WASHINGTON – When President 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 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,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., 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.”