Six weeks or so ago, I wrote a couple of posts in quick succession on issues fitting under the loose heading “women in economics”. I commented on a recent conference paper produced by a couple of senior Treasury officials (one of whom was male), and on the situation at the Reserve Bank prompted by some comments from the (male) Governor and the release of some statistics on the proportion of female applicants for various positions, including that of Governor. My overall sense was something along the lines of “there seems to be a real and longstanding problem – perhaps not easily fixed – at the Reserve Bank, but that it was less clear that there was a wider problem”. Those posts were not universally well-received, and I received various comments, open and private, suggesting that as a mere male I had no right to comment on these issues, that any perspectives had – by assumption – no value, and (in the words of one particularly strident commenter) that I should withdraw quietly and “reflect on how your internal biases are harming women”.
And then a few weeks ago, there was a newsletter around from GEN (the Government Economics Network) advertising a launch event for a Women in Economics Network (for anyone interested, they have a LinkedIn group here), at which the speaker was to be Governor of the Reserve Bank, Adrian Orr. It was advertised as open to anyone, and since I have an interest in the issues – particularly as they affected the Reserve Bank (where I was manager for a long time), and the contrast between their experience and that of other entities – I signed up to go along. I also attended because it must be a decade since I’d heard Adrian Orr speaking in the flesh, and as I’ve been quite critical of some aspects of his nascent governorship, including his speeches, I was interested to see how he now came across to a live audience.
It seemed like a fairly well-attended event, held at The Treasury. The audience apparently included some high school students and teachers, as well as lots of public service types, and was (as one would probably expect) around 85 per cent female.
The event began a bit oddly, with some sort of introductory greeting or welcome from Gabs Makhlouf, the politically-correct British Secretary to the Treasury. It was in Maori, and I’d be surprised if more than a handful of attendees had a clue what he was saying.
The Governor was introduced by Vicki Plater, chair of the new network and a senior manager at The Treasury. She noted in her introduction how, particularly as a macroeconomist (a sub-discipline of economics with a particularly preponderance of men), it was a common experience to be (or feel like) the only woman in the room.
That resonated. And so it was strange, and rather tin-eared, for the Governor to stand up and say, in his best jesting style “you know Vicki, most male economists also think they are the only economist in the room”. It was, no doubt, a self-deprecating dig at a tendency of smart opinionated people to think, or act as if, they have “the” right answer to whatever is being debated. But it seemed oddly inappropriate, as if to – no doubt unconsciously – minimise the perspective and experience of women in (macro)economics – the subject he’d been invited to address.
(It was also a bit strange that in the course of his comments – speech and later panel discussion – Orr’s only unscripted references to individuals in the audience were to men.)
It wasn’t a long speech, but it was also striking how little content there was. It was a paean to diversity and inclusion, but only in the most general and unspecific form. We were told about some project the Bank has underway to re-tell its own story in terms of some Maori metaphor or mythology (the connection to the issue at hand being less than clear). He asserted that somewhere around the Industrial Revolution humans had lost “the talent of working together in teams”, and we heard a brief snippet of his own experience of perceived exclusion at the recent Jackson Hole seminar (for top central bankers and the like). He owned up to not himself being a great listener. It wasn’t necessarily off the subject, but it all seemed pretty tangentially relevant. If I was looking for the consistent theme it would be something around having to make an effort and break out of the constraints of established, unquestioned, ways of doing things. There wasn’t much to disagree with, but equally you wouldn’t know that he was head of (and formerly held other senior positions in) an institution that has never had a women in a senior management role in policy or core operational areas in its 84 year history. Perhaps that wasn’t the point; perhaps the point just was that senior male leaders (Governor and Secretary) cared enough to turn up.
Following the Governor’s talk there was a panel discussion, involving the Governor and a senior academic economist and an MBIE principal advisor (both women). The Governor was again on form. The MBIE principal adviser (of a Pacific background) noted that Pacific people in economics had few role models, and that the Governor was the pre-eminent role model. His response: “I don’t know about being a role model; perhaps a sausage roll.”
There was a great deal of (seemingly) unquestioning acceptance of the unconscious bias model, with quite a few (unexamined) claims of conscious bias thrown in. There was no discussion at all of how some occupations, and academic disciplines, end up very heavily female and others very heavily male, no discussion of the apparent “gender equality paradox” , just an inchoate sense of something, generically, being wrong. Quite what, specifically, wasn’t clear.
