Thursday, September 29, 2011

Even in Obama's White House

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?


S said...

In truth, my initial response is that of your colleagues: not surprised. I think it is interesting that Obama is held responsible for so many things that are simply out of the man’s control. True, he is the President. Yes, he should have control over the management and how his branch of the government is ran. However, just like in our homes, a sibling may get out of line and pick on another sibling in the shadows. Obama’s administration is the same. The man cannot be everywhere all the time and he certainly should not be held liable for the sexist notions of others. We must be realistic in that the President’s Office is an institution; a very, very old institution that was built by rich, white people of another very, very old institution. Just because the head of the institution changes from a white man to a black one does not mean the notions on which the institution is built upon (sexism, racism, classism and many others) is going to be completely disrupted. Unfortunately, those things take time.
And sadly, the institution must continue to go about its business, despite the continuing practice of sexist (racists, classist and homophobic) notions. I shudder to think how our country would

I am in no way condoning the continued practice of the sexism on which the institution of the White House, and indeed the entire U.S. Government, was built upon. Rather, I think it is important we do not get a head of ourselves and think the sexist (and other) notions America was built upon have evaporated because it is the 21st Century, or because a Black man is our President. Doing so will stifle our progress by making foggy what needs to remain clear: sexist notions have evolved into more sophisticated forms in response to the disruption of its older forms, and in fact, sexism continue to thrive; as you have pointed out.

Rose Sawyer said...

Like your colleagues and S, I am also "not surprised" that the White House has -- or had -- a boys' club feel.

I was talking with two male classmates recently, and the topic of feminism came up. One of the guys commented, "My only problem with feminism is when women are so aggressive about it, like they assume that men are opposed. I believe that dudes should do half the housework, and I think most guys in my demographic would agree."

My friend was being sincere, and I think that many modern, well-educated men really do want gender equality. As I see it, the only thing holding them back from being "good feminists" or "full feminists," is a lack of understanding about just how entrenched the patriarchy is. I recall, in middle school, an exercise promoting racial tolerance in which we discussed aspects of "white privilege" that white people such as me might've experienced without even being aware that we were advantaged. (I recall being shocked to think that some black friends of mine might have a hard time finding a hairdresser who could cut their hair proficiently.) I think that a parallel can be drawn in the context of sexism: men experience the privileges of patriarchy in such basic ways that they don't necessarily even see them as privileges.

I doubt that Obama is anti-feminist; something about being married to Michelle seems to render that an impossibility. More likely, he (and the other male members of the White House staff) were acting unconsciously. The moral of the story to me is that men who really want to be feminists need to be pro-actively empathetic: to read up on social forces affecting women, and to ask women how different situations make them feel.

(This may seem like a high standard -- but I actually think that all of us, men and women alike, would benefit from incorporating this sort of pro-active empathy into our daily lives.)

Girl Talk said...

I am not surprised. There are A LOT of people involved in a president's administration, and he doesn't get to hand pick every single staffer that works in the White House. I would think and expect that the type of men who aspire to be a staff member in the white house is the type that enjoys power, is well-educated, and has probably engaged in some sort of brotherhood or men's society at some point in his life (this obviously doesn't apply to all men in all administrations).

What I am also not surprised at, and happy to know, is that once it was brought to Obama's attention, he took swift action and responded appropriately. He seems to genuinely care, which is more than I can say for most politicians. Hopefully the environment at the White House has changed as a result.