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WomanOf the Month 2-04: Diane C. Swonk

Her passion is economics, so much so that she titled her first book, The Passionate Economist: Finding the Power and Humanity Behind the Numbers. As director of economics/chief economist and senior vice president for Bank One in Chicago, Diane C. Swonk believes it###s well past time for a return to thoughtful discussions about economic issues in the public arena: "It###s not a partisan issue, it###s a people issue--an ability to rise above the fray and speak in clear terms about what economic issues mean. Too often we underestimate the intelligence of our people."

Swonk is an internationally known economic expert who sits on several advisory committees to the Federal Reserve Board, its regional banks, and the Council of Economic Advisors for the White House. She also is a past president of the National Association for Business Economics. While attending a meeting of that organization on 9/11 at the World Trade Center she witnessed the death and destruction of the terrorist attacks. The experience left her recommitted to living life to its fullest. She has renewed her focus on spending time with the people she loves and those who are a positive force in her life. "It crystallized it for me, seeing people jumping out of that tower," she recalls. "It was very moving. You know that when they were falling they weren###t thinking about what work they didn###t do that day."

As a busy executive who travels every other week, even if only on overnight or day trips, Swonk says she###s learned to "take it up front or you never get it. When I###m traveling I have 18 or 19 hour days, so when I don###t travel, I make it a habit to be home by 5:15 p.m., to have dinner with my two children every night. If I don###t do that, the children will be asleep when I get home and I###ll have lost all the time with them.

"I really prioritize my time now. It###s easy to have a tendency to want to please everyone, but there###s no time for that or I won###t have time for the people who matter to me most."

As for 9/11###s legacy for U.S. society as a whole, Swonk observes that "innocence lost is wisdom gained. We know now we###re as vulnerable as the rest of the world. But it###s human nature to adapt, and I###m always so amazed at our willingness and ability to move on."

Few women in top economic posts

Regrettably, there has been no growth in the number of women holding top economic positions, notes Swonk. Many women have pursued careers in academia rather than in the profession. Further, as large-scale economic departments in businesses downsized in the ###80s, many women were just beginning to move up in the ranks and lost their jobs. The male chief economists and deputies remained, notes Swonk. "What we have left is an aging group with not many coming up behind them because the training ground wasn###t there. When I was president of NABE we studied women in our field and at that time we had about 16% in our membership, although the percentage on our board was much higher.

"For a lot of women, the issue on Wall Street is also a selection issue. I###ve turned down many extremely high-paying jobs on Wall Street because I don###t want to be traveling internationally 90% of the time. Women do make more lifestyle choices than men do. "And there is still sexism-to think that it###s gone is just ridiculous. I###m part of a group in Chicago, The Network, of high-profile women who support each other in the workforce. There###s no question there###s a lot of sexism out there still. Also, as a woman you###re expected to take on the extra responsibility of being a role model, a mentor, and I take that seriously-and I embrace that responsibility for my daughter and my son-but professionally it###s extra baggage that wouldn###t be put on a man in my position. You###re expected to do more."

Re-engaging the public in economics

Swonk wrote her book out of a desire to re-engage people in economics as a social science. "I tried to, without putting in one chart, bring out to people how economics matters to everyday life in very meaningful ways. It###s not just something Wall Street cares about. It###s got powerful implications that move nations, and we need to understand it as we embark on making decisions about our future today.

"A lot of people are scared of numbers, and they see it as a numbers game. And that###s the least of it. We###re trying to measure the hardest thing there is to measure-human behavior. Even though there are some very sophisticated economic theories in the book, it also tries to say, this is why it###s important to you. It###s informing people about the decisions about their own lives and also those they make in the voting booth."