The Governor was the most confident communicator of the three, and since he tends to wear his heart on his sleeve we heard a few interesting anecdotes. One was, I think, designed to illustrate how those in power can be unaware of the impact they are having on others. He noted that shortly after his appointment as Governor was announced he’d had an email from a former staff member, who lambasted Adrian for the severely adversely impact he had apparently had, in some past professional role, on this person’s life. This had apparently come as total news to the Governor, and it sounded as if the searing email had shaken him at least momentarily. But the effect of the anecdote was rather undermined when he rushed on noting “but I got over it”. Perhaps the problem really was with the writer, but it seemed to be a strange way to end – perhaps confirmation of Orr’s earlier acknowledgement that he isn’t a good listener.
There was some discussion on calling out actions or words that display – or are perceived to display – bias (the senior academic noted that she how did so openly and straightaway – although when a new graduate later asked about this, it was acknowledged that it was not necessarily an option prudently open to everyone). Orr told us about coming back from an appearance at Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee and noting that all the Reserve Bank team had been male, suggesting that needed to change. Apparently – as these things do – word got out, and down the organisation, crystallising in an email from somone (a manager I gathered) that in future appearances only women were wanted. The point of the anecdote was that apparently someone had called this to the attention of the Governor and he’d corrected the messaging. But it actually sounded more like a warning about the risks of loose words, emoting without a proper framework, from a new CEO.
In fact, you wondered whether those people at the Reserve Bank had really got the wrong message. There was a question from the floor about quotas and whether or not they were a good idea. All three panellists seemed a bit ambivalent, but the Governor actually came back to elaborate his initial quick response and stated that “positive discrimination is needed sometimes”. That such discrimination would almost certainly be against the law seemed not to concern this senior public servant, speaking in an open forum.
In some respects, the Governor was in fine form on Friday. The phrase “consummate communicator” was running round in my head, but as I reflected further I realised that that isn’t an accurate description at all. Orr has a great way with words, and can be very entertaining, but effective communication involves getting appropriate alignment between audience, subject matter, and occasion. In a senior public servant, gravitas also matters (pompous and old-fashioned as it might sound to some). And as some of the comments above suggest, he tends to be a bit tone-deaf. At the time, Orr was appointed, I included this snippet (drawing on a Bernard Hickey story)
Only a few weeks ago – when he must already have known that he was likely to become Governor – Orr gave a speech to the Institute of Directors, in which he reportedly dismissed the views of Deputy Prime Minister on the economy as “bollocks” and went on to suggest, in answer to a question about nuclear risks in North Korea, that perhaps two issues could be solved at once ‘because Winston is going to North Korea”. Recall that at the time, Orr was not some independent market economist, but a senior public servant. He might well have been right in his views on the economy, but is this how senior public servants should be operating?
In his talk on Friday – mostly among public servants – he probably was more relaxed than he usually is in public; it was very similar to the way he used to be when we both worked at the Bank. But listening to Orr again, I was reminded of David Lange, who also had a great way with words. Lange’s way with words developed, as I think even he recognised, as a defence mechanism – the way an overweight child pushed back and held his own in the playground. I’m not sure what it is with the Governor, but perhaps he hinted at it himself in his remarks on Friday, noting that having grown up far from the halls of, say, Christ’s College, Auckland Grammar (or the female equivalents) – although didn’t most people? – he had felt that he was having to push to be accepted, and in turn had had to come to accept that people with other upbringings also have valid and useful perspectives, their own strengths and weaknesses. It isn’t clear to me that he has yet fully got over that background and the associated insecurities. Perhaps a lot of it is just shtick – a comedy routine – but it is striking how often one hears from the Governor, or sees in profiles, references to his friends and relatives in Taupo and Rotorua, particularly those who didn’t have much formal education or interest in book-learning. Have I ever heard, I wonder, any senior figure – not running for office – reference his conversations with his mates at the TAB (or the Wellington Club, or the golf club, or the church, or….well anywhere)?
The Governor is a smart guy. No one disputes that. But there are questions about his depth, his seriousness, and his judgement (see, for example, my comments last week on his recent speech). Add in a dominant personality and a self-acknowledged reluctance to listen – although, of course, self-recognition is some small progress – and it reinforces the doubts about vesting so much power in his hands, or of structuring a Monetary Policy Committee in a way that continues to ensure his total dominance.
Meanwhile, we are still waiting for a thoughtful on-the-record speech on monetary policy and/or the Bank’s financial stability responsibilities. I’m still waiting for a response to my OIA request about his, apparently rather loose, speech to INFINZ a couple of weeks ago.
And the specific issues at the Reserve Bank, where women have rarely (well never) achieved really senior roles in the central areas of responsibility, await the Governor’s attention. It is, in my view and my experience, a complex story, but if it isn’t addressed seriously and well over the next few years – better management, better structures, better people – it will be increasingly awkward for the Governor and the Board (around half female) paid to hold him to account.