Good Thinking

Ideas that influence the way we think.

Don't Call Her Chairwoman?

By rejecting feminized titles, do women signal they are equal to men?

The newly appointed head of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, has instructed her staffers to refer to her as "chair" rather than as "chairwoman". By doing so, her intention is to signal that her job has nothing to do with her gender, and to encourage her staff and colleagues to see her not as a woman, but as the chair of the Federal Reserve.

Apparently, being seen as a woman would be insulting to someone in so powerful a position. Being seen as a woman would signal inferiority, over-emotionalism, and, quite simply, not being tough enough for the job.

Her decision appears to be part of a larger trend for women to enthusiastically embrace all things masculine and eschew all things traditionally feminine. Female thespians want to be called "actors" not "actresses" because the feminine term, to them, signals inferiority and weakness. On the popular television detective show, Castle, the female captain of the police precinct insists that everyone call her "sir". The term "ma'am", she says, should be reserved for her mother. (Which tells us a good deal of what she thinks of her mother.) In print and media, the term "strong female character" now means someone who beats up men and women with equal gusto, and who is proud of not knowing how to cook.

The women who take these steps believe they are throwing off the constraints that society has traditionally placed on women, They believe they are signaling they are equal to men in strength, skill, and expertise. They believe they are saying "I am equal to you because I am like you." Unfortunately, that is not what they are doing.

Instead, they are re-affirming that all things feminine are inferior, weak, and worthy of scorn, and that all things masculine are superior, strong, and worth of respect. The only way for a woman to be worthy of respect and power is for her to ape everything masculine. We know we have truly made it, you see, when we have become female Don Drapers from Mad Men.

The irony is that traits traditionally ascribed to women are precisely those that make us human rather than monsters—mercy, compassion, feeling, fairness. By this metric, we are to admire the man who leads a hostile takeover in order to raid a company's pension account, and scorn the man who takes a cut in his CEO compensation package to help the company weather a poor economy. The former is "thinking rationally like a man" while the latter is "letting his heart rule his head like a woman."

The subtext of Yellen's move is undoubtedly to quell the fears that many may harbor over the very idea of a woman occupying a place of such power. Her actions impact not just the national economy but the global economy. They ask themselves "Can we really trust a woman to handle such responsibility?"

The irony here is that history is replete with examples of humanity thriving under female leadership—women who, like all good leaders throughout the ages, achieved more good than harm. Under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, England not only smashed the Spanish Armada but brought the Renaissance to the British Isles—the scientific inventions and the wondrous works of art, music, theater, and poetry. Under the rule of Catherine the Great, Russia rose to become a world power and a center of the arts.

But can a woman handle the complexities of modern financial institutions? Well, the facts prove quite handily that they can. Just ask Abigail Johnson, President of Fidelity Financial Services. Or Ruth Porat, CFO of Morgan Stanley. Or Lisa Carnoy, Head of Global Capital Markets, Bank of America. Or Barbara Byne, Vice Chairman of Investment Banking, Barclays Bank. Or any of the other twenty-five most powerful women in finance.

So here is what I would like to see: Women in high-profile, powerful positions who are not ashamed of being women. Women in powerful positions who do not believe they have to think and act like men in order to govern wisely and fairly. Women who don't chafe at being called "chairwoman" because it reminds us that women can indeed achieve and excel in positions of power.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins February 6, 2014

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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