The specter of sexism has hung over Ben Bernanke’s looming departure from the Federal Reserve for a long time now, with Dallas Federal Reserve Chairman Richard Fischer absurdly alleging that promoting Vice Chair Janet Yellen to the top job would be a pick “driven by gender” and allies of Lawrence Summers offering hazy complaints that Yellen lacks “gravitas” rather than offering a policy rationale for preferring Summers.
But I think it’s worth saying that gender ought to be a consideration in this choice, a consideration that militates in favor of Yellen.
I think about myself. I’m a man. Like most American men, I’d say a majority of my close friends are men. What’s more, most political journalists are men. So when I think about my closest personal associates in the field of political journalism, I come up with a list of cronies and buddies and confidantes who are mostly men. And that’s life. But precisely because this is such a banal state of affairs, I try to go out of my way to be cognizant of it when I’m in a position to suggest candidates for jobs. 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.
Back to monetary policy. It happens to very genuinely be the case that there are not a lot of women working in the field of monetary economics. As Christina Romer has said, “I’m lucky at monetary-economics conferences if I’m one of three women, and now that Anna Schwartz has died, if I’m one of two.”
That’s a regrettable state of affairs. And it’s not just conferences. No woman has ever run the Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank or the Bank of England or the Bank of Japan or any other major developed country central bank. I can’t pinpoint exactly what harm has been done to women’s interests in the world by their total exclusion from high-level central banking, but it’s going to be something. Now none of this is a reason to appoint Yellen if the White House has some serious public policy disagreement with her. But none of the various leaks and emanations have given any sign of one. Instead the idea seems to be more that Summers is “part of the gang” who was in the bunker with the Obama economic policy team and who they personally like and trust and respect. Those are very valid sentiments. But those are also exactly the kind of sentiments that any progressively minded man working in a male-dominated field ought to interrogate a bit when it comes to personnel decisions.
If men in a male-dominated field just help out their (male) allies and confidantes, then women can never get ahead. Unless you can say that your personal network is well-balanced between men and women, then you need to take some moments to step back and look beyond that circle to find some women who’d be well-suited to the job. Otherwise a “gender blind” search process will, over the years, put women in an entrenched position of disadvantage.