triple shock” of tightening U.S. financial conditions, higher oil prices, and President Trump’s aggressive trade policies is likely to materially harm the global economy. Like other chief economists at banks, Henry often takes to the trading floor to make sure she gets her points across to the money-making side of her institution. At a time when perceptions matter and markets cry out for explainers, women chief economists are often also a bank’s public face, presenting the institution’s take on macro developments on TV and radio as well as at gatherings such as the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Chief economist roles are big jobs and can be steps on a career ladder. Bill Dudley, the former Goldman Sachs economics head, went on to become president of the New York Fed. Goldman Sachs’s Gavyn Davies became chairman of the British Broadcasting Corp. in the early 2000s. Still, these positions are rarely a conduit to higher jobs in finance. And when that has happened, it’s happened to men, like former Morgan Stanley chief economist-cum-Asia Chairman Stephen Roach.

Henry, Mann, and Marcussen are the first women to rise to their lofty positions at the banks where they work. That’s a measure of progress, but it also underscores just how far the banking industry has to go. Women still form a stark minority in macroeconomics classrooms, a potential predictor of future gender imbalance. While the emergence of more women in key economics posts at banks marks a significant change in a male-dominated profession, it’s not a moment for wild self-congratulation in the finance industry.

For Henry, 49, a life in finance was certainly not the plan. In secondary school, she followed her older brother’s example and studied economics. She stuck with it at University College London because it was her best subject and because she appreciated the nexus of economics and politics — not because she had a burning ambition to pursue its application in finance as a career; she left that to her male classmates.

Graduating from UCL into the recession of the early 1990s, Henry wanted to become a foreign correspondent at the Financial Times. She landed her first job at the Economist Intelligence Unit, where she wrote about the economies of countries such as Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. Still at the EIU, she moved to Hong Kong, arriving at a time when the region’s heady markets were peaking.

In 1996 her career took a decisive turn. Scouted by a former EIU colleague, she joined HSBC on the eve of the Asian financial crisis. After living through the market rout as it raced from Thailand across much of the rest of Asia, Henry moved to London in 1999. She was well-ensconced and ready when the full force of the subprime-driven global meltdown hit about nine years later. “At least it keeps you in demand,” she says, laughing. “A lot of the progress in my career happened as a consequence of the euro crisis. You’re always going to have a higher profile as an economist when things are not going well.”

Mann’s career started early, with a babysitting gig in the 1970s. As a teenager in Lexington, Mass., the budding wonk looked after a little girl whose father worked for Data Resources Inc., an economic forecasting company. He gave Mann small data-analysis jobs as a side project, and before long, she was trekking to the basement of the Baker Library at Harvard Business School in nearby Cambridge to collect housing-related numbers. She’d write them down on a big pad of paper, key the data into a teletype machine, and analyze stacks of regression output. She was hooked.

“Maybe I wasn’t such a good babysitter, but I was good at data,” says Mann, 62. “I really got an appreciation for how data helps us to understand how economies work.”

Studying economics at Harvard, Mann particularly remembers two female assistant professors, future Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and international trade economist Rachel McCulloch. Until she graduated in 1977, Mann had summer jobs at Data Resources.

After graduating from Harvard, Mann went down the road to get her doctorate at MIT, where her thesis committee included the economist and future Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. She got her Ph.D., a job at the Federal Reserve in Washington, and then a succession of posts at the World Bank, the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Role models and networking

McCulloch, who’d moved to Brandeis University, helped bring Mann on board.

Mann became a full professor in 2006 — a big move for someone who hadn’t risen through the ranks of academia, and a rare one for a woman. Most tenured professors at top university economic departments are men: Harvard didn’t have a single tenured woman in economics until 1990.

Mann says McCulloch wanted her department to be more diverse. “That gives you an idea of how important role models, female professors, and networking are in the profession as a whole,” Mann says. “That leadership — that commitment, that one person at Brandeis — has led to a situation where there is a fifty-fifty balance at the full professor level. That’s very rare.”

Mann left Brandeis in 2014 to become chief economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, making her the second woman in the body’s history to take on the role. About four years later, she made the jump to Citigroup.

“I’ve done an awful lot of things,” she says. “I’ve achieved quite a bit. I’m not unique to be able to do that. You have to put one foot in front of the other.” She wants to build on that: “I see my role as very similar to the role Rachel McCulloch played — as a leader, as a mentor, as making it easier for people to follow me.”

Marcussen’s experience at the University of Copenhagen in the late 1980s mirrored Henry’s at UCL. Marcussen, a Dane, says men so outnumbered women in economics classes that her tutors chose to cluster the female students together. “They didn’t want just a few women sitting in the classroom feeling somehow underrepresented,” she says, “so they decided to create more balance.”

Like Henry, Marcussen wasn’t always set on finance. She initially planned to work at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but after getting an M.S. in economics at the University of Copenhagen, she worked briefly as a trainee at the European Commission in Brussels before getting a full-time job at Danske Bank. In 1994 she landed a job at Societe Generale, despite, as she puts it, her “rubbish French.”

Her French has gotten better. Marcussen, 52, who speaks fluent English in a hard-to-place accent best described as international, now holds complex economics discussions on TV in France. Having risen through the SocGen ranks, she was named group chief economist last year.

