BANKTHINK

Summers, Yellen and the Signals for Women

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Editor's note: A version of this post originally appeared in the September issue of American Banker Magazine.

As I sit here at press time, I know it's risky to weigh in on this fast-moving horse race for the Federal Reserve chairmanship. Right now Janet Yellen and Larry Summers are in the lead, but with all the other names that surfaced (or resurfaced) in recent daysóDonald Kohn, Roger Ferguson, Christina Romerówho knows what the field will look like by September.

I've made a few observations, though, that I think will remain relevant regardless of who gets picked. First, this process has made most everyone look bad in at least some sense: Summers for being too eager for a post he's long coveted, Yellen for somehow seeming too passive in a race for a promotion she clearly deserves, Obama for confusing loyalty with patronage, the media for being unapologetic messengers for political operatives floating trial balloons.

About the only people to come off looking good here are, amazingly, in Congress. Several legislators have been vocal about who their choice for the post would be. I suppose one could fault them for involving themselves in a process to choose the leadership of an institution that's supposed to be a politics-free zone, but at least they're being honest about the fact that Fed appointments actually are full of politics.

My other big takeaway has to do with gender politics, but not in regard to the sexism some will say was at play if Yellen gets passed over, and not in regard to the comments about women that got Summers chased out of Harvard. What captivates me right now is the idea that for so many women, myself included, incremental gains in women's progress are no longer a sufficient substitute for meaningful change.

What do I mean by this? Well, in the middle of all the speculating about the Fed job this summer came word that the White House would name Sarah Bloom Raskin, one of three women then serving on the Fed's Board of Governors, to the No. 2 post at the Treasury Department. I'm happy for Raskin. She brought a refreshing point of view to the Fed and she happens to be a very nice person. I visited with her early this summer to discuss the potential macroeconomic effects of the worrisome trends she sees in household income disparity, and you can read the Q-and-A from the interview in the September issue of American Banker Magazine. But my main response to the news stories rotely reporting that she'd be the highest-ranking woman ever at Treasury was, "Meh."

After all, Treasury already has some impressive women in key roles, like Mary John Miller, under secretary for domestic finance, and Lael Brainard, under secretary for international affairs.

So call me when a woman finally gets appointed to be the actual Treasury secretary. Maybe then we'll have a gender story worth talking about. In the meanwhile, I just don't see what's so surprising about deserving women being appointed to reasonably important jobs.

Maybe I'm spoiled by the incremental progress made to date, but I don't think Obama should get to claim "appointed woman to No. 2 role at Treasury Department" on his list of accomplishments in the area of women's advancement. Raskin's appointment arguably is a data point on the line of women's progress in this country (as was her 2010 appointment as a Fed governor), but it hardly feels like a barrier-crashing event.

The bar for progress no doubt has been similarly raised in the private sector, thanks in part to the women you'll read about in the next issue of American Banker Magazine, when we feature the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance. Until then ...

Heather Landy is Editor in Chief of American Banker Magazine.

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