The Biden Administration is already historic, with Kamala Harris as the Vice President. But more glass ceilings are being broken (and we expect a few others to be before this is all over), starting with the naming of Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary. Once approved by the Senate, she will be the first woman in that position in history.
The Secretary of the Treasury has always been one of the most powerful cabinet positions, along with Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Secretary of Defense (which may go to a woman as well in Biden’s cabinet). Alexander Hamilton was the first to serve as the country’s main money man, and we know how famous he is, landing on the $20 bill and the Broadway stage.
Janet Yellen, 74, may not end up with her name on a marquee on The Great White Way, but she certainly seems to be on the road to icon status for her trailblazing and her support for diversity and women in the workplace. Already, her style statement of flipping up the collars on her suit jackets is being compared to Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s decorative collars on her Supreme Court robe.
Who is Janet Yellen?
Yellen clearly has the experience necessary for her post, and it’s good to see news articles pointing that out. Even Fox Business News has sung her praises. “It would be hard to find any candidate for Secretary of the Treasury who commands as much respect on Wall Street as she does in academia but Yellen is exactly that person,” wrote Fox columnist Steven Kyle.
Her deep resume has left her with many shards of glass on her shoulders as she’s often made history as a “first woman.” For instance, she was the first female chair of the Federal Reserve, from 2014-2018. In this job, Yellen kept interest rates near zero until late 2015, when she lifted them very slowly to encourage employment gains. She was also a top economic adviser to President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, and has filled other prominent roles for the Federal Reserve.
In the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis, Yellen was serving as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. “She was one of the people that was sounding the alarm before the financial system melted down,” Christina Romer, who served as Obama’s top economist during the crisis, told the Washington Post.
Mary Poppins? Really?
The Post story about Yellen also noted that former colleagues often describe her as “being like Mary Poppins: firm but kind, incredibly smart and always prepared.” Unfortunately, the Mary Poppins analogy is demeaning to Yellen–would we ever see a male nominee for a big cabinet job compared to Jeeves the Butler, another position of servitude? We seriously doubt it, and though the term was meant to be a compliment, we hope commentators will check their metaphors. It’s a little too close to the “adult in the room” label older women in the workplace often get stuck with.
Yellen’s background provides many examples of boldness and chutzpah. She earned a PhD in economics from Yale University in 1971, the only woman in her class. She taught at Harvard University for several years, initially as the only female economics professor, a period she has described as “very lonely and discouraging.” She has called for a “culture change” in economics to make the field less hostile to people who are not white men.
At the 2019 conference of the American Economics Association, as part of a panel called “How Can Economics Solve Its Gender Problem,” she said, “Implicit bias affects many women one way or another.” She went on to talk about how male-oriented social networking (such as sports) leaves women at a disadvantage. She also described how frequently she has seen male economists interrupt a woman’s presentation on the first slide to say, “That’s outright wrong.” According to her observations, a man criticizing another man would say something like, “That’s an interesting way of looking at things.”
Over the next four years, we hope we hear more from Yellen on this subject, and on ageism too. Right now, we need all the heroes we can get.