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The Two Kinds of Sexism Facing Fed Chair Hopeful Janet Yellen

There are now two, parallel debates taking place outside the White House over President Obama's choice of Fed chair Ben Bernanke's replacement.

On the one hand, you have economic minds tussling over the merits of the two front runners, current Fed vice chair Janet Yellen and former Obama economic adviser Larry Summers. This is where you can find the likes of my colleague, Noam Scheiber—and Reuters's Felix Salmon, and Paul Krugman, and Scott Sumner, and Matt O'Brienarguing persuasively and persistently that on the merits, Yellen is the far better choice. (Summers has his supporters, too, but outside of the White House, they are easily outnumbered by Yellen fans.)

On the other, you can find a discussion taking shape over how Yellen's gender affects the White House's pick. It's an important discussion to have, especially as it got kicked off when Ezra Klein exposed the "sexist whisper campaign" being waged against Yellen by White House insiders who favor Summers. "What the complaints [about Yellen] share is an implicit definition of leadership based on stereotypically male qualities," Klein wrote. "But given the importance of the post, the arguments against her ought to be made out loud, and based on something more than a male-coded template of what leadership used to look like." Yellen would also be the first female Fed chair, a considerable milestone in the male-dominated world of economics (not to mention the male-dominated world of Obama's economic team).

But there is a tipping point at which the focus on Yellen's gender belies the fact that she is a contender because she is exceedingly qualified to be Fed chair—not because she is a woman—and I fear that this morning, The New York Times found it. Here is a taste of the piece, titled "In Tug of War Over New Fed Leader, Some Gender Undertones," which appears on this morning's front page:

President Obama’s choice of a replacement for the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, is coming down to a battle between the California girls and the Rubin boys.


Ms. Yellen’s selection would be a vote for continuity: she is an architect of the Fed’s stimulus campaign and shares with Mr. Bernanke a low-key, collaborative style. Mr. Summers, by contrast, has said that he doubts the effectiveness of some of the Fed’s efforts, and his self-assured leadership style has more in common with past chairmen like Alan Greenspan and Paul A. Volcker.

But the choice also is roiling Washington because it is reviving longstanding and sensitive questions about the insularity of the Obama White House and the dearth of women in its top economic policy positions. Even as three different women have served as secretary of state under various presidents and growing numbers have taken other high-ranking government jobs, there has been little diversity among Mr. Obama’s top economic advisers.

"Are we moving forward? It's hard to see it," said Ms. Romer, herself a late addition to Mr. Obama’s original economic team, chosen partly because the president wanted a woman. She said she viewed the choice of the next leader of the Fed as a test of the administration’s commitment to inclusiveness. "Within the administration there have been many successful women," she said. "There are lots of areas where women are front and center, where women are succeeding and doing very well. Economic policy is one where they’re not."

There is nothing wrong with the article itself, which is balanced and explicit about Yellen's qualifications versus Summers'. But it exemplifies the sexism double-whammy Yellen faces as a group of White House insiders weighs the prospect of her nomination. First she was subject to arbitrary suspicions of her leadership abilities because her style doesn't accord with male notions of management. Then, the increasing chatter about her gender, the Times piece makes clear, made White House officials even more conscious than it already was of how a Summers pick would look, if Obama passed up the chance for a significant female first.

Yellen supporters, such as Romer and Nancy Pelosi, have been all too willing to seize on the White House's sensitivity to make their case for her nomination; this is probably thanks, in part, to the fact that the Obama administration is making its choice with a high degree of insularity, and Summers is their apparent favorite. But cracking a new glass ceiling—that is not primarily what the Yellen-Summers contest is about, and it's easy to see where talk like that could work against Yellen. Earlier this year, we saw that pushing women candidates for women's sake had a negligible effect on Obama's pick of cabinet nominees. Fair or not, there's no reason to think that alluding to Yellen's token value is any wiser this time around.

Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.