When Hillary Clinton accepts the Democratic party’s nomination for president Thursday night, it won’t just be an historical milestone for women (and men) in the U.S.—it will also put women one step closer to being in charge of the world’s economy as they have never been in the history of the modern world.
If Clinton were to win the election in November, three of the world’s five largest economies would be run by women: Clinton would join German Chancellor Angela Merkel and newly-appointed British Prime Minister Theresa Day, leaders of the world’s fourth and fifth largest economies, respectively, in a very elite club. (China and Japan are two and three, respectively.)
In the U.S., Janet Yellen currently heads the Federal Reserve, which sets monetary policy, while the SEC, which oversees stock and bond markets, is chaired by Mary Jo White. The stabilization of the world economy is under the purview of Christine Lagarde, the head the International Monetary Fund (Bloomberg deemed Lagarde the “central banker’s central banker”).
“This is a significant moment,” Mary Evans, a professor in the London School of Economics’ Gender Institute, writes in an email. “Of course it brings into focus the centuries for which the opposite has been true and on which—until quite recently—no one remarked.”
Danny Leipziger, a professor at George Washington’s School of Business, says that the number of women in positions of power in international financial circles is “unprecedented.”
The symbolism is hard to miss.
“Picture the top five economic leaders. Usually at the G20 or the G7, you might see one female head of state or maybe two at the most,” Leipziger, who also worked at the World Bank, says. “It would be a powerful message to see Hillary Clinton and Theresa May and Angela Merkel together.”
While Clinton would make the leader of the world’s richest country a very familiar female, it’s important to recognize that those four other women have played and will continue to play critical roles in the global economy.
The U.S. is seven years into the second-longest bull market on record (which typically last four years) and economic expansion (which, since World War II, have lasted five years on average). This means, as Money has written, the U.S. is likely to face an economic downturn sometime soon. This makes Yellen’s role so important: Anything done to help prop up the U.S. economy—like lowering interest rates and buying debt—will come through the Fed, not the executive branch.
Over in Europe, Lagarde oversees the economies of 188 countries and has played a pivotal role in negotiating the terms of bailout assistance in the European Union, including with Greece. Assuming the E.U.’s debt crisis continues, Lagarde will continue to shape the outcome, particularly if the European economies head south. Merkel, too, is critical to these negotiations: As Europe’s largest economy, Germany wields (not without controversy) a ton of power in the E.U.
And thanks to the U.K.’s Brexit vote, May has the opportunity to lead Britain out of the E.U. completely, a move that will have long-lasting impact, including possibly sending the global economy into a tailspin (“I think gender is the least of her problems,” Leipziger jokes.)
That Lagarde is French means each of the four main Western economies—the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and France—currently has a female representative with power over economic policy. With Clinton as president, the U.S. would have two.
That’s not to say that their x chromosomes are the defining factors of their careers.
“I think breaking glass ceilings is important, but I don’t think any of them have won [by] making gender an issue,” Leipziger says. “They’ve won because they’re competent and excelled in their areas of expertise.”
But while the proportion of women in power in the West is increasing little by little, it’s clear that for women around the world, inequality isn’t going away anytime soon.
Currently, women comprise the majority of the world’s low-paid workers, according to a report from Oxfam. That’s certainly true in the U.S., where almost six in 10 minimum wage workers are women, according to the Department of Labor. And there is still a persistent gender pay gap and retirement savings gap in the U.S.
Worldwide, women own just 30% of the wealth (though that number is on the rise).
Never before in modern history have women wielded so much economic power on such a global scale. But the question remains: is a record number of female figureheads enough to raise the economic status of women across the globe?