Larry Summers' decision to bow out from consideration for the Federal Reserve chair means that President Obama won’t now flunk the sexism test. That’s because the default winner of the job will be Janet Yellen, the current vice chair of the Fed, whose promotion had become something of a crusade for the feminist establishment angry at Obama’s allegedly dismal record in promoting gender equality in government.
There are many good reasons for Obama to pick—and to not pick—Yellen. But viewing them from the narrow lens of sexism might ultimately leave women less—not more—empowered.
Feminists complain that although the number of men and women working for Uncle Sam in the lower ranks is close, women are highly underrepresented in top-level positions, a pattern that Obama is perpetuating.
About 42 percent of federal judges appointed by Obama are women. But apart from naming two justices to the Supreme Court, Obama’s diversity record in the upper echelons is decidedly lackluster: Only 35 percent of his second-term cabinet consists of women—less than Bill Clinton’s 41 percent 15 years ago. Worse, none of these women are in top positions since Hillary Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State. Most disappointing to liberals, however, is Obama’s inner White House circle, which, with Valerie Jarrett’s exception, is dominated by (white) men.
Passing up the opportunity to make history by naming a woman to head the Fed would have been final proof that Obama doesn’t give a damn about female advancement. This is especially the case given that Summers, who was reportedly Obama’s preference before he bowed out, has a reputation for being an abrasive misogynist. Christina Romer, former head of the Council of Economic Advisers, once complained that he made her feel like “a piece of meat” during meetings. And feminists have despised him ever since he suggested that women aren’t as good as men at math and science. They had launched an active campaign to defeat his candidacy, forcing him to withdraw rather than face the ignominy of having his attitudes toward women questioned. The other rap against Summers is that he was the architect of President Clinton’s efforts to deregulate Wall Street that caused the great financial meltdown.
By mainstream standards, Yellen is certainly more than qualified for the job. A majority of economists polled by Reuters and Bloomberg picked her as the better candidate to head the Fed, partly because she foresaw the consequences of Summers’ allegedly foolish financial deregulation effort. Yellen, by contrast, is an inflation “dove” who is always happy to open the monetary spigot to lift the economy.
Be that as it is, is it possible that Obama, a movement liberal, who was raised for a while by a single mother and is raising two daughters, is a closet sexist because he preferred Summers over Yellen? Has he bought into a “definition of leadership based on stereotypical male qualities,” as Ezra Klein puts it? Or are there other explanations for his choices?
Presidents need to surround themselves with people they are most comfortable with and Obama seems to have a greater comfort-level with men. That’s not because he’s sexist—but because he is asocial. Clinton was a social omnivore able to connect with men and women at many levels. Obama, by contrast, is introverted and aloof. This creates barriers that men can overcome more easily than women—just as women can reach out to their shy sisters more easily than men to form easy friendships.
Allowing no accommodation for personal traits that affect a parochial gender arithmetic may or may not make for a more equal society—but it’ll make for a more oppressive one.
Consider Harvard Business School’s aggressive experiment to eliminate the gender grade gap that the New York Times wrote about this weekend. The school revamped instruction to make sure men didn’t hog discussion. Everything—the way students “spoke, studied and socialized”—became subject to intervention.
Women were coached to raise their hands more assertively—and men less assertively. Because administrators felt that even Harvard women were more interested in finding a highly-paid husband over a highly-paying job, Halloween costumes were banned in classrooms lest girls came dressed as “sexy pirates” to attract male attention. Alcohol at school parties was prohibited.
Such Big Sister puritanism has boosted the number of women graduating with honors—but it has also triggered a rebellion by male and female students who resented the loss of control over their lives. Some of them donned T-shirts emblazoned with “Unapologetic” to mock the administrator who used the word constantly to defend her intrusive schemes.
Feminist bean counters need to give President Obama some space to assemble a team that he can work with most effectively. Personal choices and social relations reflect complex calculations. Making them hew to a unitary criterion of sexism might produce more equality—but not at a price worth paying.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.