If Janet Yellen Runs the Fed, Will ‘Chairman’ Become ‘Chairwoman’?

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Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It is increasingly likely that, within the next few months, the Federal Reserve will get its first-ever female leader, Janet Yellen, who is currently the vice-chair of the central bank. If that happens, Yellen will also be the first Fed leader to have to deal with the awkwardness of having her official job title be "chairman" instead of the more gender-appropriate "chairwoman."

Why not change this? We call female members of Congress "congresswomen," and most of us have stopped using gendered job titles like "stewardess" and "secretary" in favor of "flight attendant" and "administrative assistant." There's no good reason that, in 2013, the top position at the world's most powerful monetary policy body should have a male-gendered title.

And yet, there it is, right in the Federal Reserve Act:

Of the persons thus appointed, 1 shall be designated by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to serve as Chairman of the Board for a term of 4 years, and 2 shall be designated by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to serve as Vice Chairmen of the Board, each for a term of 4 years.

It might seem like a minor issue of political correctness, but gender-neutral and gender-specific titles are just one of many ways that official bodies can signal their commitments to gender equality. About half the states in the U.S. have worked on legislation to gender-neutralize their official communication. In most cases, it's easy! Just change the letterhead, update the website, and pass an amendment to the bylaws. You could have it done in a week.

The jury is no longer out on the issue of gendered nomenclature. The FranklinCovey style guide for business and technical communication recommends using "chair" or "chairperson" in lieu of "chairman." The New York Times style guide prescribes "chairman" for a male chair and "chairwoman" for a female chair, but cautions against use of "chairlady or chairperson." (Though the Times seems to be a bit confused when it comes to Yellen: The paper has referred to her as both the Fed's current "vice chairman" and "vice chairwoman.")

These things are complicated, and agreeing on which titles to use requires some work. Martha Stewart is described as the chairwoman of her company in the press, but not in corporate filings. The Times described Mary Jo White as the chairwoman of the SEC, but the agency's own website refers to her simply as "chair." I'm not sure what, exactly, would be involved in changing the Fed's job titles — and an e-mail to the Fed's press office went unreturned — but even if it would require some complicated tinkering with bylaws, the effort would be worth it.

A Yellen nomination would be a good chance for the Federal Reserve to get ahead of the pack and declare firmly that its leadership nomenclature won't default to the male version from now on — that its male leaders will be chairmen and its female leaders will be chairwomen. For Yellen, a woman whose race for the Fed's top spot has been marred by what many have seen as institutional gender bias, it would seem to be the least they could do to make her feel welcome.