It’s More Than A Gender Bias Working Against Yellen

Ezra Klein wrote an insightful blog post yesterday outlining the hidden sexism that has permeated the coverage of who will be the next Fed Chair and how it has harmed Yellen’s candidacy. Here’s Ezra:

People get understandably defensive when you use the word “sexist.” But here’s the simple fact: There’s no male candidate Andrew Ross Sorkin could’ve named who would’ve elicited fears from Fisher that the pick was being “driven by gender.” Not Don Kohn. Not Alan Blinder. Not Roger Ferguson. It would’ve been either a laugh line or a controversy if Sorkin had asked about Tim Geithner’s chances and Fisher had brought up his gender.

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. That’s how privilege works in practice: Gender is invisible when it comes to male appointees but a constant presence when it comes to female appointees.

That gets the situation backwards.

There’s never been a female Federal Reserve chief. There’s never been a female Treasury Secretary. There’s never even been a female president of the powerful New York Federal Reserve. This isn’t an accident, and it’s not because women can’t manage those positions. It’s because gender really has played a driving role in appointment processes for a long time. It’s just done so on behalf of men.

I don’t disagree with any of this, but I want to extend it a bit. The title of Ezra’s post is “Funny how gender never am up during Bernanke’s nomination. Or Greenspan’s. Or Volcker’s.” You know what also didn’t come up in those nominations? Race. Sexual Orientation. Religion. You know why none of those things are coming up this time? Because both Yellen and Summers are white, straight and Jewish. That’s nothing new at the Fed. But a woman as Fed Chair? That’s new.

This creates two different levels of bias against Yellen. The first is the explicit and implicit sexism in whether Yellen has the necessary “gravitas” to be Fed Chairman. Of course she does! No man with Yellen’s resume would face similar questions.

There’s also a second form of bias that I’m going to term “newness bias.” This is the bias that exists because everyone is ultra concerned that the Fed choice will be “driven by gender.” After all, for a position as important as Federal Reserve Chairman, it’s vital that the President select whoever is most qualified. He shouldn’t choose an inferior candidate just to break a gender barrier. But no male nomination can ever be “driven by gender,” because every Fed chair before has been male. It’s the same reason neither Yellen or Summer’s selection could be “driven by race.” When there’s never been a female in a certain position, the immediate reaction to breaking that barrier is that the President is doing so just to nominate a woman, not because it’s the right choice.

That’s what Yellen is working against. Ezra spells this out perfectly:

And then, when a female candidate does threaten to break into that top echelon, the whispers begin that the pick is really driven by gender, that more qualified men are being passed over, that it’s all just about political correctness. But the truth is typically closer to the opposite. A woman (or an African American, etc) can only get to the point where she can hold a top position after clearing a much higher bar than the male candidates.

The President may feel that if he is going to name Yellen as the next Fed Chairman, she must be by far the best candidate for the job. Because if not, he’ll face criticism for choosing her over Summers just to install the first woman at the helm of the Fed. It’s an absurd bar that only candidates facing the “newness bias” confront. If Richard Ferguson receives further consideration for the job, expect the fact that he’d be the first African-American Fed Chairman to come up more frequently. And expect analysts to start asking whether his selection would be “driven by race.” He wouldn’t face the blatant sexism about “gravitas” that Yellen faces, but he’d still confront the “newness bias.”

So remember this whenever you hear people questioning whether Yellen’s choice is “driven by gender.” The fact her selection would break a gender barrier doesn’t mean she needs to be more qualified than other candidates to justify her selection. She’s the best candidate for the job and that’s what matters. President Obama would do well to tune out any worries about her “gravitas” or that her nomination would be “driven by gender.” Those are just not-so-subtle ways for her opponents to use her gender to tear her down. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right. I hope the President doesn’t fall into that mindset as well.