Lawrence Summers, Janet Yellen spark debate over Obama's next Fed chair

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - It is one of Washington's biggest guessing games: Who will President Obama appoint to be next Federal Reserve chairman?

The name Janet Yellen figures prominently in the speculation, but not always, her supporters say, for the right reasons.

The president is candid about the choice he faces.

"It is definitely one of the most important economic decisions that I'll make in the remainder of my presidency," Mr. Obama said at a press conference last week.

Among the favorites, former Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers and Yellen, the Fed's current vice chair.

Taken together, the names are sparking debate in Washington about whether sexism is at play in the decision.

Just look at the headlines: "Sex, Money and Gravitas" and "Funny how gender never came up during Bernanke's nomination."

A woman has never held the job as Fed chair, and George Washington University professor Lara Brown says there is a perception of bias.

"These are important roles that are seen as sort of 'men's issues,' you know, money and war," said Brown, "and both of those things require sort of a masculine temperament, according to the stereotypes."

While Summers isn't weighing in on the debate, his comments eight years ago about gender differences in mathematical abilities still haunt him. During a speech as Harvard president, Summers was quoted as saying:

"It does appear that on many, many different human attributes ... there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population."

Summers apologized.

Former Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve Alice Rivlin has worked with both Summers and Yellen.

"I cannot believe that in 2013 we are having a discussion of whether a woman could run the Fed," she said. "That's ridiculous."

And serious Fed watchers care less about gender and more about how fast a new chief might move to reign in a Fed policy that's been keeping interest rates low, and on that score, according to recent polls, Yellen is Wall Street's favorite.

  • Jeff Pegues

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