Different class: How this economist’s starring role began at 16
“She really grounded economics in real life, and grounded it in the big debates of the time. She made us watch the budget, so I’ve watched the federal budget every year since I was 16. I loved the theatre of it, but also … this was about the big questions,” Wood says.
“There’s a huge misunderstanding about what economics is and what economists do. If people think it’s about numbers and finance, they turn off. But it’s actually a way to answer social questions.”
Wood came to Grattan after studying more economics at Adelaide University and jobs in the public service with the Productivity Commission (where a young Matt Canavan was a contemporary) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, with a stint in the private sector along the way.
The confessed “policy nerd” was attracted to Grattan, with its 360-degree approach to evidence-based policy research, where she served a six-year apprenticeship with the think tank’s energetic founding CEO, John Daley, who she describes as “the smartest person I’ve ever worked with”, as the think tank’s program director for budget policy and institutional reform.
But promotion to chief executive in 2020 was not part of the plan.
When consultants hired to find a replacement for Daley asked the institute’s staff what they thought their ideal leader looked like, key figures in the organisation noticed the answers pointed to someone like Wood, who was more interested in trying to get her young family through the pandemic than in applying for a job that would ultimately bring her a national profile.
But she was convinced to apply, effectively head-hunted by her own colleagues, and landed the gig.
“There was a lot of trepidation … I’m super-passionate about Grattan and its future, so I didn’t want to stuff it up,” Wood says.
Most would agree she hasn’t, which brings us back to September’s star turn in Canberra, the culmination of all those years’ studying the big issues in the Australian economy, honing her ideas and developing the clarity and confidence that wowed the summit.
When Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ people asked Wood to play a significant role at the government’s signature summit, she knew this was a big opportunity.
“They initially asked me to do the dinner speech and then it got switched around at some point,” she says.
“They knew there were going to be a lot of different themes to flesh out over the two days and they wanted someone to create an overarching narrative for where the country is going.
“To their credit, they really let me do what I wanted … which was an incredible chance to talk about many issues that have been dear to my heart for a long time and I’ll never get that sort of audience again, I suspect. Half an hour with the entire frontbench, the state premiers, territory leaders.”
Finance Minister Katy Gallagher later said it was the summit that convinced the government it needed to “step up” and include changes to parental leave — a drum Wood has been banging for years — as part of the $7 billion it pumped into gender equality in its first budget.
But Wood has been a little weirded out by some of the attention she has received since then.
“I did get a lot of lovely emails and messages from people who I went to primary school with,” she says. “But I do find it embarrassing when people come up and say ‘I’m a bit of a fan-girl’, especially young women economists. It’s extremely flattering, but I’m like ‘really?’.”
Wood didn’t play a lone female hand at the summit. There were telling contributions from academic economist Leonora Risse from RMIT, Chief Executive Women’s president Sam Mostyn and others, leading to another big takeout for many observers: that women were now leading the public economics conversation. The Australian was even moved to write that Australia was now “no country for old, white male economists”.
This is another of Wood’s projects — she has a lot of those, and they’re all big and ambitious — which crystallised when she helped set up the Women in Economics Network in 2017, and stepped up as the group’s first chair.
“At that time, in the top 50 economists cited in the media, there were five women, and collectively they had fewer mentions than Shane Oliver,” she says. “Less than 10 per cent of people cited as economists were women. It was an entirely male-dominated public sphere.”
Wood and her colleagues got active, talking to economics journalists about gender balance in their coverage, setting up a register of female economists to comment in the media and taking full advantage of an ABC push for more gender balance in its content.
Although careful not to claim credit, Wood says times have changed, citing the high profiles of economists like Su-Lin Ong of RBC capital Markets, Jo Masters at Barrenjoey, Angela Jackson of Impact Economics, and many others.
“It’s been incredibly satisfying to see the shift, and there has been a significant shift, and I think if you surveyed the gender balance today, you’d see a very different picture.”
So it’s no accident that much of the public economic discourse these days is aimed at being understood in the nation’s living rooms, not just its boardrooms, and maybe it’s the uncertain economic times we live in, but it feels like more people are listening.
“On an issue like childcare, it’s much easier because it’s the day-to-day reality for most people,” says Wood. “I could talk about the workforce disincentive rate from childcare fees, but what people understand is that they do the numbers and can’t afford to go to work another day because it’s just not enough.”
Despite all that progress, men are still heavily over-represented in economics enrolments at university and dominating leadership in the nation’s top economic agencies. No woman has ever led the Treasury Department, the Reserve Bank or Productivity Commission, and Australia has never had a female treasurer.
“I don’t think that would be the case in any other sector – we’ve had a female chief scientist, we’ve had women leading the High Court – so we have lagged, and to me it’s absolutely extraordinary, but I would be surprised if that doesn’t change in the next five years,” Wood says.
The next frontier is achieving something resembling ethnic and socio-economic diversity in economics, says Wood, who believes too much of the profession comes from a narrow, privileged white demographic, depriving other groups of that vital seat at the policymaking table.
Speaking of tables, Cicciolina’s laid-back vibe and more-than-handy wine list are made for lunches that drag into the afternoon, and a few of our fellow diners look set on doing just that. But neither I nor Wood, who is also president of the Economic Society of Australia and just lately a member of the federal government’s new women’s economic equality taskforce, have the time.
Leading the Grattan, set up in 2008 with the help of Victoria’s Labor government, is a big job.
It’s not so much the staff of 25 mostly high-achieving self-starters, researching a daunting span of complex topics, but the research that Wood insists she needs to stay heavily involved in, the fundraising that got tricky during the pandemic, reporting to a board of directors packed with policy heavyweights and all that media, which at first did not come naturally.
“I forced myself to learn how to write and with oral communication, there’s certainly a lot more of it than there is in the public service, but … it’s practice,” Wood says. “I do 60 speeches a year, I do a lot of media, it’s constant.
“I was never phobic of public speaking, but now I actually enjoy it.
“My approach is pretty simple, which is turn up with the numbers and the arguments and try to make the case.”
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