Women And Central Banks: Symbolic Politics Versus Real Policies

20 11 2013

Earlier this year, there was a controversy in the UK about the number of women represented on the paper money in circulation in England and Wales. The controversy was sparked by a decision of the Bank of England to remove Elizabeth Fry from the £5 note and to replace her with an image of Winston Churchill.

Feminists took to Twitter and the blogosphere to protest the move, complaining that with the exception of Queen Elizabeth, whose face is on every coin, no women were represented by the UK money supply. A legal fund was established to cover the costs of a lawsuit against the Bank of England. Mark Carney, the recently appointed Governor of the Bank of England and former Governor of the Bank of Canada, decided that this purely symbolic issue wasn’t a battle he wished to fight. To shut the campaigners up, he took a few hours out of his day on 24 July to announce that novelist Jane Austen would be featured on new £10 notes. Carney actually travelled to Jane Austen’s house to make the announcement and do a photo-op. The announcement and the photo-op appears to have satisfied the campaigners.

It appears that the campaign in the UK has inspired a similar online campaign in Canada, where the new series of polymer banknotes has been criticized for its failure to include images of non-royal women. (Queen Elizabeth is on all Canadian coins).  The Bank of Canada recently retired a controversial banknote design that had featured images of some early twentieth century women who were suffragists (and also racists).

The replacement note features an icebreaker with no known racial biases.

You can see an online petition about the issue of women on Canadian currency here.  The preamble to the online petition compares the number of women on Canadian and British banknotes with the currency in Australia.

An all-male line-up on bank notes is not acceptable in Canada, anymore than it was in the United Kingdom. Australia provides an excellent example of including nation builders of both genders on its bank notes. Most of the current notes feature a notable woman as well as a man, and a website that provides biographies of each of the people depicted. 

Somewhat curiously, the petition doesn’t refer to US currency. On one level this is odd, as US money would be the foreign currency most familiar to Canadians. However, Canadian political debates often involve making comparisons to developments in other Commonwealth countries while studiously avoiding references to policies in the United States.

I have mixed feelings about the campaign to have more women on currencies. I suppose that if I had a daughter, I would want her to be exposed to positive images of successful women.  However, I think that this fixation on actual banknotes obscures more important gender-related issues related to  central banks.

As critics have noted, none of the members of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee are women.  (See image below). A recent study found that of the 175 decision-makers responsible for monetary policy in the nine OECD central banks surveyed, only 20 are women (11.4%). Moreover, neither Canada nor the United Kingdom have ever had a female central bank governor.  Perhaps this is a more important issue for feminists to discuss than the pictures on banknotes.

I would argue that an even more important question is the differential impact of monetary policy on women and men. Changes in monetary policy affect different groups in society differently.  Social class, region, and generation, are the most important categories here, but gender also influences how one experiences monetary policy. [1]

Deflationary policies tend to benefit retired people on fixed incomes at the expense of young people just starting careers. Japanese monetary policy, which is not coincidentally set by a gerontocracy, has been deflationary for over two decades.[2] This is a rare example of a Japanese government policy benefiting Japan’s women, who are, of course, famously long-lived.

In the UK,  where monetary policy is set by middle-aged men, the artificially low interest rates of recent years have hurt holders of annuities. In British society, annuitants are typically elderly.  Since women live longer than men, on average, the current monetary policy might be said to undermine the interests of women. Gender has certainly not yet been mainstreamed into monetary policy analysis.

No images of women appear on US currency, with the exception of the allegorical woman on the Liberty Dollar.  Some of the men on US currency were pretty despicable by today’s standards. Luckily, no slaveholders have ever graced the banknotes of either Canada or the UK! However, the politically incorrect nature of US Federal Reserve Notes hasn’t prevented a woman, Janet Yellen, from being nominated as the new chair of the Federal Reserve.  On a more practical level, the US is ahead of Canada and the UK. Of course, there is no evidence to suggest that Yellen’s monetary policies will differ from those of her male predecessor or that gender will influence her thinking about interest rates.


[1] Takhtamanova, Yelena, and Eva Sierminska. “Gender, monetary policy, and employment: The case of nine OECD countries.” Feminist Economics 15, no. 3 (2009): 323-353.;

[2] Paul Johnson Christoph Conrad, and David Thomson. Workers Versus Pensioners: Intergenerational Justice in an Ageing World. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

The MPC: White Male Central

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