Girl Power / Politics and Government / Role Models

Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve, and Glass Ceilings

Janet Yellen accepts President's Obama's nomination to serve as first woman to chair the Federal Reserve. Photo credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Janet Yellen accepts President Obama’s nomination as chair of the Federal Reserve. Photo credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama nominated Janet Yellen to serve as the next chair of the Federal Reserve. If Yellen is confirmed by the Senate, she will become the first woman in history to fill the Fed’s top spot.

Yellen is a well-qualified woman of substance. After earning a PhD in economics from Yale University, she taught at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Harvard University and the London School of Economics. Yellen served as chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors and as President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco before becoming the Fed’s vice chair.

Some, like Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post, have even suggested that she might be the “most qualified Fed chair in history.” But, predictably, much of the news coverage has focused on her gender rather than her resume.

As Sheelah Kolhatkar reported in Bloomberg Businessweek today:

“Still months away from actually starting the job, Yellen has already inspired the following headlines: “Move over Angela Merkel, Yellen may become world’s most powerful woman”; “A Woman Virtually Nobody Has Heard Of Is On The Verge Of Becoming The Most Powerful Woman In The World”; “Janet Yellen, the most powerful woman in US history.”

Matt Yglesias, business and economics correspondent for Slate, tweeted: “Will this make Janet Yellen the most powerful woman in the world, or does Merkel still have the crown?”

Bloomberg’s Kolhatkar responded:

“The question is absurd, much like the process by which Yellen got the nomination. The very idea of Yellen’s wearing a notional “crown” reflects the media’s obsession with ranking influential women as if they’re beauty pageant contestants. (It’s doubtful headline writers would have proclaimed Larry Summers “the world’s second-most powerful man” if he’d become Fed Chairman.) Is Yellen truly more powerful than Merkel, who’s just been reelected as the leader of Europe’s most influential nation? Or Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund? More powerful than Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, the world’s sixth-biggest economy?

Whether Yellen is the most powerful woman in U.S. history is equally debatable—and ultimately unanswerable. Would Chairwoman Yellen wield more power than former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, or Madeleine Albright? What about former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who was once third in line for the presidency?”

Regardless of her true position in the national or global power ranking, the potential for Yellen for crack the Fed ceiling is certainly exciting. But, its very fact is also a reminder that there is still plenty of glass left to shatter in the federal government.

As Joe Coscarelli and Kat Stoeffel noted yesterday in New York Magazine:

” Just seven women are currently serving among the Obama administration’s 23 cabinet-level jobs, and only 45 women have held such spots in the history of the country.”

Check out the piece, “25 Other Senior Government Jobs Never Held by a Woman,” for a full list of the high-ranking positions still in need of a woman’s touch.


So, what do you think, ladies? Are you rooting for Yellen to be confirmed as the next Fed chair? Is her gender a factor in your answer?


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