Only Unserious People Question Janet Yellen’s ‘Gravitas’

Yellen, vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Photograph by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

With three finalists for the job of replacing Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve—three accomplished, gray-haired, jowly individuals in their upper 50s and beyond—why is only one said to be lacking “gravitas”?

The debate over whom President Obama will choose has coalesced around this insidious word—gravitas—and the question of whether Janet Yellen, currently the Fed’s vice chairman, has the quality. By definition the term means “seriousness, solemnity, or importance,” but it’s also become code for the difficult-to-define resistance certain eminent men appear to have to seeing women in positions of authority. She lacks gravitas translates roughly into some through-the-looking-glass version of: I can’t see myself taking orders from someone wearing a skirt.

The challenges Yellen, who was long seen as the front-runner for the Fed chairmanship, is now facing will be familiar to anyone who has studied the dynamics of gender in the workplace. As many Catalyst studies will attest, women at work are generally punished for exhibiting the very traits that tend to make people successful at their jobs. “Women must project gravitas in order to advance at work, yet they also need to retain their ‘feminine mystique’ in order to be liked,” wrote Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt for the Harvard Business Review. The traditional image of “feminine mystique” does not generally fit with the job of controlling the world’s money flow.

Yellen’s competitors for the Fed chairmanship are two men whose seriousness is presumably not in dispute: Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary and former Obama economic adviser, and Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chairman described by Annie Lowrey in the New York Times as a “dark horse” candidate.

“[S]uppose we were talking about a man with Ms. Yellen’s credentials: distinguished academic work, leader of the Council of Economic Advisers, six years as president of the San Francisco Fed, a record of working effectively with colleagues at the Board of Governors. Would anyone suggest that a man with those credentials was somehow unqualified for office?” asked Paul Krugman in a column on the subject this morning. “Sorry, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that gravitas, in this context, mainly means possessing a Y chromosome.”

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