When President Barack Obama became the first president to nominate a woman to head the Federal Reserve, he elevated Janet Yellen to a global position of influence that shows how wide the gap remains for women to achieve equal representation in positions of power.
If Yellen is confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first female chairman of the Fed and also may soon be, temporarily at least, the only woman on the Fed board of governors. Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin has been nominated by Obama as deputy Treasury secretary, which would make her the highest-ranking woman in Treasury history. Elizabeth Duke left the central bank at the end of August.
As the successor to Ben S. Bernanke, who began the first of his two terms as chairman in 2006 when he was 52, the 67-year-old Yellen would become the 15th head of the U.S. central bank since its inception in 1913.
Yellen’s selection is “a huge step in the right direction,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the women’s advocacy group Ultraviolet. At the same time, “the administration reflects the under-representation of women in top leadership positions in the country, in government and the private sector.”
Women make up more than half of the U.S. electorate and they gave Obama 55 percent of their votes in 2012, propelling his re-election, exit polls showed. That raised expectations that women would ascend the ranks of his administration.
Of 23 cabinet and cabinet-level posts under Obama currently, six are held by women. That’s down from eight at the end of his first term with departures of female department heads, most recently Janet Napolitano at the Homeland Security Department and Karen Mills at the Small Business Administration.
By comparison, women occupied about a quarter of cabinet-level positions in President George W. Bush’s administration. The peak was 41 percent of those posts during President Bill Clinton’s tenure, according to data collected by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
The White House staff has more reflected the nation’s gender balance with women making up about half of the almost 500 employees, according to a 2011 report to Congress.
Yet men still dominate the top ranks. Figures submitted for the 2012 roster show that among the 20 employees listed in the report as making the top salary of $172,200 a year, six were women, the list showed. That compares with seven of 21 in the 2011 report.
To be sure, Obama still has positions to fill in his administration as well as three openings on the Fed that may alter the proportions of women in power. He’s also put women into high-ranking jobs that previously only had been held by men. Along with Yellen at the Fed and Raskin at Treasury, he named Julia Pierson as director of the U.S. Secret Service.
“It’s another critical step,” Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow said of Yellen’s nomination. “Women who have been in the trenches, working hard all their professional lives are finally being recognized for their competence.”
Obama drew criticism from women in both political parties after some of his early 2013 Cabinet picks were men, including those in the top three posts: Jacob J. Lew as Treasury secretary, former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as secretary of state -- replacing Hillary Clinton -- and former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as defense chief.
Obama’s first choice for State, Susan Rice, withdrew from the nomination process in the wake of criticism for comments she made about the deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. He also passed over a woman who was another contender for the top defense job, Michele Flournoy, former defense undersecretary for policy.
“The boys network is alive and well,” Democratic consultant Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, wrote on Twitter Dec. 12, the same day Rice withdrew from consideration.
Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said on CNN Jan. 13 that Flournoy as defense chief “would have been an historic choice. And I think there are a lot of people that are disappointed in there.”
Obama responded at the time with a plea for patience.
“I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they’ve seen all my appointments before they rush to judgment,” Obama said at a Jan. 14 news conference.
Yellen’s nomination came after Obama’s other top choice for the Fed, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, withdrew from consideration last month. It was preceded by weeks of public debate over whether she or Summers was a better fit to lead the Fed -- a discussion that frequently turned back to the would-be milestone of the first woman at the helm.
“Through history, the best candidates frequently are women, so this isn’t about tokenism, this is about drawing from that talent pool,” North Dakota Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp said in an interview. “To me this is a component of getting good advice, of getting good public policy.”
Katie Beirne Fallon, Obama’s deputy director of communications, said that “over the course of his administration, the President has benefited from the expertise of women who have served in most of the decision-making roles related to the economy.”
“The Administration takes very seriously its responsibility to lead by example and has consistently outpaced hiring of women in comparable ranks in the private sector, state and local government, and Congress,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
Yellen was the favorite in surveys of economists and had the backing of 20 members of the Senate Democratic caucus who signed a July 26 letter to Obama.
Tony Fratto, a U.S. Treasury assistant secretary in the Bush administration and the founder of consultancy Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington, said that in talking about Yellen “you almost don’t want to mention the fact that she’s a woman because you want to focus on the point that she’s extremely well-qualified and experienced to do the job.”