Most Powerful Women

Fed chief Yellen and GM boss Barra pave the way

January 10, 2014: 1:23 PM ET

In copping the top jobs at the Fed and GM, Janet Yellen and Mary Barra mark a milestone--and show how more women leaders might get ahead.

FORTUNE -- For powerful women, this is a moment.

As Mary Barra prepares to take the wheel at General Motors (GM) next Wednesday--and no woman has never led a corporation that big--Janet Yellen moves in as the new chairman of the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the news broke today that President Obama intends to nominate Lael Brainard, the former Under Secretary of the Treasury for international affairs, to the Fed Board of Governors.

These three leaders have key qualities in common and together show how far America has come since the days when women leaders needed to act like men.

TIME - Yellen Cover copyIndeed, Barra, 52, has the grit of her macho industry under her manicured nails. She grew up a die maker's daughter in Detroit and started as an engineering intern on a Pontiac factory floor. But Barra is unlike any man who has made it to the top of the auto business. A wife and mother of two teenagers, she's recently been heading global product development, but when GM was in bankruptcy, she oversaw HR. She elevated that job--which is stereotypically female--by overhauling onerous employee rules and showing that treating workers well is as critical to success as putting out quality cars.

Like Barra, Yellen, the first woman ever to head the Fed in its 100-year history, is famously firm but evenhanded and possesses a quality ever more critical in leaders today: empathy. TIME assistant managing editor Rana Foroohar, who snagged the first interview with the new Fed chief, tells me: "Honest to God, she's really worried about the human effects of policy." Yellen's research that informs her policymaking is the "real-world, kitchen-table type," Foroohar notes. "And her ideas are about making people's lives better."

In her cover profile in the new issue of TIME, Foroohar explains how Yellen first noticed the human impact of economics in the 1950s while growing up in the working-class Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. Yellen's father, a family doctor, treated dockworkers and factory laborers who could scrape together a couple of bucks to pay him--or not.

Yellen, 67, married a Nobel Prize-winning economist, George Ackerlof, who is more liberal than she. Comfortably blending her personal and professional lives, Yellen talked readily with Foroohar about family life and motherhood impacting her economic mindset.

"The Most Unprecedented Thing about Janet Yellen," notes TIME top editor Nancy Gibbs in an online post, is that Yellen and her husband are the quintessential power couple who seem to disprove Anne-Marie Slaughter's contention in the Atlantic that "Women Still Can't Have It All."

One good friend of Yellen, Christina Romer, who chaired Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, told Foroohar that she views the incoming Fed chair and her husband as "a total meeting of equals, in parenting and in ideas." When Yellen and Ackerlof were raising their son, Robert, "they both took time off, and shared all the tasks from who picked him up from school to who was doing the cooking," Romer adds.

Doesn't it seem thoroughly modern for a powerful woman's spouse to have his own success but adjust to give her whatever she needs to succeed at the highest level? Economist Laura Tyson told Foroohar about the most powerful economic policymaker on earth and her husband: "They have an amazing relationship."

Watch This Week with George Stephanopoulos this Sunday at 10 a.m. ET to see me talk about Barra, Yellen, and Fortune's Most Powerful Women.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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