Last week Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, stirred controversy when he published his newest book, Confidence Men. In the book, Suskind examines the most recent financial crisis and follows the Obama Administration as the young President struggles to fix the U.S. economy. Michiko Kakutani, literary critic for the N.Y. Times, describes Suskind’s portrayal of Obama as one of “a young, inexperienced president lacking the leadership and managerial skills to deal effectively with the cascading economic problems he inherited; a brainy but detached executive with a tendency to frame policy matters intellectually ‘like a journalist, or narrator, or skilled observer’; an oddly passive C.E.O. whose directive on restructuring the banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis was, [Suskind] says, ignored or slow-walked by his own economic team.”
Of the many aspects of the Administration Suskind depicts, his description of the work environment for women during the first two years of Obama’s term has sparked the most controversy. Suskind quotes Anita Dunn, a former communications director, as saying “[the White House] would be in court for a hostile workplace. . . . [b]ecause it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.” Christina Romer, former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said she “felt like a piece of meat” after being left out of a meeting with Lawrence H. Summers, former chairman of the National Economic Council. Suskind describes the situation, “There was chaos where people weren’t aware of who was supposed to be invited to what meeting. In many cases, the women were excluded. The guys banded together. The president was not monitoring it. The women were excluded. They felt, ‘Hey. What about me?’”
Fortunately, Obama eventually made strides to ease the hostility after Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, expressed her concerns about the issue to the President. In November 2009, Obama held a dinner with women on his staff. According to Suskind, Obama sought open discourse with the women and wanted to understand how the women felt. Jarrett would later say that the dinner was “empowering.”
I admit I was surprised when I first read about the controversy. Even though I’ve spent the last few weeks learning about the prevalence of gender discrimination in the workplace, I hardly thought Obama’s White House would be one of those workplaces. Obama has done well to have a diverse administration, at least compared to past presidents. See Krissah Thompson, Obama Administration Continues Path Toward Diversity, Washington Post, Jun. 22, 2009; Krissah Thompson, Sisterhood of Powerful Black Women in Washington Politics Comes to the Fore, Washington Post, Mar. 18, 2009. He has issued Executive Orders to promote diversity and inclusion to increase minorities, including women, in the workforce and to create the White House Council on Women and Girls “to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy.” Not only has he nominated two women to the U.S. Supreme Court, almost half of all his confirmed judicial nominees are women. I thought Obama’s White House would be the last place that would suffer from the boys’ club mentality. Clearly I was wrong.
Yesterday, I discussed Suskind’s book with two of my female peers who are also alum of this class. I shared with them that I was surprised to discover the gender discrimination in the White House. Interestingly, they weren’t surprised at all and were amused that I was. They rightly assumed that the boys’ club would be just as prevalent in Obama’s White House as it would be in any other political or business organization. One of them even felt that the same would have happened had Hillary Clinton been President.
I can’t help but wonder whether the difference in our reactions is because they have been personally excluded from the boys’ club. I would probably feel differently if I faced what they had. What do you think? Am I the only person that is surprised?