Janet Yellen breezed through her Senate confirmation hearing to be the treasury secretary last month. That is not surprising. Yellen is familiar from her recent stint as chair of the Federal Reserve and was an acclaimed academic economist before that. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) referred to her as “qualified and mainstream.” The most interesting part of Yellen’s appointment may, in the end, turn out to be performer Dessa’s rap song homage.

But Yellen is the first woman to hold that position, and her uneventful confirmation makes it easy to lose sight of how novel that is. Only two other women — Canada’s Chrystia Freeland (2020-present) and France’s Christine Lagarde (2007-2011) — have held comparable positions in the world’s rich Group of Seven countries.

Here’s what you need to know about the slow rise of women to top finance positions.

A slow but steady rise

Beyond the G-7, recent research, summarized in the figure below, reveals how few female finance ministers serve globally. We can see a jump in women’s representation in these positions around 1990, and again in the 2000s. But until very recently, women held less than 10 percent of the world’s finance minister positions. As the figure shows, that number trails women’s representation in other cabinet positions.

Data source: Nyrup, Jacob and Stuart Bramwell. 2020. Who Governs? A New Global Dataset on Members of Cabinets. American Political Science Review 114(4):1366—1374. Figure: Andrew Kerner, Ha Eun Choi and Cristina Bodea

Slowly more women appear to be reaching positions in which they make decisions about nations’ economic lives.

What countries with women running the economy have in common

The recent trend of more women in high-level, public-facing roles in economic governance is only partially attributable to the general move toward more women in power. Our research into women in central banking suggests that favorable macroeconomic conditions drive the rise.

Historically, a country’s history of inflation is one of the best predictors of whether it appoints women to high-level economic positions.

The relationship between historical inflation and the gender of more recent appointments to monetary policymaking positions is shown below for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries for which sufficient inflation data is available, excepting countries that delegate monetary policy to the European Central Bank. As you can see, some countries are outliers — Israel has had more female central bankers than inflation alone would predict, while Japan has had fewer — but the general trend is clear: More inflation in the past means fewer women at the helm today.

Source: Inflation – World Bank World Development Indicators. Percent women in monetary policymaking positions, the Gender Credibility Gap: All-Male Boards and Substantive Gender Representation in Central Banking, Christina Bodea and Andrew Kerner, 2021. Figure: Andrew Kerner, Ha Eun Choi and Cristina Bodea

Gender as a cue for policy views

Why would memories of inflation be so bad for women’s advancement? Inflation destabilizes social and economic relations like little else. Memories of inflation last for years, and those memories have long-lasting political and social consequences.

One effect is that citizens may prefer policymakers who can make a credible commitment to stabilize prices. And countries scarred by inflation often look to men as leaders of the economy. Why? Because gender can be used as a shortcut in the search for leaders who are committed to slaying inflation.

Research suggests that there is some support for using gender as a cue for assessing women’s policy views. On average, men are more likely to be more averse to inflation than women — meaning that they favor increasing interest rates to limit increases in prices. Even among Americans who hold PhDs in economics, women tend to be more concerned than men with income inequality and less concerned about the consequences of increasing the minimum wage.

Policy outcomes also display a gender divide: Women’s suffrage led to increased public spending in social programs that women tend to view as importantwelfare expansionhigher family benefits and more government health spending.

In keeping with that average view of gender, the U.S. financial media depict female central bankers as doves who prioritize jobs over fighting inflation, despite mixed evidence on women policymakers’ actual actions and preferences. And our evidence suggests that those stereotypes about women influence the chances that they will be appointed to top economic positions.

To be sure, other factors — including cultural norms — could influence both an intolerance for inflation and women’s underrepresentation in central banking.

The good news for women’s advancement is there is an emerging consensus that the moment calls for economic policies that focus on generating growth and addressing wealth and income inequality. With little immediate threat of inflation worldwide, even some typically orthodox economists are advocating that we de-emphasize inflation considerations in making policy during and after the global coronavirus pandemic. While society may have not triumphed over stereotypes, macroeconomic conditions can pave the way for the appointment of more women to top positions of economic power.

Andrew Kerner is a research associate in the department of political science at Michigan State University.

Ha Eun Choi is a PhD student in the department of political science at Michigan State University.

Cristina Bodea is an associate professor in the department of political science at Michigan State University.