The West

Women lack numbers in economics

We have a female head of state, governor-general, prime minister and lord mayor, but you would be hard-pressed to find a woman in treasury.

Despite the advances made by women in most parts of public life, economics appears to be one of the last male bastions.

There are no female economists among the six male executives in State Treasury while at the Federal level, women account for less than a quarter of senior executives.

The Reserve Bank of Australia's assistant governor Michele Bullock is the sole woman among its top eight officials, and three of the bank's 10 managers are female.

The proportion of female economists in the corporate world is also lagging, with only a few at three of the major four banks, ANZ, Commonwealth, and National Australia Bank.

There are no female economists at the last of the big four, Westpac, despite a campaign by chief executive officer Gail Kelly to get more women on to government boards.

It is a strange anomaly, given that American and Asian economies are embracing female economists in what has traditionally been a male domain.

Half of the Thai Central Bank's 58 executives, and 44 per cent of America's Federal Reserve Board officials and managers, are women.

About 45 per cent of Australia's Reserve Bank workforce is female, but only 30 per cent are in executive positions, and the number of women applying for graduate positions is falling.

The Reserve Bank revealed recently it was considering a move to boost the number of female executives by setting an aspirational target of 40 per cent of women in senior positions. While it would maintain its merit-based promotions, it said the target would help by sending a signal that it was serious about its "gender equality commitment".

One of WA's most senior female economists Rebecca Brown, believes that while an aspirational target has positive intentions, it could end up having a negative impact.

"Any appointment to a senior position needs to be based on merit," said Ms Brown, who is the deputy director general at the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

"If there was any sort of concern that an aspirational target would compromise the merit-based approach, real or perceived, then I think most women would very much support (not having an aspirational target).

"No-one wants to be questioned about their appointment."

So why even consider such a target? According to Goldman Sachs, the failure to fully utilise the "hidden resource" of women costs Australia $1.4 trillion, and up to 13 per cent in lost production each year.

Ms Brown said it was not possible to quantify a dollar figure that female economists could bring to public life but that diversity of experience on boards and in managements provided for policies that were better in sync with the needs of the greater population.

She was at a loss to explain the under-representation of female economists in public life. There were equal numbers of males and females when she studied economics at the University of WA. As she rose through the ranks she witnessed a steady decline in the proportion of her female peers.

The mother of two said it could be partly because of women putting their careers on hold while they prioritised their family responsibilities, which she too had chosen to do for several years.

She said the job usually allowed for flexible work practices that helped women juggle work and family demands and she had never been subjected to a glass ceiling.

"I would be lying if I said there wasn't a boy's culture in some parts of the public service, but has it prevented me from getting a promotion? No," she said.

With Bloomberg

Any appointment to a senior position needs to be based on merit."

Rebecca Brown

The West Australian

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