Boys' Clubs, All the Way to the White House: Female Staffers in Early Obama Admin Felt Locked Out

 It's a familiar story for women in the workplace, from corporate boardrooms on down to corner delis: men's work is mostly better compensated and valued higher than that of women—even when women are in positions of power. And, dismayingly, a new book shows that the boys' club that comprises so many work environments trickled up all the way to the White House. In Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, author Ron Suskind sheds light on how female staffers felt shut out in the early days of the administration, noting that Obama had more time for meetings with males on board—and that high-up staffers, specifically Rahm Emmanuel and Larry Summers, were dismissive toward them. Former WH communications director Anita Dunn characterized the White House as having the "classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace." (Dunn now denies saying so, but Suskind allowed the Washington Post to review recordings of her interview and confirmed the quote's accuracy. But we can't blame her for trying to take that back: in the eyes of many future employers, speaking out against gender disparity in the workplace makes female employees seen as "less desirable.")

In 2009, female members of the Administration, led by senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, organized a meeting with Obama to address their concerns. The Washington Post says that the meeting went well, with Jarrett describing it as "empowering." Suskind's book depicts an open conversation, with Obama saying, "I really want you guys to talk to me about this openly because recently there has been this suggestion that there are some issues here. I'd like to know how you guys feel." 

But in Howard Kurtz's interview with Suskind in the Daily Beast today, he suggests it wasn't so rosy. 


You had something of a murderer’s row of accomplished women in that building…and they often felt like they were sitting like potted plants in meetings. The president was mostly talking to the guys. And over time, a women’s group formed in the White House to air their grievances.

This resulted in a meeting in the fall [of 2009] with the president where they sat down and said, “This is a problem and you need to do something about it.”

And did he?

He didn’t do a great deal. He was sympathetic to them. He listened to them. The women did not hold back. There was some concern from one of the women organizing the meeting, Valerie Jarrett, that the women would not speak their minds…

The president basically said at the end of the meeting, “Rahm [Emanuel] and Larry [Summers]”—who many of the women were pointing to as the source of the problems—“are important people to me, and I need these guys.”

Every one of the women would have walked across hot coals for Obama, leading up to the meeting and after it, but I think some of them were a little deflated walking out of it, that there was not more action, maybe, not more of what some bosses might do, calling in some of the participants and having a hard word with them.

Though many of the women Suskind interviewed have since left the Administration, over the last year, Obama has hired at least eight women for top roles in his 2012 reelection campaign. On Monday, Jarrett blamed the initial exclusion of women on the gender make-up of his 2008 campaign. "Most of the women hadn’t worked on the campaign," she told the Post, "and so they didn’t have a personal relationship with the president.” The Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women have both have since praised his efforts.

Read the Daily Beast interview here and the Washington Postpiece here. 

AlterNet / By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Posted at September 20, 2011, 5:23am

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