Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Board of Governors of...

Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, answers a question from a participant at the International Monetary Conference in Shanghai, China. (June 3, 2013) Credit: AP

Another week, another gender war -- this time, with the Federal Reserve as the battlefield.

At the center is economist Janet Yellen, vice chairwoman of the Fed's Board of Governors and a top pick to take over its leadership. Yellen would be the first woman to head the powerful institution that sets U.S. monetary policy. Some claim there is a devious campaign to discredit her because she's a woman; others, that her backers are playing the gender card to boost her chances. Compounding the controversy, Yellen's rival for the position, former Treasury Secretary and Harvard president Lawrence Summers, is not just a man but a man who has been accused of sexism.

Perhaps the real sexism here was injecting gender into the debate in the first place, rather than focusing on merits and issues.

Is Yellen a target of anti-woman bias? There have been reports of behind-the-scenes suggestions from the pro-Summers camp that she lacks the "gravitas" or toughness for the job. Code words for "She's a girl"? New York Times columnist Paul Krugman thinks so, as does Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein -- though, ironically, Klein mentions that similar seriousness concerns were once raised about soon-to-retire Fed chief Ben Bernanke, whose leadership style resembles Yellen's.

Perhaps such criticisms are worse when directed at a woman, since they tap into stereotypes (or perhaps they just seem worse, for the same reason). Yet comments from pro-Yellen financial-sector leaders also traffic in stereotypes -- female-positive ones. Yellen is praised as "warm" and personable, a "team player," a "consensus-builder." Summers is described as abrasive, arrogant -- "always the smartest guy in the room, and he'll let you know it" -- and lacking "people skills." Had these statements been about a female candidate, they'd no doubt be decried as sexist attacks on a woman who doesn't hide her brains.

Also cited as proof of rampant sexism are a couple of editorials responding to reports of pressure to give Yellen the post partly due to her gender and even to make this a test of the Obama administration's inclusiveness. A New York Sun commentary, perhaps infelicitously titled "The Female Dollar," argued that gender is no basis for fiscal policy and that Bernanke's tenure, which the editors see as disastrous, would have been no better had he been female. The Wall Street Journal mocked the pro-Yellen "liberal diversity police" but was equally tough on Summers' "patrons" in business circles and criticized both contenders as inadequate on policy issues.

Is this really "raw misogyny" (according to Krugman), or "masculine gender panic" at the idea of a woman at our fiscal helm (according to New York magazine's Jonathan Chait)? Maybe I need to brush up on psychoanalysis.

Meanwhile, in a different kind of gender panic, some Yellen supporters are dredging up a 2005 speech, made at a private gathering, in which then-Harvard president Summers suggested that women's underrepresentation in science might be due not only to sexism but, partly, to innate sex differences. This heresy, misrepresented as "women can't do science," cost him his Harvard post. In a recent statement, the National Organization for Women cited his "obnoxious views" and asserted that he "can't be trusted" to understand women's economic issues. Yet even many Summers critics concede that he has an excellent record of supporting women's careers; his protégés include Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer and author of "Lean In."

Whichever candidate gets the job, those who dislike the choice will no doubt see it as gender pandering -- either to an old boys' network or to feminist pressure groups. Like most gender wars, this one is likely to have no winners, only losers.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.


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