For economists, tackling major financial crises can be a landmark career event. For new Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the first female to serve in the role established by Alexander Hamilton, the coronavirus recovery is the second financial crisis in less than 15 years requiring her insight. In 2014, Yellen became the first female director of the Federal Reserve Bank, appointed by President Obama to reinvigorate the American economy post-Great Recession.
Now, as President Biden navigates the COVID-19 crisis and recovery, Yellen wields a new set of tools to stimulate another American comeback as she continues to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling. But this type of barrier breaking is not new to her. She has been proving herself as an economic pioneer and powerhouse for years, including during her doctoral studies at Yale University, where she was the sole female doctoral candidate in 1971.
Decades before controlling the nation’s financial mechanisms, Yellen was a student scholar, first earning accolades during high school before graduating summa cum laude from Brown University in 1967. But when she attended Yale for her graduate studies, she was one of a dozen PhD students, and the sole woman, to graduate in her class. Her determination was key to the successful career in academia that followed her time at Yale, first as the lone female faculty in Harvard University’s economics department, and soon after as a graduate professor at the University of California, Berkeley. From there, in 1994 she was tapped by President Bill Clinton to be a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Her career in national public policy has continued off-and-on since then, and her credentials speak for themselves.
She returned to Yale in 2018 shortly after leaving her role as Fed chair to discuss her worries over the central bank’s ability to combat another financial crisis, unaware of the future pandemic that would draw her back into national public policy as Secretary of the Treasury. She has long believed in the power of economics as a practical discipline that can make public policy better, and she continues to encourage new students, especially women, to follow in her footsteps. That same year, Yale established the honorary Janet L. Yellen professorship at the Yale School of Management, endowed by former Yale trustee Charles D. Ellis. She hopes to inspire more young women to pursue the male-dominated field of economics, and as the country’s financial fiduciary, she is setting a high bar.