Janet Yellen, and the problem with the Federal Reserve gender debate

Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen (Federal Reserve/Flickr)
Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen (Federal Reserve/Flickr)

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's term will not expire until the end of January 2014. But the debate over who will replace him--a man or a woman--has been heating up in recent days.

Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that one-third of the 54-person Senate Democratic caucus have signed a letter urging the president to nominate Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Janet Yellen to the post. Though it is not clear whether she was one of them, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi also said in a Bloomberg interview "it would be great to have a woman" run the Fed. Today's New York Times, as well, has a front-page story on the "gender undertones" in the discussion over Yellen's candidacy and that of the man who appears to be her chief rival for the job, Larry Summers.

And that's hardly the first piece to address the role gender is shaping up to play in the debate. Ezra Klein wrote last week about the "subtle, sexist whispering campaign" taking place against Yellen, who is apparently being quietly derided by supporters of the brash and hard-charging Summers for being too "soft-spoken" or lacking "gravitas."

"What the complaints share," Klein writes, "is an implicit definition of leadership based on stereotypically male qualities."

I think it's great that we're talking about a female candidate for the male-dominated Federal Reserve in the first place. And it's wonderful that people are both speaking openly about the sexist attitudes toward different leadership styles and calling out how they're perpetuated by the double standards and double binds that exist for female leaders.

But all the attention to the gender question could hurt Yellen as much as it helps her. If she's chosen, it could look like Obama's hand was forced by the demands of his party (potentially politicizing an appointment that shouldn't be) or like she was selected primarily because she's female (even if that wasn't the case). Even the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard W. Fisher, reportedly said on CNBC back in May that a choice of Yellen would be a decision that was “driven by gender.”

As with so many things regarding women and leadership, it's damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't. We need to talk about the stereotypes that get in the way of a supremely qualified woman's candidacy so that they don't prevent her--or the women who follow her--from getting the job. But doing so could also put those women at a disadvantage once they're in it. The more the discussion centers on her record, her intelligence, and how well her background and temperament fit the needs of the job, the better.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

The double bind for Jill Abramson and other women at the top

Women leaders and the Goldilocks syndrome

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Tom Fox · July 26, 2013