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20 Things You Didn't Know about Janet Yellen

Janet Yellen

On February 3, 2014, Janet Yellen became the first woman to be appointed to the position of Chairperson of the United States Federal Reserve. Her ascension to the chair came after 5 decades of success in both the private and public sectors, encompassing lecturing positions at Harvard and Yale and several noteworthy roles at the central bank. The appointment was momentous not just on a personal level, but on a global one- for years, economics had been treated as the preserve of men; Yellen’s appointment marked, if not an end to the attitude, then at least a shift in it. In 2018, Yellen became the first chair of the Fed not to serve a 2nd term after Trump declined to offer her a role in his administration. According to reports, Trump’s decision was based more on an aversion to her height than her economic policies- to find out more, keep reading.

1. She graduated summa cum laude from Brown University

Janet Yellen was born August 13, 1946 in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Anna Ruth (née Blumenthal) worked as an elementary school teacher until the birth of Yellen’s older brother, John, but gave it up to become a stay-at-home mom. Her father, Julius Yellen, worked as a physician from the ground floor practice of the family home. Yellen saw success from a young age: after graduating valedictorian from Fort Hamilton High School, she went on to graduate summa cum laude from Brown University in 1967 after switching her major from philosophy to economics.

2. She was named one of Yale University’s brightest students

After her success at Brown’s, Yellen went on to even bigger and better things at Yale. After enrolling in the university’s graduate program, Yellen studied under the tutelage of Nobel laureates, James Tobin and Joseph Stiglitz. Her dissertation “Employment, Output and Capital Accumulation in an Open Economy: A Disequilibrium Approach" so impressed her teachers that Stiglitz later remarked that Yellen was, of all his students, the brightest and most memorable. Yellen graduated from Yale in 1971 as the only woman in a doctoral class of 24.

3. She has a long history in academia

Fresh from graduating with a PHD in economics, Yellen began her career in academia. Her first position was as an assistant professor at Harvard University, a post she held until departing to join the Federal Reserve Board of Governors as an economist in 1977. Between 1978 and 1980, Yellen served as a lecturer at The London School of Economics and Political Science. In 1980, she began teaching MBA and undergraduate courses in macroeconomics at the renowned University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, at which she currently sits as Professor Emerita.

4. She was one of only two women on the faculty at Harvard

When Yellen obtained the position of assistant professor at Harvard University in 1971, little did she know she’d be breaking new ground- and not just because of her teachings. At the time, economics was considered an exclusively male preserve; something that was more than evident by the almost complete absence of female faces on the Harvard faculty. The only other woman besides Yellen was Rachel McCulloch, an untenured professor from the University of Chicago. The two struck up a close friendship, and went on to co-author several papers together in the early 1980’s.

5. She was known as a “trailing spouse”

Throughout the course of her career, Yellen has collaborated with numerous peers. Her most frequent collaborator has been her husband, George Akerlof. Yellen may have gone on to match and exceed her husbands’ achievements, but in the early days of their relationship, it was Akerlof who was seen as the key player. With an outgoing personality and a mile- long list of achievements, Akerlof overshadowed his up- and- coming wife to the point she became known as “the trailing spouse”; a term used in academia to describe the less successful partner in a relationship.

6. She met her husband at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors

In 1977, Yellen left Harvard after she failed to secure tenure. Her next job would be with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, where she’d be joined not long later by newly divorced economist, George Akerlof. The two met at the organization’s canteen; after realizing how much they shared in common, they began dating and married soon after. “We liked each other immediately and decided to get married,” Akerlof has written. “Not only did our personalities mesh perfectly, but we have also always been in all but perfect agreement about macroeconomics.”

7. She’s highlighted the gender pay divide

After years of witnessing the outdated opinions and rampant sexism in academia, Yellen’s frustrations came to a head in her 1998 study, “Explaining Trends in the Gender Wage Gap.” The report highlighted that while some progress had been made in narrowing the gap, inequalities in pay between men and women still persisted, with women earning on average 25% less than men. Yellen’s paper marked one of the few times in her career she’s publicly addressed gender issues: “We’ve come a long way toward greater equality in the pay received by men and women,” she said during a news conference at the time of the report’s release. “But there is still too big a gap that remains.”

8. Her career in public service began in 1994

After several years in academia, Yellen’s career took a change in direction in 1994 when she was tapped to join the Federal Reserve by former president, Bill Clinton. Her nomination to the Fed’s board of governors marked a turning point in Yellen’s career: after years of playing 2nd fiddle to her husband, she was finally showing what the “trailing spouse” was really made of. Within just three years of joining the Fed, Yellen had risen to the rank of chief economist for the White House.

9. She was the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

Yellen’s career has been one of firsts, something she proved again in 2004 when she became the first women to lead the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco as CEO and president. The faith placed in Yellen by the Fed has clearly been felt deeply, as her comments to Time highlight: “I have felt that same sense of awe and honor and responsibility every day since President Bill Clinton first nominated me in 1994”.

