The president’s lady problem

News outlets were right to report on Obama's track record of hiring women, but that's not the only type of diversity to keep in mind

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

Maybe Obama needs to borrow Romney’s “binders full of women.” That’s what Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News suggested in her opinion piece wondering why Obama’s new Cabinet is looking “more like the Augusta National Golf Club than America.”

The Washington Post first brought this story to our attention on Monday, with a piece by David Nakamura noting that President Obama had nominated men to three big Cabinet posts: State (after Susan Rice dropped out of the running), Defense, and CIA. “The moves have disappointed some supporters who said they fear, with [Secretary of State] Clinton’s departure, a paucity of females among Obama’s top advisors, particularly in the traditionally male-dominated field of defense and security,” Nakamura wrote.

But it was The New York Times that took the story and hit it out of the park on Tuesday. First, the paper published White House photographer Pete Souza’s damning December photo of male senior advisors circling the President (and noted that if you look closely, you can see Valerie Jarrett’s leg just visible in front of the desk. That mostly-hidden Jarrett somehow made the whole thing even worse.) That photo made the story, “Obama’s Remade Inner Circle Has an All-Male Look, So Far” hit on a visceral level.

Second, the story itself was an outstanding example of enterprise reporting using data analysis. Annie Lowrey, an economic policy reporter, pointed out—as did Nakamura and Carlson—that there were in fact strong female possibilities for the Cabinet posts, including Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense, and Lael Brainard, Treasury undersecretary for international affairs. Obama just didn’t choose them.

Then Lowrey went beyond Cabinet worries and looked at male vs. female appointees at all 15 federal departments. “From the White House down the ranks, the Obama administration has compiled a broad appointment record that has significantly exceeded the Bush administration in appointing women but has done no better than the Clinton administration, according to an analysis of personnel data by the New York Times,” Lowrey wrote. She said that women comprise 43 percent of Obama appointees.

Compared to that, The Los Angeles Times story that ran Wednesday was very thin. It added the news of the day that Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis had announced her resignation, which compounded the problem of too few women in high-level positions, and noted that press secretary Jay Carney was upset with the coverage of a less-diverse Cabinet. “The president is committed to diversity,” he said. “I think it would be useful to wait and make judgments about this issue after the president had made the totality of appointments that he will make in the transition to a second term.” That sort of quote is the expected stock answer from a press secretary and adds little to the conversation (bigger news would have been releasing actual names of women who were about to be appointed)—it seems the LA Times was playing catch-up here.

Salon’s Irin Carmon, in an opinion piece, asks some good questions about the whole thing:

Will John Kerry carry on the legacy of Hillary Clinton in encouraging female leadership and entrepreneurship around the world? Will Chuck Hagel, if confirmed as secretary of defense, fully and fairly implement the progressive changes in the military … including the partial expansion of abortion access for service-members and dependents, despite his past opposition? … And how will the administration do better on this stuff next time, if it does indeed care about it?

Carmon’s questions are important, as is the news that Obama isn’t living up to his own goals of gender diversity. Women make up about half the electorate, and they should be equally represented in government. But columnist Jena McGregor in The Washington Post reminds us that we should also look beyond the gender tally for a wider view. On Wednesday, she wrote, “The debate over diversity in the president’s Cabinet shouldn’t just be about how many women there are, but about how many new voices are present on a team that has long been criticized as too insular.”

In the end, she says, it’s not just about percentages of women, or of racial or ethnic minorities. It’s about fresh perspective and people who can raise counter arguments. “Diversity is not just a one-dimensional issue,” she writes. “Those critiquing the president—especially given his close inner circle—should be just as concerned about the backgrounds of the people on his team as they are about the makeup of their gender.”

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: , , , ,