The whole situation has a familiar reek of sexism. Last week, President Donald Trump declined to reappoint Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve and picked Jerome Powell to replace her.
The move caused little uproar. Indeed, financial columnists and economists both tried to downplay the gender implications. But that’s absurd. Trump’s decision to replace a successful, powerful woman with a less qualified man is emblematic of the way his administration has systematically disempowered women over the past year.
Powell has spent five years working on monetary policy, under Yellen, at the Fed. He holds no advanced degrees in economics. Yellen has spent the past five years helming the U.S.’s central bank and is arguably one of the most successful chairs in its history. Over the past decades, she’s held several prestigious policy positions. She got her Ph.D. in economics at Yale.
Powell, while successful and accomplished, simply does not have the same level of economics credentials or policy experience.
Choosing Powell “is insulting to all women,” said Heidi Hartmann, an economist who founded and runs the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “I’m disappointed that there’s no screaming from the rooftops.”
It’s been a year of screaming for many women. The president has put almost none in powerful roles in his administration. The four women in his 24-person Cabinet hold what are arguably second-tier positions. Betsy DeVos runs the Education Department, Elaine Chao heads up the Transportation Department, Linda McMahon is head of the Small Business Administration. And Nikki Haley represents the U.S. at the United Nations ― hardly a Trump administration priority.
Eighty percent of the political nominees Trump has sent to the Senate have been men, according to an analysis published in The Guardian. He’s nominated 41 men for U.S. attorney and only one woman.
And then there’s policy. Without many women around to object, the Trump administration seems set on rolling back women’s rights.
One of the first moves out of Trumpland was to expand the “global gag rule” on abortion, severely curtailing women’s access to health care around the world. More recently, his administration loosened the requirement that company-provided health insurance plans cover birth control.
At the same time, the administration is pushing for laws and judges to roll back access to abortion. It’s also pushing a budget that would drastically cut Medicaid, a lifeline for pregnant women and mothers who need health insurance.
What are women supposed to do when they get pregnant? The policy message seems to be: Stay home, have babies, shut up.
Women who brave the outside world are on their own. Under DeVos, the Education Department made it harder for students to prove they’d been sexually assaulted on campus. The administration also rolled back an Obama-era rule meant to help foster equal pay for women in the business world. Legal protections against sexual harassment have been loosened.
Remarkably, for all this, very few people called out Powell’s nomination as an example of sexism.
“I’m not suggesting gender played a role in Trump’s decision. I strongly doubt it did,” wrote Slate’s business columnist in a story headlined “Donald Trump Is Replacing the Most Powerful Woman in America With a Less Qualified Man.”
The Washington Post interviews several female economists, who were careful to say the move wasn’t necessarily about gender. “Not too much should be read into this decision,” writes Jenna McGregor, summing up their points.
Not every economist agrees, however. The idea that gender didn’t play a role here is “bullshit,” said Justin Wolfers, a well-known economist at the University of Michigan. Wolfers said that Yellen is arguably the most successful Fed chair in history.
Yellen’s tenure at the Fed is widely considered a success on both sides of the aisle, with a few hard-line exceptions. She’s done a better job of meeting the Fed’s dual goals of keeping unemployment and inflation low than any other Fed chair over the past 40 years. When she was nominated, Yellen was considered one of the most pre-eminent economists in the world.
“There’s no way to justify him over her other than misogyny,” said Kate Bahn, an economist at the Center for American Progress.
The White House denied the idea that sexism was at play.
“The mere suggestion is an affront to Chair Yellen,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement last week. “The president chose a highly qualified nominee, and has expressed only the utmost respect for her service.”
Perhaps the fact that Trump appointed someone widely considered to be competent ― Powell served in the Treasury Department under President George H.W. Bush, worked on Wall Street and has been a Fed governor for five years ― kept critics at bay. After all, Trump nominated Sam Clovis, a former campaign staffer with no scientific credentials and experience in conservative talk radio, as chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture. The woman who formerly held the role was a respected and experienced scientist.
The Powell example is far less egregious.
Or perhaps the somewhat subtle sexism was drowned out by the wave of stories about sexual harassment and assault unleashed after Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was unmasked as a sexual predator last month.
Recognizing gender bias, outside of overt harassment, can be difficult. A man is promoted and a woman is not. There are always reasons. Often, they’re laced with sexism: She has too much going on with her family. He has mouths to feed at home. She’s a little too aggressive. He’s assertive and confident.
Everyone digests these tropes ― men and women.
Indeed, in explaining why Trump would choose Powell over Yellen ― after he said he’d consider keeping her on ― many observers cited Trump’s own comments about the choice. The president told Lou Dobbs he wanted to make his own mark on the storied institution. (“My dog likes to do the same thing,” Wolfers said.) And, of course, it’s known that Trump likes to appoint people who look the part.
Trump and others in his circle have repeatedly mentioned the president’s compulsive need to hire and appoint people out of central casting. And in your standard casting call, the part of the financial wizard is not played by a middle-aged woman with impeccable credentials. The tall guy named Rex or Jerry gets the job.
It’s notable that he’s kept on other Obama appointees who better conformed to the standard notion of a leader ― the very tall James Comey at the FBI, for example, before he fired him.
That’s why Yellen was such a powerful role model for the few women who do go into the field of economics.
“Representation matters,” Bahn said. When Yellen was nominated, it marked a watershed moment for women in the field, she said. “Finally, women were moving higher and to the absolute top.”
The men who primarily write about and study economics maybe don’t realize the opportunity that’s been lost.
When she was just getting started in economics, earning a Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley, Carola Binder was surrounded by men. Still, there was reason to hope that equality was on the way: Janet Yellen, the most powerful economist in the U.S., and arguably the world, was a woman.
“I just had pride in her,” said Carola, who specializes in the particularly male realm of monetary policy and is now an assistant professor at Haverford College.
Carola learned that Yellen was out of a job last week at an economics conference attended mostly by men. The Powell nomination was, of course, widely discussed. But sexism just didn’t come up, she said.
“Everyone thought it was a shame that even though she’d done an amazing job, she was leaving,” she said. “No one talked about gender.”