White House remains a man’s world, some say

September 21, 2011

The facts of life in Washington:

Success is not measured in revenue earned and market share increased.

No — ideas win. To win with your idea, you need to make an argument, in front of the decision-maker. You need to be heard.

Also, you need to be seen.

And that is what matters in this flap over the White House being a “hostile work environment” for women in the first years of the Obama administration, as communications adviser and political pro Anita Dunn describes it in a new book about the president’s term.

Yeah, the boys of the winning campaign threw their footballs around the cubicles, and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel threw his F-bombs, anywhere he stood. But the senior women of the West Wing were not pinched in the halls or confronted with girlie calendars above the desk, hallmark behaviors that would meet the “classic” legal definition of a hostile work environment.

The women couldn’t get close enough to the president enough of the time to make their case, according to accounts in Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men,” and their voices were drowned out.

In a culture that rewards argumentation over persuasion, command over consensus and hierarchy over inclusion, it hardly is a shattering revelation that men would be the advantaged gender, all across the warrens of power in Washington, in the lobby shops and associations and research departments.

But are we still having this conversation? About women struggling for a seat at the table?

Well, yes. “And having to articulate that you need a seat at the table!” says Jennifer Lawless, who directs the Women and Politics Institute at American University. It's a numbers problem — 83 percent of the members of Congress are men, which puts the United States in 90th place among the world’s legislatures, for all you politics workers obsessed with scorekeeping.

“So you can play a pivotal role,” Lawless says, “but first you have to earn that role and then articulate that role, before you can raise your voice.”

You have to develop work-arounds, say women who have gone through the revolving door of government and academia and the private sector, to learn that there’s a fake meeting and a real meeting, and to make sure that you get to the real meeting, the one they might be having while you are dropping off your kid at school.

Elaine Kamarck recalls having to fight for inclusion as the vice presidential adviser for reinventing government in the Clinton White House, and “after about 10 times where my issues were discussed in the senior staff meeting, without me somehow being considered a necessary person to be present, I complained enough to [White House Chief of Staff Leon] Panetta until he let me in.”

Seating, meetings and e-mail loops are everything. Because power in Washington is proximity to the principal, “There can be an aspect of bullying to male-female relations,” Kamarck says.

Because? “White Houses tend to attract people with really, really strong wills, and they tend to attract men who think their ideas are right,” and the good manager, as Panetta was, she says, keeps them in line. “They get all tough and macho, and they can try to roll you.”

It helps a great deal to have a history with the person who becomes the boss — when Dick Morris once threatened to “tell on her to the president,” Kamarck said, “Fine, good; tell him Elaine thinks this is a bad idea.”

This is what most of the women in the West Wing did not have, a preexisting relationship with Obama, who had served but a few years as a senator and who seemed closer to his male campaign aides who moved to the White House with him.

The lack of inclusion got so bad that Valerie Jarrett arranged a dinner meeting two years ago between the president and the senior female aides and Cabinet members. In the official White House photo, the tension seems to leap out of the frame. All the women but one are leaning in toward the president, staring intently at him. He is staring down at his place setting.

Is it different with a female boss?

Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to Laura Bush as the first lady stepped up her global diplomacy, reflects that she was hired and worked for a woman in the three White House administrations she served.

“Did I ever get the sense that the women’s point of view might be the better one, and it might take a while for the men to come around?” she asks. “Yes, but women were actively sought in that [Bush] administration. . . . Frances Townsend ran homeland security and ran counterterrorism. Condoleezza Rice was secretary of state,” and a key part of Bush’s brain trust, as was adviser Karen Hughes. “They were very vocal and very visible.”

If she had issues with inclusion, McBride says, they occurred with having to prove herself as a political appointee among the career diplomats at the State Department, when she worked there during the Colin Powell years.

To Diane Rehm, who hosts a daily D.C.-based current-affairs show carried on WAMU (88.5 FM) and NPR stations across the country, the conversational style differences between men and women are marked.

She has noticed over the years that if there are two female guests and one male guest in her studio, “as the woman speaks, she tends to try and look at each of them, as if she is asking for their agreement or their approval. But it’s not the opposite way around.

“The men, they have something to say, they say it pretty darn straightforwardly. They don’t look at anybody.”

As the host, she makes sure to maintain eye contact with her female guests, so they know someone in the room is hearing them.

“God, we go from A to B to C to gain that authority of voice,” she says, “and sometimes it works, and sometimes we are just shut out. And it gets exhausting!”

And if there is but one male expert and two female experts, “I see a tiny bit of deference, a tiny bit of uncertainty, a tiny bit of humoring them,” Rehm says.

When that happens, however, “I am also there, and I am the third woman.”

Over these decades, as she has earned acclaim for providing a program always cordial in its spirited discussion, Rehm has become comfortable in interrupting a male guest when he’s hogging the mike, gently. After all, “it’s my show, dammit,” she says, and laughs.

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