Barnard Power Talk With Loretta Mester Gets Economical Real Quick

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Loretta Mester & Belinda Archibong in Sulzberger Hall
Loretta Mester & Belinda Archibong in Sulzberger Hall

Let me tell you something about the economy…

As the latest in a series of Power Talks with successful Barnard alumnae, the Athena Center invited Loretta Mester, BC ’80, to talk about her experience as the President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. The talk, introduced by Athena Center Director Kathryn Kolbert and moderated by Assistant Professor of Economics Belinda Archibong, hit some common talking points of female empowerment, but spent much of its Q&A time mired in the details of economic policy.

Despite her current job in economics, Mester came to Barnard with an interest in math, which she picked up in her Baltimore-area public school. She credits Watergate, which occurred the summer before her first year at Barnard, with giving her an interest in policy. Seeing Econ as a mixture of math and policy, and noticing that the Barnard economics major was only eight courses (compared to today’s 12), Mester double majored in Economics and Mathematics. She applied to graduate school for mathematics, but was convinced by a few letters from Princeton University to apply her math skills in economics. From this serendipity, which led her to her current success, Mester drew the first lesson she imparted on the evening – “Be open  to things that you’re not expecting to come.”

When it came to describing her time at the Federal Reserve Bank, Mester was more enthused than about any other topic of the night. She talked about the Fed’s opportunities for academic work and public service, described the national structure of the organization, and provided advice for anyone attempting to interview for a position with the Fed (you should show that you can write the sorts of papers they publish). Mester also affirmed several times that the Fed, despite the low percentage of women on the institution’s boards, was a great place for women. “I’ve never felt, at the Fed, that there was any kind of glass ceiling.”

This was one of Mester’s many statements that ran counter to most feminist dialogue on campus, which was especially striking at a Power Talk in the Sulzberger Parlor. She joked that the best thing about choosing to enroll in grad school at Princeton “was that [she] met [her] husband there.” On the topic of discrimination, she was certain that the Fed was an idea-focused institution, and that “you could be Martian” as long as you had good ideas, and that good workers persevere, “whatever gender they are.” When pressed a third time about how being a woman affected her career in academia, she claimed that “academia is broad enough” that women have options other than just penetrating “boys’ clubs.” She recounted a recent meeting of Fed presidents, where someone pointed out that a man who had restated her ideas got much more credit than she did. Only after this was pointed out did Mester pay attention to mansplaining in her career – “I’d never noticed it,” she said.

The Q&A of the talk went over the heads of most non-Econ majors in the audience. Questions were asked about nominal GDB level targeting, balance sheet normalization, negative interest rates, and transparency among the Fed’s members. During the talk, several mentions were made of the Trump administration, especially in relation to Dodd-Frank and the appointment of Federal Reserve roles. However, not one speaker actually mentioned Trump by name. It was the last of the event’s neoliberal tendencies towards corporatism and appeasement.

A video of the event will be made available on the Athena Center Facebook page.

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