During the presidential campaign, an Obama field organizer explained why she was cooler than me: "Cause Barack Obama signs my paycheck," she grinned, and paid for lunch. Today, if hers were among the 243 women's paychecks signed by President Obama, her salary would be an average of $9,390 less than a male employee's. The July 1 report to Congress, which spans salary data from receptionists to Rahm Emanuel, also revealed that for every dollar earned by White House men, White House women earn 89 cents. But these eleven pennies are symptomatic of a much larger problem: the absence of senior-level women from the White House.
To date, the Obama administration's employment policies have been trailblazing. Their employee nondiscrimination statement, unveiled on the transition website Change.gov, was the federal government's first to include gender identity. In his first few months, President Obama set the tone for the administration's high standard for the working worth of women by signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and describing his aspirations for his daughters' futures.
Yet all this progress only heightens the disappointment that today's White House still suffers from an age-old phenomenon: White House employees at the highest levels tend to be male.
Despite amounting to nearly half of the staff, women in the White House are widely employed at traditionally lower level positions and outnumbered at the levels of senior staff. Even at a glance, the position titles for the lower-paying jobs stand out as traditionally female positions: Staff Assistant, Executive Assistant, Greetings Coordinator, Scheduler, and Receptionist. In the lowest earning brackets, $30,000-$60,000, there are 120 women and 100 men; however, in the highest income brackets, those making more than $90,000, women account for only 58 of the 142 positions.
The Obama White House is far from the first with a dearth of senior level women: the prevalence of men in upper echelons of the White House is an old trend. In President Clinton's administration, of the 17 employees paid the maximum salary of $125,000 in 1993, only four were women. Years later, the Bush administration's gap proved even more extreme: of the 122 White House employees whose salaries exceeded $90,000 in 2007, only 35 were women. The long history of the absence of women does not excuse the current administration, but suggests that this trend is self-perpetuating: experience in the White House begets more experience in the White House.
Furthermore, the first lesson of statistics tells us that correlation does not imply causation. The figures say nothing of attitudes toward women in the administration. Because it is impossible to compare the relative seniority of every employee granted the title "Staff Assistant," the numbers do not imply the White House pays women less than men in similar positions.
In fact, 49.9% of Obama's White House staffers are women, a figure clinically close to the national population average of 50.9%. Over time, women have actually been relatively well-represented as a proportion of White House staff: 59% in 1993, 47.5% in 2007, and 49.9% today. It is easy to dismiss issues of seniority, or assume that when women are half of a work force, equal opportunity is achieved. But should we be judging by a population benchmark? Each year since 1982, the number of degrees earned by women has exceeded the number awarded to men. Of the Class of 2009, women earned close to 60% of all degrees, including Associate's, Bachelor's, Master's, Professional, and Doctoral.
When women comprise the majority of college graduates and about 60% of the Democratic Party, the talent pool for qualified senior-level staff positions in this administration must have included more women as extraordinary as those we see in the White House today. Where, in our life cycles of education, political involvement, recruitment, and retention, do women disappear from the White House? Without an answer, the responsibility to correct the gap falls to this and future administrations to prioritize inclusivity and outreach to women at all levels of staff.
A few weeks ago, America listened to hearings to determine whether to bring the grand total of women who have reached the senior level of the American Judiciary to three. Senator Amy Klobuchar reminded us that after Justice O'Connor graduated third in her class at Stanford Law, employers assumed her potential was only secretarial, asking just one question of her many accomplishments: "Can she type?"
Let's hope the White House continues to ask more.
Ariel Boone is a researcher with the Center for a New American Security, an independent, non-partisan research organization in Washington, D.C.
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