Of the 10 largest banks in the world by total assets, not one has a female chief executive officer. Santander Bank NA, which ranked 16th last year, comes closest, with Ana Botin as CEO. Women fare better at public institutions and nongovernmental organizations that are perhaps more susceptible to societal pressures than commercial banks. Christine Lagarde leads the International Monetary Fund. Laurence Boone, Mann’s recently appointed successor at the OECD, is a woman. In 2014, after more than a dozen years in other leadership roles at the Fed, Yellen became the first woman to lead the central bank. About 40 percent of Fed managers are female, and three of 14 policy makers are women.

Even in the public sector, however, it’s easy to overstate progress. Portraits of former Fed chairs smile down from an anteroom wall in the historic Eccles Building in Washington. While Yellen’s signature bob is in the mix, the group is largely balding or bearded — and white: Like women, persons of color are a rarity. When Trump replaced Yellen this year, he chose a white man; former Fed Governor Jerome Powell. Although a woman and a black man were among the candidates, the New York Fed recently named former San Francisco Fed President John Williams as its new leader, stirring criticism from those who’d hoped for greater diversity.

Outside of the U.S., central banks are even less diverse. One of nine members of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee is a woman. The U.K. Treasury, which is in charge of appointments, this year named another white male to the MPC, even though all of the other interview candidates were female. The European Central Bank’s 25-person Governing Council has two women, with another on her way. In Japan, despite the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to promote diversity, just one of the Bank of Japan’s nine-member policy board is a woman. Most of the world’s major central banks have never had a woman at the very top, including the BOE, the ECB, the BOJ, and the People’s Bank of China.

In finance generally, Marcussen says, the dearth of women economists is partly because of “the supply-side issue.” As she observed in her economics classes, men sorely outnumbered women, and they still do. Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, has estimated that in the U.S. there are three male undergraduate economics majors for every woman. The gap isn’t shrinking. A higher proportion of men at top liberal arts colleges studied economics in 2013 than in 1993, while the share of women fell slightly.

Women have also been overlooked because of the type of economics they study. “Women tend to go into fields like applied micro—things related to health, education, development,” says Tatyana Avilova, program director for the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge, which aims to encourage more women to major in economics. “You have women going into macroeconomics, but definitely to a much lesser extent. It’s a $1 million question: Why?” She suggests it may be harder for students to see the real-world application of macro, while microeconomics is readily applicable to fields including health and education.

Additionally, some research has found that women in economics are more prone to being bullied than their male counterparts. Last year, Alice Wu, then a University of California at Berkeley undergraduate, published a paper that quantified the gender-related vitriol in an online discussion forum, “Economics Job Market Rumors.” The words anonymous posters used in unique association with women included “hot,” “whore,” and “kissed.” Those most associated with posts about men include “macro” and “supervisor.”

Wu’s paper provoked an outcry. Justin Wolfers, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, wrote about Wu’s research in an opinion piece in the New York Times under the headline “Evidence of a Toxic Environment for Women in Economics.” Wu’s paper helped spur the American Economic Association to revise its code of conduct, asking members to “conduct civil and respectful discourse in all forums.”

In the U.K., lawmakers investigating the imbalance between the sexes in the finance industry cite hard-to-quantify barriers. Alison McGovern — who sits on a parliamentary committee that oversees the Treasury and associated bodies, including the Bank of England — points to research showing it takes longer for female academic economists to get their papers into peer-reviewed journals. “There’s a massive disincentive for women economists to reach the top of the academic profession,” she told an audience at Bloomberg LP’s European headquarters in London in June, “and I can only imagine the same thing might be true of women economists in the City.”

So concerned is the committee about the lack of diversity at the BOE that it’s taking matters into its own hands, threatening not to approve future appointments to the central bank’s policy boards unless there’s sufficient progress.

Economic and business sense

Mary Daly, executive vice president at the San Francisco Fed and a favorite in the ongoing search for the branch’s next president, gets calls not unlike those that reach Henry.

Often, they’re from recruiters at banks hoping to hire a woman or a minority. She’s struck by how many of her callers are looking for economists with a macro background. Daly tries to encourage them to think more holistically. “Depending on how bold I feel that day or how much of their business I know,” she says, “I suggest that they broaden their field.”

Daly and like-minded colleagues in the Fed system have spent the better part of the past two decades pushing their in-house colleagues to incorporate microeconomic analysis in the explanations of macro trends such as falling labor force participation. The push for micro got traction in the wake of the Great Recession, as standard macro models of the labor market failed to explain what was happening with unemployment and wages.

As chair, Yellen regularly referenced microeconomic work. In a 2014 speech, for example, she cited Daly’s work into why employers are slow to cut wages at the start of recessions and why that leads to slower wage recovery post-recession. Daly says it’s time to rally around micro. “You have to make this value case that this toolkit is a useful toolkit,” she says. And as a side benefit, she says, hiring microeconomists “dovetails exactly with the gender distribution in economics. You get gender diversity, and you get diversity of thought. It’s a win-win.”

For her part, Marcussen warns against using female economists as “exhibits to be dragged out and shown off.” She wants meaningful change: “If you get a bunch of women and a bunch of men that have all been to the same school and are from the same socioeconomic backdrop, OK, you may get diversity, but I don’t think you’ll get the diversity maximization.”

Banks will get serious when they see that diversity, like portfolio diversification, is in their interests, Marcussen says. “It’s like climate change,” she says. “As long as diversity is something that’s just nice to have, only a small handful will invest the resources genuinely needed to address the issue. It’s mostly seen as just a nice advertisement. But once people start to understand that it really makes economic and business sense, that’s when it happens. And I think that is where we are right now.”