WASHINGTON — In an Oval Office meeting on Dec. 29, 11 of President Barack Obama’s top advisers stood before him discussing the heated fiscal negotiations. The 10 visible in a White House photo are men.
In the days since, Obama has put together a national security team dominated by men, with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts nominated to replace Hillary Clinton as the secretary of state, Chuck Hagel chosen to be the defense secretary and John Brennan nominated as the director of the CIA. Today, Obama is expected to nominate White House chief of staff Jack Lew to be his second-term Secretary of the Treasury. Given the leading contenders for other top jobs, including chief of staff, Obama’s inner circle will continue to be dominated by men well into his second term.
From the White House down the ranks, the Obama administration has compiled a broad appointment record that has significantly exceeded the Bush administration in appointing women but has done no better than the Clinton administration, according to an analysis of personnel data by The New York Times. About 43 percent of Obama’s appointees have been women, about the same proportion as in the Clinton administration, but up from the roughly one-third appointed by George W. Bush.
The skew was widespread: male appointees under Obama outnumbered female appointees at 11 of the 15 federal departments, for instance. In some cases, the skew was also deep. At the Departments of Justice, Defense, Veterans Affairs and Energy, male appointees outnumbered female appointees by about 2-to-1.
“We’re not only getting better than previous administrations, but we also want to get better ourselves as well," Nancy Hogan, assistant to the president and director of presidential personnel, said in response to the Times analysis. “The president puts a premium on making his team representative of the American people."
The White House itself employs almost exactly the same number of men and women, and administration officials said they hoped to even out the ratio across the government and help ensure that future Democratic administrations have a diverse and deep bench of candidates for high-level jobs.
Representation at the top
But Obama’s recent nominations raised concern that women were being underrepresented at the highest level of government and would be passed over for top positions.
For instance, many Democrats had hoped that Obama would name Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense, to the Pentagon post. They had also hoped that he might name Alyssa Mastromonaco or Nancy-Ann DeParle, who are top White House aides, to the chief of staff job, or Lael Brainard, an undersecretary at the Treasury Department, as secretary. But speculation about the chief of staff position now rests on Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, and Ronald Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden. For the Treasury position, most expect Obama to name his current chief of staff, Jacob Lew.
“It’s not so much about checking a box, like on a census form," said Tracy Sefl, a Democratic political consultant in Washington. “It’s about the qualitative properties that the candidate takes to the position. In this case you’re talking about tremendous women, and then we get a whole bunch more white guys."
The candidate ‘pipeline’
Interviews with current and former members of the administration, both men and women, suggested that there was no single reason for the gender discrepancy in administration appointments, and several repeatedly spoke of the administration’s internal commitment to diversity and gender equity.
But several said that the “pipeline" of candidates appeared to be one problem. They said it seemed that more men than women were put forward or put their names forward for jobs. In part, that might be a result of the persistence of historical discrepancies: men have traditionally dominated government fields like finance, security and defense.
The Obama administration has helped reverse that trend by putting women in top policymaking jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields, officials said. “It makes a huge difference when you have women who are leaders," said Celeste Wallander, who was a deputy assistant defense secretary until July. “They tend to have networks of excellent women they can call on."
In many areas of government, the Obama administration has brought the gender ratio much closer to even than the Bush administration. At the Treasury Department, which has a longstanding reputation as a boys’ club, men made up about 57 percent of appointees, down from 64 percent during the Bush administration as of 2008 and 60 percent in the Clinton administration as of 2000. Moreover, women now hold some of the top policymaking jobs in the Treasury Department, including Brainard, the country’s top financial diplomat, and Mary Miller, the undersecretary for domestic finance.
But experts on the representation of women in government and business said that the White House had more work to do to ensure that women were more equally represented, including changing the work conditions within the administration. “It is not just a pipeline issue," said Marie Wilson, a women’s leadership advocate who is the founder of the White House Project, a New York-based nonprofit group. “The pipeline in government has loads of talented people in it, and loads of talented women."