WASHINGTON — Late last year, President Barack Obama summoned the highest-ranking women on his staff to a dinner at the White House so he could ask them a question: Should he be worried about a nagging perception that his administration was a testosterone-fueled boys club?
The dinner led to the formation of an informal group of women at the White House – a women's club of sorts – to help female advisers navigate the upper echelons of the administration.
The boys club story line had been around since the days of the Obama presidential campaign, which was run by a tight inner circle of mostly male advisers, many of whom came with Obama to the White House.
Women fill several top jobs in the White House. Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend of the president, is considered one of his closest aides. Melody Barnes oversees Obama's domestic agenda. And Nancy-Ann DeParle runs the White House health care policy team, a position that aides say has put her in closer contact with the president than nearly anyone else in the administration.
Still, more than a year into Obama's term, the most recognizable faces of the administration, the people the president is most often seen huddling with in the Oval Office and the Situation Room, are men: most notably, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and senior adviser David Axelrod, along with chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who joined the Obama team after the election.
"It's cemented a perception that isn't based in reality," said Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director who now serves as an outside adviser for the administration.
The boys club image gained currency from a slew of men-only basketball games and rounds of golf hosted by the admittedly sports-obsessed president, which drew criticism from women's advocates.
It was one of those all-male basketball games, held on the White House grounds in October, that raised the complaints to a crescendo. Though Obama publicly called the criticism "bunk," privately he was concerned and wanted to know whether the senior women working for him thought there was a problem.
On Nov. 5, the president invited the top women on his staff to a dinner to discuss the criticism lighting up the blogosphere. The president insisted on keeping the dinner on his schedule despite the deadly shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, earlier in the day.
One senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private dinner, said the women assured the president they weren't clamoring for an opportunity to lace up their sneakers and hit the hardwood. But they did make the point that the basketball games and golf rounds gave men an opportunity to bond and establish a level of comfort with the president that may not be afforded to the women who only saw him in formal settings.
Still, the all-male basketball games and golf outings have continued. Only one woman, domestic policy director Barnes, had been invited to play a round with the president around the time of the November dinner.
The women-only dinners have continued, too – just not with the president.
Spearheaded by Jarrett, the women meet monthly for one of the most high-powered dinners in the nation's capital. Christina Romer, one of the president's top economic advisers, deputy chief of staff Mona Sutphen, and Carol Browner, head of the White House office on energy and climate change, are among those with a seat at the table.
The senior official said the dinners have created a support network of women within the White House, giving the women an opportunity to create the kind of bonds many of the male advisers formed with each other during the campaign.
Jarrett, who several women credited with taking a special interest in the women on the staff, dismisses the notion of a White House boys club. Using the president's sports outings to support that idea, she said, is an artificial measure of who has real influence in the White House.
"The fact that Nancy-Ann is handling the president's single most important domestic issue is more important than whether she plays basketball," she said.
Jarrett said the president has told her that he's ready to hold another dinner with the senior women on his staff if there are issues that need to be addressed. At the end of each dinner, she asks the women if that's something she should arrange.
"They always tell me, 'No, we're fine,'" she said.