In recent debates about the relative merits of Janet Yellen versus Larry Summers for the job of Fed Chair, one of the more interesting aspects to me has been the gender issues that very quickly rose to the fore. Sometimes those issues are explicit, such as when Ezra Klein mentions the “sexist whispering campaign against Janet Yellen,” or when Binyamin Appelbaum and Annie Lowrey in a New York Times headline reference the “gender undertones” of the debate.
Other times they are more subtle. For example, while not explicitly tied to gender, many point to the “insular” and “clubby” nature of the Obama White House, where influential economic policy positions are held by “a small, close-knit group of men who have known one another since the Clinton administration, if not before.” Janet Yellen (along with other women, according to this narrative) is “on the outside looking in.”
I find statements like those of Christina Romer, former chief of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Obama, even more interesting. Romer elaborates on the difference between formal inclusion and real influence:
“I was always officially where I should be,” Ms. Romer said of her White House experience. “When there was a quick meeting on the phone, or the side meeting, that’s when you felt like maybe business was being done or maybe I was being left out of things.”
Yellen and Summers also have stylistic and ideological differences that can be perceived as gendered. For example, Yellen (and, according to former Administration officials, other senior female economic policy officials) are further to the left than the Rubinites. Yellen is considered more focused on unemployment than is Summers, which I suppose could translate somehow into “touchy-feely.” And, Yellen isn’t “tough,” lacks “gravitas,” is too “soft-spoken,” and “passive.” She may not be able to handle the inevitable tough fights with Congress. Whatever criticisms one might throw at Summers, a lack of toughness isn’t likely to make the list, though it is notable that Ben Bernanke is typically described in terms more similar to those used to describe Yellen than Summers – a soft-spoken consensus builder.
Naturally, the Obama administration denies that gender would play any role in selection of the fed chair. The determining factors will instead be the President’s comfort with the candidate, how well he believes he or she will do the job, and how successful the new chair will be in dealing with the market and Wall Street. (a point to which I’ll return later)
This debate has intrigued me because it bears so many similarities to discussions we have heard about corporate board diversity. Corporate boards remain, despite some recent progress, overwhelmingly male (and white, though that isn’t particularly relevant to this post). Moreover, they are frequently characterized as insular, clubby, and cloistered, even by those who are a part of the club and even when that club includes board members that bring racial and gender diversity to the table.
In later posts I’ll elaborate on these similarities between the Yellen-Summers debate and the dialogue surrounding board diversity. Be back soon . . .