Joan Vennochi

The ‘pushy broad syndrome’

Did gender bias push out two of the sheriffs of Wall Street?

Elizabeth Warren, left, and Sheila Bair. Elizabeth Warren, left, and Sheila Bair. (Bloomberg/Associated Press)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / July 24, 2011

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BOYS WILL be boys, and in Washington, sometimes that means girls get run out of town.

According to Representative Barney Frank, that’s what happened to Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, who last week was passed over by President Obama to head a new consumer protection bureau. As the Newton Democrat tells it, a version of the same sexist story played out with Sheila Bair, whose term ran out this month as chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

In May 2010, Time magazine crowned Bair, Warren, and Mary Schapiro, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street.’’ Gushed Time: “They may not run Wall Street, but in this new era, they are telling Wall Street how to clean up its act.’’

No longer. Bair and Warren are gone, and Frank attributes their departures to more than normal Beltway churn. He calls it the “Get Rid of the Pushy Broad Syndrome.’’

“Two of the most important women regulators have now left,’’ said Frank. He believes they encountered more resistance than is explained by politics or ideology. In the aftermath, he is bluntly calling out Washington, particularly Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, for “gender bias.’’

Bair left the FDIC earlier this month, at the end of a five-year term that was often described as tumultuous. “The rap on her was always that she was ‘difficult’ and ‘not a team player,’ ’’ New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote in a recent magazine profile that also identifies Bair as one of Geithner’s “least favorite people in government.’’

At one point during her tenure, when Geithner was squabbling with Bair, Frank said that he told the treasury secretary, “it was like watching 10-year-olds old in the tree house with a sign that said ‘no girls allowed.’ ’’ The FDIC chair might have stayed on, suggests Frank, if there were “a less inhospitable atmosphere.’’

Warren, too, tangled privately with Geithner over how much protection consumers should get in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Last week, President Obama chose not to nominate her to head the new consumer protection bureau that she set up. Obama’s choice, former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray, is just as pro-consumer. But with Washington, including some Democrats, lined up against Warren, the president passed over her.

Obama’s decision was largely explained in the context of partisan politics. But it’s more complicated. Warren was opposed on ideological grounds, but she was also judged harshly simply because she told a House committee she could not stay beyond an hour to answer questions.

“Elizabeth got demonized . . . it was gender bias,’’ Frank said. While Obama was not part of that thinking, he “backed away because of the virulence of criticism that I think was gender biased,’’ said Frank.

If Frank’s criticisms sound personal, they are. He was Warren’s ardent champion. He is also co-author of the Dodd-Frank Act, the financial reform legislation that is under attack a year after it was enacted. The financial industry has worked hard to delay or dilute crucial provisions, including the consumer bureau Warren set up but will not run.

Bair, a Republican and Bush appointee, will tell her own story in a book that is scheduled for publication in 2012, right before the presidential election. As reported by the Times, the book will give an insider’s account of the financial crisis, and will stand out as one of the few stories of the financial crisis “told by a woman.’’ In a 14-page proposal circulated to book editors, Bair said the book would reveal personal anecdotes about her role as “the only woman among the principal government payers during the crisis,’’ as well as her relationships with Geithner, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve system.

Warren might yet take on another old boy’s network. She is reportedly mulling a run for US Senate in Massachusetts, a state that has never elected a female senator.

Political self-interest aside, Frank raises an interesting question. How much resistance to the new sheriffs in town was a knee-jerk response to tough, intelligent, and accomplished women trying to change a system dominated by men?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at