Watch out Merkel, here comes Janet Yellen
If Janet Yellen's nomination to head the Federal Reserve gets the nod from the Senate, she would be the first woman to head the most powerful central bank in the world. That would make the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born economist arguably the most influential woman on the planet, probably surpassing other notables such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The 67-year-old vice chair of the Fed is the first woman to even be considered to lead it, and the first nominated to lead a major central bank—one of the highest glass ceilings remaining for women. Her elevation would mean that three of the jobs with most impact on the global economy: chairman of the Fed; chancellor of Germany and managing director of the International Monetary Fund, all traditionally male domains, are now held by women.
It's a safe bet that when Forbes is compiling its next list of the world's most powerful women, Yellen, who did not appear in the top 100 this year, will be challenging the top five. Her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, was ranked the sixth most powerful person in the world this year, just behind the pope.
Yellen, like Merkel and the IMF's Christine Lagarde, does not seem to have needed quotas or tokenism to achieve highly. She is the most accurate forecaster on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, and the longest-serving official at the Fed, having worked there for around four decades. She has been credited with being one of the first to call the cheap credit-fueled U.S. housing bubble in 2005, while head of the San Francisco Fed.
Yellen's background also includes a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University; a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1985; the post of president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2004 to 2010); chair of President Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers (1997 to 1999); a member of the Fed's Board of Governors (1994 to 1997); and many other roles at the highest levels of economic study.
For all her credentials, Yellen isn't far removed from more average pursuits.
She's married and has an adult son. Her hobbies include running, reading, cooking and, with her husband, hiking and playing tennis, according to Politico. She has a huge stamp collection. During high school in Brooklyn, she liked to travel, go to the theater, eat, explore New York City and play piano and bridge, according to a description she wrote in her school newspaper, The New York Times reported.
But Yellen isn't exactly like the rest of us either. Her husband, George Akerlof, co-won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001 and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship, Fellow of the Econometric Society and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among others.
Together, they're rich. Yellen and Akerlof have between $3.4 million and $7.4 million in assets, according to 2012 disclosure quoted by Bloomberg.
(Read more: Amid Washington woes, some Yellen cheer for markets)
Yellen has always shied away from public comment on gender issues—or indeed almost anything other than her job and economics. Yet the fact that she is a woman has been an issue for months, with her colleague Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, arguing back in May that President Barack Obama would be "driven by gender" if he chose Yellen as chairman.
Nancy Pelosi, head of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, countered his statement by saying: "She's extremely talented. It's not just that she's a woman."
Yellen could help motivate younger generations to succeed in an era when few women still make it to top roles in the business and economics world—despite high-profile drives for equality and academic success.
The percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards has risen to 19 percent from 12.5 percent in 2011, according to research from The 30% Club, a pressure group of company chairmen calling for greater diversity on boards of directors, although many of these are in nonexecutive rather than executive roles.
There are no female members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee or the European Central Bank's Governing Council—the equivalent bodies to the FOMC. In the summer, the ECB launched a "gender diversity action plan" to ensure that 1 in 3 senior positions at the bank are held by women by the end of the decade.
"Having a senior, experienced woman like Janet Yellen in such a crucial position for the global economy will be a highly symbolic step," Helena Morrissey, CEO Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30% Club, told CNBC.
"It's heartening that women are getting top roles through merit, addressing the issue of the absence of senior women not just in the U.K., but worldwide," she said.
—By CNBC's Catherine Boyle. Follow her on Twitter: @cboylecnbc.
—Lawrence Delevingne contributed to this report.