10. She succeeded Donald Kohn as the vice-chair of the Federal Reserve System

After President Obama nominated her for the vice-chair position at the Federal Reserve System, Yellen was voted in 17 to 6 by the Senate Banking Committee. Despite the high percentage of “yae’s” not all the selection committee were convinced of the choice, with James B. Bullard of the St. Louis Fed issuing the warning that the appointment put the U.S. economy “at risk of becoming 'enmeshed in a Japanese-style deflationary outcome within the next several years”, while Republican Senator Richard C. Shelby, said he believed Yellen had an "inflationary bias."

11. She’s won numerous accolades

Yellen’s career has been littered with a mile long list of awards and honors: while the list would be too extensive to run through in full, some keys highlights include the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale in 1997; the Adam Smith Award from the National Association for Business Economics in 2010; and an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University in 2015.

12. Her marriage has survived her career changes

Yellen’s transition from academia to the public sector saw her move from her family home in Berkeley to the nation’s capital, a change which husband Akerlof fully accommodated. After switching up his teaching schedule at Berkeley to allow him to spend several weeks a month with Yellen in D.C., Akerlof eventually took leave from Berkeley to take on a fellowship at Washington D.C.’s Brookings Institution. “Whatever path they chose seems to have worked very well — I believe they have enjoyed an exceptionally happy and loving relationship,” Akerlof’s brother, Carl told the Washington Post.

13. She has the respect of her peers

When the National Organization for Women started campaigning for Yellen to lead the Federal Reserve, they were supported by huge swathes of the public. Liberal blog, the Daily Kos, managed to gather 130000 signatures in its petition to get her appointed, while over 125 women of influence (including the feminist Gloria Steinem) added their voice to the mix by sending congress a letter- as proof that great minds think alike, over 500 economists did the same.

14. She wasn’t Obama’s first choice

Despite the huge amount of public support for Yellen to head the Fed, Obama took some convincing. He and his team backed Yellen’s rival, Larry Summers, all the way, even past the point where he stood any chance of success. As the Guardian commented at the time, “There's a snarky saying about America that it's a country that does the right thing … eventually. Yellen will forever be remembered as not Obama's first choice. To many other people, however, she is easily the best choice”.

15. She made an error of judgment in the housing boom

During her time at the helm at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Yellen spoke publicly of her concerns about the boom in housing prices, but failed to reign in the indiscriminate lending of Countrywide Financial, the largest lender in the country. She has since been open about the mistake, telling the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission: "I guess I thought that similar to the collapse of the stock market around the tech bubble, that most likely the economy could withstand [the housing collapse] and the Fed could move to support the economy the way it had after the tech bubble collapsed”.

16. She’s said there won’t be another economic crisis

In 2017, Yellen attracted controversy when she opined there wouldn’t be another economic crisis in our lifetime. Yellen justified her remark by saying banks had become much stronger as a consequence of federal oversight. In 2018, she retracted on her comments somewhat when she warned her departure from the Federal Reserve would create such “huge holes” it could spark another financial crisis.

17. She was disappointed not to serve a 2nd term

In 2018, Yellen expressed her disappointment that President Trump hadn’t offered her a 2nd term as chair of the Federal Reserve. “I made clear that I would be willing to serve another term and so yes, I do feel a sense of disappointment,” she told CBS. Despite championing Yellen during his term in office, when it came to the crunch, Trump choose to nominate a fellow republican, Jerome Powell, for the role. In spite of her disappointment, Yellen has been supportive of her successor, describing him as “thoughtful, balanced, dedicated to public service”.

18. Her height has caused problems

According to reports, Trump’s decision not to offer Yellen a 2nd term at the Federal Reserve came down to a very simple (and predictably contentious), reason- her height. In December 2018, The Washington Post, claimed that while Yellen impressed Trump during her interview to continue in his administration, he privately suggested to aides that the 5-foot-3 Yellen lacked the physical stature to lead the bank. He seems to have lived to regret his choice of replacement, however, telling the Post “So far, I’m not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay. Not even a little bit.”

19. She combined low inflation with low unemployment

During her term as chair of the Federal Reserve, Yellen achieved the remarkable feat of keeping inflation to just 1.2 percent and unemployment to a record low of 5.1 percent, thus managing to maintain economic conditions more in line with the Fed’s stated objectives than any chair to have come either before or since.

20. She’s not done yet

Since departing the Federal Reserve, Yellen has shown no sign of retiring. In February 2018, it was announced she would be joining the think-tank at Brooking's Institution as a Distinguished Fellow in Residence. She has also remained heavily invested in economic matters. Despite initially adopting a neutral attitude to Trump, she has since come out as one of his most fervent critics, claiming he lacks a basic understating of the banks policy and macroeconomics, and responding to CNBC’s question of whether she thinks he has any grasp of economic policy with a flat “No, I do not.”

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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