The White House Boys’ Club: President Obama Has a Woman Problem

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Nearly every professional woman has had the experience of saying something in a meeting, receiving no response, and then listening as a male colleague offers the same thought or suggestion minutes later to great acclaim. The first time it happens, she feels slightly foolish and is a little unsettled. Did I say that out loud or just in my head? Maybe he made the point better than I did. The second time it happens, she gets frustrated. The third time, she gets angry.

Look at the senior women meeting with Obama in this White House photo at a dinner they called to discuss their invisibility. Look at their faces and body language. They are pissed off.

Coverage in the Washington Post and a new book by Ron Suskind has focused attention on the frustration of Obama’s female advisers. But the problem has been obvious almost since Obama took office. And while the explanations so far have blamed members of the mostly-departed boys club–Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emanuel–Obama himself is responsible for a work atmosphere that marginalizes and ignores women.

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The first time I noticed something was awry, I was flipping through the White House Flickr album from Obama’s first 100 days in office. About halfway through, I realized something was missing. Shot after shot showed Oval Office meetings filled with men in dark suits. But apart from occasional appearances by Hillary Clinton and Valerie Jarrett–and one photo of an Oval Office meeting that included Jarrett and several other female advisers–women were mostly absent from the workplace shots.

I knew the problem wasn’t a lack of women on staff at the White House. A 2009 analysis of White House salary data did find that while women outnumbered men in the lowest salary brackets, there were only 58 women in the 142 highest senior staff positions at the Obama White House. But those 58 were still a huge leap over the 32 highly-paid women in George W. Bush’s White House in 2007. Even so, it didn’t matter how many senior women were on staff if they weren’t in the room with the boss when it mattered. There, a comparison with Bush’s White House is also instructive. Valerie Jarrett is obviously a key member of Obama’s inner circle, but her role is largely a personal one, to protect Obama’s brand. For the most part, she does not fill the same position of political or policy guru that Karen Hughes and Condi Rice respectively did in Bush’s brain trust.

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I’d only flipped through one Flickr album so far. But I started to check the feed regularly to see if the trend continued. It did, and I noticed something else. There’s a looseness to Obama when he’s hanging out with the boys club that doesn’t appear in co-ed gatherings. Sometimes he even literally engages in locker room humor, as in this photo before a speech at the University of Texas. The President blows off steam on the golf course with male colleagues and friends. He takes to the White House basketball court with NBA stars, men’s college players, and male cabinet members and members of Congress. (Obama also played a quick game of PIG with members of the University of Connecticut’s national champion women’s basketball team.)

I don’t begrudge Obama moments of levity on the job, nor do I doubt that he feels genuinely more comfortable with the close-knit group of male staffers who have been with him since the presidential campaign, and in some cases since his Senate campaign. But informal gatherings like those basketball games are how many of them developed that closeness with him in the first place. In a New York Times article about Obama’s basketball games, Anita Dunn–who is quoted in Suskind’s book describing the White House as a “hostile workplace”–dismissed the idea of a boys club, noting that she had recently hosted a baby shower for an administration official and had invited no men to the event. But informal gatherings for White House women, while useful for morale, still don’t give them face time with the only boss in the White House who matters.

Nor is it the case that bringing more women into Obama’s inner circle would require the guys to stop having fun. The President wants to shoot hoops? Why not bring in U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was a star point-guard in high school. In 2009, she led the United States Mission basketball team against the UN Security Guards, whose captain praised her as “just like one of the guys.” Or HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who pointed out to Jay Leno that “I actually made my college basketball team” when the comedian asked whether she could beat Obama at HORSE. If the President feels like heading to the golf course instead, he should bring back Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes, who played once with Obama after he got heat about not inviting women to play sports with him.

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Even when women are in the room with Obama, they are sometimes seen but not heard. At a 2010 symposium on women in finance, Christina Romer, then the chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, talked about the difficulty she had getting the floor in policy discussions. Suskind relates the story of how Obama reacted angrily to one suggestion by Romer, and yet calmly heard out the same point from Larry Summers a few days later. Other senior women have complained that their arguments seemed to disappear into the ether at meetings, unacknowledged by Obama. Ellen Moran, Obama’s first communications director, was the first member of his team to leave the White House, resigning just 92 days into the term.

These complaints will ring familiar to most professional women. And we know that the difference between temporary annoyances and an intolerable situation is a boss who acknowledges the issue and moves quickly to address it. Yet it seems to have taken several years for Obama to pay even minimal attention to the problem. When asked in an NBC interview about concerns regarding the boys-only basketball games, Obama called them “bunk” and added, “I don’t think it sends any kind of message or signal whatsoever.” The Tuesday Washington Post story cites an official who says Obama initially discounted complaints about the tough climate for women because that’s just what happens in a highly-competitive workplace. That response matches Obama’s reputation for having little patience with personal gripes and intra-office squabbles.

Even at the dinner pushed for by top female staffers so they could air their grievances directly with Obama, his reaction–as told by Suskind–amounted to an apologetic shrug. The men who cut their female colleagues out of meetings and decision-making were his friends and closest advisers. He needed them, and didn’t seem inclined to rein them in. The unspoken message: toughen up and deal with it.

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Things are different around the White House these days. Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod and Larry Summers are gone. Mona Sutphen, a deputy chief of staff, left as well, but Obama promoted two other women to the same rank after her departure. Stephanie Cutter has a role in the communications shop, although Jen Psaki just announced on Tuesday that she is leaving her post as deputy communications director. And yet when Rahm Emanuel left the White House last fall, the list of possible replacements for White House chief of staff was filled with men. Jarrett was the only woman in the running. Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff over at the State Department, could have easily been at the top of the list. There are any number of strong women in Congress or serving as chiefs of staff at cabinet agencies who were qualified for the post. But no woman seems to qualify for President Obama’s innermost circle.