New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told a supportive audience at the progressive Center for American Progress Ideas Festival that gender alone could make a difference in finance crises: “If it wasn’t Lehman Brothers but Lehman Sisters, we might not have had the financial collapse.” The problem, critics have noted, is that Lehman Brothers had a female CFO during the financial crisis. The bigger problem is how gender is often presented as a de facto credential by politicians and activists without acknowledging that it would also be de facto discrimination if used in this fashion. It is an interesting story coming on the heels of the story out of the University of Akron where a professor declared female students would be automatically given higher scores. Gillibrand’s comment comes when she is pushing for new sexual harassment legislation in Congress.
Gillibrand insisted that “all these different life experiences” including those of women of color bring “this host of experiences that are different that will make not only the problem-solving better, because it will identify different problems, but then it will identify different solutions.” There is no question that life experiences can give leaders different insights and ideas. However, the sweeping claim that gender could make some business people superior to others in areas like finance raise troubling reminders of our long history of sexism and discrimination. Is the suggestion that financial leaders should be selected in part due to their gender? If so, we have struggled to end a long history of such assumptions.
That point was missed by fellow former Hillary Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri who could be heard explaining “Amen, sister.” Palmieri’s involvement was interesting since she was the recipient of the improperly released debate questions from Donna Brazile for Hillary Clinton. Brazile denied that she sent the information to Palmieri for months (and there was no disclosure of Palmieri to the contrary during the campaign). It only came out later that Palmieri did indeed receive the information. That was a female campaign aide who received material from a female commentator and DNC official working on behalf of a female candidate. It resulted in a long-simmering scandal of favoritism and false denials. Gender did not seem give added insight during that controversy.
Gillbrand’s comment is not original. In 2010, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde said “if Lehman Brothers had been ‘Lehman Sisters,’ today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different.” Notably, Lagarde was found guilty a few years ago (though not hit with penalties) for her role in the questionable €403 million arbitration deal in favor of businessman Bernard Tapie. That must have been the result of Tapie’s gender.
Just recently, Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, was charged with “massive fraud” after being celebrated as the model of women in the workplace. Does that mean women should not be in the workplace or in business leadership? Of course not. The fact that she is a women had no bearing on her allegedly fraudulent practices any more than being a women gave her an inherent superiority as a CEO.
The concern is that leaders are increasingly pitching notions that gender can make you a better leader in various fields — a position that was opposed through the 1970s in the long struggle against sexual discrimination. Back then, it was men saying “Amen” to claims that men were inherently better suited to deal with government or business or other challenges. Men often insisted that the male gender bestowed greater toughness, understanding, and competitiveness in leaders. To suggest that a female might have avoided a financial crisis appeals to the same notions of inherent gender superiority or suitability that plagued our nation for far too long in our history.
What do you think?