Last week, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote about the innate sexism that lurks as a persistent sub-current beneath political and economic institutions.
The specific focus this week is on the possibility of Janet Yellen heading the Federal Reserve. Ben Bernanke’s term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve ends this year, and many expect him to retire. Currently, Vice Chair Janet Yellen is the favorite to take the vacated seat. The more controversial former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, whose comments at a 2005 economics conference implied that women were ‘innate[ly] less intelligent than men,’ is another front-runner.
If President Barack Obama nominates Janet Yellen, the second-ranking official at the Federal Reserve, to be the next chairperson of the central bank, she would be the first woman to occupy the post. Although Obama has spoken of the importance of diversity in his administration, his inner economic team is a boys’ club, says Sheila Bair, a former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation who has pushed publicly for Obama to pick Yellen to run the Federal Reserve.
It is undeniable that the issue of gender is a major component of this discussion. As Ezra Klein put it: ‘When a woman is up for the job – no matter how qualified – the lurking worry is that the pick will be ‘driven by gender.’ When a man is up for it, gender never enters into the conversation. Gender is invisible when it comes to male appointees but a constant presence when it comes to female employees.’ So, is sexism driving the pro-Summers sentiment?
Klein boils this innate sexism down to the way the characteristics we associate with leadership are stereotypically male – an issue dealt with in detail by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Reference is made to the way boys and girls are pushed towards different subjects (think about the famous, experiments that show women score lower on math tests when they have to identify their gender before they begin.) It should be pointed out that this is not just confined to gender biases however. As Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out in his bestseller, Blink, the psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson have found that when black students are asked to identify their race on a pre-test questionnaire, this simple act is sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement – and the number of items they get right is cut in half. Historical and cultural developments clearly have played a crucial role in priming how minorities and women view themselves and their contemporaries in terms of professional and academic advancement.
A noted economist, Yellen headed the Council of Economic Advisors for two years, led the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank for six years, and has served ably as Bernanke’s Vice Chairman since 2010. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the fact that the gender card is undoubtedly a driver in this discussion, it is undeniable that the symbolism which would accompany the appointment of Yellen to this historically male position will be great and perhaps do wonders in breaking the glass-ceiling for women in economic and political life. This isn’t an issue of quotas or positive discrimination, it is an issue of a qualified, competent person getting a job they deserve. Her appointment would be another small step in making female leaders the norm and not the exception.