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Obama's Boys Club: Summers Shows How Gender Bias Really Works

The White House's defense actually underscores the problem

Of all the charges and counter-charges that have been aired so far in the reality show known as “America’s Next Fed Chairman,” none is more explosive than the charge of sexism. Between the two apparent finalists for the job, the woman—current Fed vice chairman Janet Yellen—is viewed by many as more qualified, while the man—former Treasury Secretary and White House economic adviser Larry Summers—has an unfortunate gender scandal on his resume. This has led to a variety of gender-related accusations, from the suggestion that the case for Summers, reportedly the president’s first choice, is based on subtle (or not so subtle) prejudice, to the claim that Summers is simply unqualified to be Fed chairman because of his questionable pronouncements on women while president of Harvard.  

Then there is the argument, probably the most compelling to my mind, that Summers benefits less from overt discrimination than a kind of subtle, institutionalized bias. Under this scenario, no one with influence over the decision need be personally hostile to women—and, for the record, I don’t believe any of them are. They simply happen to favor candidates who belong to a small, insular group of people that they know well, and very few women happen to belong to that group. As a variety of commentators have pointed out, this is basically how gender discrimination works in this day and age. (Unless you happen to be in the Texas state legislature, in which case God help you…) It will probably shock no one that more than a few media outlets could be accused of similar forms of bias. 

Naturally, the administration, and Summers’s supporters inside it, are resentful of these allegations, insisting that their preference for Summers over Yellen is purely on the merits, and that both the president and Summers have a history of promoting women around them. (True enough.) As for the male-dominated clique charge, Teams Obama and Summers point out that the current director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, is a woman. Despite the sheer number of men the president has installed in top economic posts, the thinking goes, Burwell proves he’s clearly open to a naming a woman.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Burwell is quite the trump card the White House and Summers’s allies believe it to be. In fact, it shows close to the opposite of what they intend.

The problem is that Burwell isn’t some highly qualified woman that the White House turned up after an exhaustive, nationwide search (though she is highly qualified). She, like Summers and most of Summers’s boosters in and around the White House, is a former protégé of Bob Rubin. She worked for Rubin when he ran the National Economic Council under Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. Then she was his chief of staff when he became Treasury Secretary in 1995. Burwell almost certainly owes her job as OMB director to her membership in the same club that’s trying to make Summers Fed chairman.

Of course, you might consider this evidence that the Rubin alumni network isn’t nearly as male-dominated as you’ve been led to believe. But you’d be wrong. The Rubin network is overwhelmingly male, especially at the upper levels. If you look at, say, the former Rubinites who play tennis together and attend tennis camp each year in Florida, they’re all men. If you look at the people who ran the Hamilton Project, the economic think tank Rubin set up in 2006, they too are overwhelmingly male. The people the Rubinites in the Obama campaign reached out to most often when they wanted outside policy advice were also men—namely Larry Summers and Bob Rubin. The only other prominent female alumnus of this network is Summers's former Treasury chief of staff (now Facebook COO) Sheryl Sandberg.  

All of which is to say, if you draw most of your top economic policymakers from a network that's easily more than 80-percent male*, you may occasionally come up with a woman candidate. But the vast majority of the people you select are going to be men. Or, put differently: The way to refute the boys club charge isn’t to point to the one woman who happened to emerge from this network. It’s to show that you’re reaching outside the network to recruit, something the Burwell pick emphatically doesn’t show.

Don’t get me wrong. As a general proposition, I think the Obama administration has been very good for women—between health care reform generally, reproductive health in particular, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, etc. (Though I’m admittedly not the best person in the world to judge this.) But the White House isn't a stranger to more subtle gender-related hang-ups. And the impulse to make Larry Summers Fed chairman when there’s a supremely qualified female candidate available only highlights its occasional obliviousness.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber

*A quick note on methodology: I went through the notes of actual and potential sources for my book on the Obama economic team and the acknowledgements to Rubin's memoir. I pretty quickly got to more than 20 prominent men who could be considered part of the network. I had to strain to find five relatively prominent women. The next most prominent after Burwell and Sandberg were Caroline Atkinson, a deputy assistant secretary at Treasury under Rubin and Summers, who is currently a White House economic official, and Linda Robertson, an assistant secretary who later became a senior advisor to Summers. Summers's former chief of staff during his Obama administration tenure, Marne Levine, is also a senior Facebook official. It's worth pointing out in Summers's defense that he personally hired two of these women.