The race to replace Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve in January has seemingly been whittled down to two candidates: Janet Yellen, Bernanke's current right-hand woman, and Larry Summers, the former secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton.
Both candidates have similar policy views and qualifications — President Obama told a group of Democratic lawmakers this week that you "would have to slice the salami very thin" to see the differences. Yet one clear difference has drawn the lion's share of commentary: Gender.
Yellen would be the first woman to lead the Fed, or, for that matter, the central bank of any developed nation. Summers, on the other hand, is viewed as a provocatively anti-feminist pick. After serving five years as president of Harvard University, he resigned in 2006 after drawing criticism for suggesting that women may lack an "intrinsic aptitude" for science and engineering.
Both candidates have their defenders. Two weeks ago, as the debate started heating up, Ezra Klein at The Washington Post pointed out that a lot of the points against Yellen, such as her lacking "toughness" and "gravitas," amount to a "subtle, sexist whispering campaign."
"What the complaints share is an implicit definition of leadership based on stereotypically male qualities," wrote Klein. "They aren't qualities that all men have, or all women lack, but they're qualities that tend to be more rewarded in men than in women, and thus more prevalent among men than women."
Meanwhile, a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal defended Summers' infamous comments, arguing that he "was merely musing aloud trying to explain the relative dearth of tenured women professors in the sciences, but at Harvard this is like insulting Mohammed in Mecca."
But as often happens with gender debates, this one has taken on the feel of a Russian nesting doll, with several debates stacked inside each other. This week, the discussion veered toward whether gender belongs in the decision-making process at all.
"[W]e shouldn't be making this choice based on gender, we should be making the choice on the merits of the two candidates as potential central bankers," said Karen Finerman, CEO of Metropolitan Capital Advisors, on CNBC. In her opinion, "Janet Yellen would be a fine choice. I think we have an even better choice in Summers."
Jena McGregor at The Washington Post says that while a debate is necessary, zeroing in too hard on Yellen's gender could hurt her more than it helps:
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.
Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias at Slate says that "gender ought to be a consideration in this choice." Noting that political journalism, like monetary economics, is a male-dominated field, and that most of his professional friends are therefore men, Yglesias says this about hiring:
If I go about devising a "gender blind" list of suggestions, I'm going to come up with a male-dominated list. Not because I'm some egregious misogynist, but because that's my life and that's my field. But this men-recommending-other-men dynamic is poisonous for the profession and for the world. The right thing to do is to sit around and say "I'm going to come up with some women to add to my list of recommendations before sending it over even if that means I need to think a bit harder." Because unless someone does that, nothing ever changes. [Slate]