On Wednesday, President Barack Obama made history and nominated Janet Yellen to be the first female chairperson of the Federal Reserve. Those following the long, tumultuous and, at times, dysfunctional Fed chair race know this almost didn't happen.
Despite Yellen's unprecedented experience, the Obama administration remained fixated on nominating Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary and longtime White House adviser, to the post. It was only when Summers withdrew his name from consideration in September that Yellen emerged as the frontrunner. (Even then, there was some speculation the White House would pass her over.)
Some may feel inclined to let the fact that Yellen was the President's second choice cast a shadow over this historic moment for women in banking. A column from Wall Street Journal economics reporter Sudeep Reddy even suggests Yellen send Summers a thank-you card, should she get confirmed.
But this assertion ignores a few key turns in the Fed chair race: Summers didn't do Yellen any favors. He bowed out once it became abundantly clear his road to confirmation would be long, arduous and uncertain. Just prior to his withdrawal, a small group of key Senate Democrats let it be known they would oppose his nomination. Prior to that, roughly a third of the 54 Democratic and allied Senators signed a letter urging the President to nominate Yellen for the position.
Aside from lawmakers, more than 350 economists also sent a letter to President Obama supporting a Yellen nomination in early September. Media pundits stumping for the Fed vice chair outnumbered – and largely out-argued – those stumping for Summers. Global markets even rallied around her.
Yellen shouldn't have needed the help. As an accomplished economist and the Fed's top prognosticator, she was clearly the most qualified person for the job. Still, she remained at risk of being passed over for a male candidate arguably less suited to the role – nowhere on Summers' resume will you find hands-on Fed experience – due to, at best, the President's proclivity to keep his friends close or, at worst, the subsistence of an old boy's network.
As American Banker Magazine Editor in Chief Heather Landy found when putting together the recent Most Powerful Women in Banking issue, Yellen's situation is not unique. For all the progress the industry has made, there are still hiccups in the advancement pipeline. The number of women at the bank CEO and board level, for instance, remains tragically low. Some of this has to do with the glass ceiling. Some of it, admittedly, is related to women exiting the pipeline early to make family a priority.
In an either case, there's clearly more work to be done and achieving gender equality remains a team effort. Men and women must take an active role in ensuring qualified female candidates get positions they clearly deserve.
This could involve mentoring promising employees as they work their way through the pipeline. It could involve launching impressive letter-writing campaigns to your bank's president. Or, yes, it could even involve putting together binders full of women when a diversity issue becomes apparent. (As BankThink contributor Jill Castilla noted in our Most Powerful Women in Banking series, “there is a special place in heaven for men and women who help women.”)
Yellen's nomination illustrates just how crucial and effective internal and external support can be in establishing a clear pathway to power. Her presumptive ascent to a position that may very well make her the most powerful woman in U.S. history should inspire us to rally around other women in the banking industry long overdue a spot in the C-suite.