Is Obama’s Cabinet Too Male?

It's a legitimate question, but more important is whether his policies have helped women get hired outside the White House

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The White House / Getty Images

The official photo of President Barack Obama and his Cabinet, July 26, 2012.

As President Obama continues to pick his new Cabinet, there is a growing chorus of disappointment about the lack of female appointees and his record of hiring women in general. During his first term, only 36% of Obama’s appointments went to women, and several of those appointees, such as Hillary Clinton and Lisa Jackson, are stepping down. By comparison, Obama’s record is better than President George W. Bush’s 19%, but it’s worse than President Bill Clinton’s 41%.

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote, “It’s passing strange that Obama, carried to a second term by women, blacks and Latinos, chooses to give away the plummiest Cabinet and White House jobs to white dudes.” MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell announced on Meet the Press that women in the White House “are not happy,” while CNN’s Soledad O’Brien went so far as to make a $100 bet with a former White House official that the 50 most senior people in the White House did not mirror the diversity of America. For its part, the White House released a statement saying Obama was not done filling his Cabinet and that overall, 50% of the staff positions at the White House are held by women, although it did not offer a reason for the inequity in high-level appointments.

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But all this focus on Cabinet appointments is misplaced. The bigger question is whether the policies of the Obama Administration have improved employment and compensation for women both inside and outside the White House, and there are troubling signs that they have not.

Based on figures in the 2011 annual report of White House staff salaries, the most recent year for which this information is available, there was an $11,000 difference between what women and men earned. In the federal government as a whole, if the estimates from 2009 hold true today, women earn roughly 93% of what men earn for the same job. And not surprisingly, the picture outside the White House is even more troubling. According to a study released this past October by the American Association of University Women, among recent college graduates, women still earn about 7% less than their male counterparts in the same occupation.

This inequity may be surprising to some given the fact that during the presidential campaign, we heard quite a bit about the first piece of legislation Obama signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The name of the law is a bit misleading. It doesn’t mandate equal pay for equal work. It just extends the period of time to file a discrimination suit if a woman has been paid unfairly for equal work. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which does make wage discrimination illegal, has been stalled in the Senate since last summer, and there are no current plans to move it along. As a result, there is nothing illegal about paying women less than men to do the same job.

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As for employment, women seem to be worse off. During the first few years of the recession, men lost so many jobs that some took to calling the period a “mancession,” but they have since regained disproportionately more jobs in the recovery. Though the Labor Department has yet to release data for 2012, according to a Pew Research Center report, from June 2009 through May 2011, men gained 768,000 jobs, while women lost 218,000. What this means is that women held fewer jobs two years after the recession than they did the year it ended. This has led some to call the post-recession period a “he-covery.” And of course, it is worth noting that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, over the past two years, poverty has hit women far harder than men in each of the three age groups it studies.

Obama is widely supported by women, and he has made appointments and taken stands that justify that support. But instituting policies that make employment and wage discrimination illegal in the U.S. will move us closer to a level playing field than will adding more female Cabinet appointments.

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