BREAKING WHITE HOUSE’S GLASS CEIL­ING

For decades, women have fought to be present and heard in key de­ci­sion-mak­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - GPS - JULIET EILPERIN

WHEN U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama took of­fice, two-thirds of his top aides were men. Women com­plained of hav­ing to el­bow their way into im­por­tant meet­ings. And when they got in, their voices were some­times ig­nored.

So fe­male staffers adopted a meet­ing strat­egy they called “am­pli­fi­ca­tion”: when a woman made a key point, other women would re­peat it, giv­ing credit to its au­thor. This forced the men in the room to rec­og­nize the con­tri­bu­tion — and de­nied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.

“We just started do­ing it, and made a pur­pose of do­ing it. It was an ev­ery­day thing,” said one for­mer Obama aide who re­quested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama no­ticed, she and oth­ers said, and be­gan call­ing more of­ten on women and ju­nior aides.

For decades, women have strug­gled to crack the code of power in the White House, where gru­elling hours, hy­per-ag­gres­sive col­leagues and lack of ac­cess to the boss have proved chal­leng­ing to women from both par­ties. The West Wing is also home to the ul­ti­mate glass ceil­ing: men have had a lock on the Oval Of­fice for more than 200 years.

That could change if Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton pre­vails in Novem­ber. Not only would she break a gen­der bar­rier by win­ning the pres­i­dency, she also could bring in a fe­male chief of staff — an­other first in the White House — like she did as first lady, as a sen­a­tor and as Obama’s sec­re­tary of state.

Dur­ing Obama’s sec­ond term, women gained par­ity with men in the pres­i­dent’s in­ner cir­cle; Clin­ton has ac­tu­ally had women out­num­ber men within her se­nior staff at times dur­ing her gov­ern­ment ca­reer. GOP nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump has in­stalled some fe­male man­agers while work­ing in the male-dom­i­nated con­struc­tion in­dus­try and has at least three women play­ing se­nior roles in his cam­paign.

The White House is un­like any work­place in America. Power is de­fined by prox­im­ity to a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual: the pres­i­dent. Be­ing “in the room” — whether it’s the Oval Of­fice or the 7:30 a.m. se­nior staff meet­ing where the chief of staff hashes out the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s top pri­or­i­ties — is cru­cial to ex­ert­ing in­flu­ence.

And the job is a con­stant race against the clock: pres­i­dents have as few as four years to pur­sue an agenda and ce­ment a legacy. Burnout is en­demic, and top White House aides typ­i­cally leave after less than three years.

“Given the short pe­riod you are in the White House, you lever­age ev­ery minute to en­sure that you can be there, fully com­mit­ted and to­tally present,” said Juleanna Glover, who served as press sec­re­tary to vice-pres­i­dent Richard Cheney dur­ing pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s first term.

Women of­ten strug­gle just to get a foot in the door. Pres­i­dents typ­i­cally select their most se­nior ad­vis­ers from the male-dom­i­nated ranks of their cam­paigns. As late as the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion, the only women work­ing in the West Wing were sec­re­taries — and they were barred from din­ing with men in the White House mess.

“Re­gard­less of the weather, we had to slog out to any hole in the wall we could find,” re­called Patty Her­man, who worked there un­til she met and mar­ried Ge­orge Her­man, the White House cor­re­spon­dent for CBS. “Now, I un­der­stand, that’s changed.”

Once your foot is in the door, you have to get a seat at the ta­ble. Anne Wexler, who served as Jimmy Carter’s as­sis­tant for pub­lic out­reach, com­plained chief of staff Hamil­ton Jor­dan never in­vited her to a key daily meet­ing where aides of­fered ideas to the pres­i­dent, even though Jor­dan pub­licly de­scribed Wexler as “the most com­pe­tent woman in Demo­cratic pol­i­tics.”

“Per­son­ally, I never spent a great deal of time with the pres­i­dent,” Wexler said in a 1980 interview for Carter’s pres­i­den­tial li­brary. “I think that was a mis­take on (Carter’s) part.”

Bon­nie New­man got a job in the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion in 1981 after play­ing squash with He­lene von Damm, who had acted as Ron­ald Rea­gan’s per­sonal sec­re­tary since the 1960s. Although von Damm had “ac­cess and prox­im­ity” to the pres­i­dent, New­man re­called, “There weren’t a whole lot of other women” in the West Wing: “So when you looked around, you looked a lit­tle out of place.”

In Bill Clin­ton’s pres­i­dency, sev­eral women gained greater in­flu­ence, in­clud­ing the first lady, who spear­headed Clin­ton’s sig­na­ture health-care re­form ini­tia­tive. But Hil­lary Clin­ton re­treated to a more tra­di­tional role after the ini­tia­tive foundered. And the pres­i­dent’s af­fair with in­tern Mon­ica Lewin­sky served to un­der­mine his claims of gen­der progress.

In the early days of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the West Wing was a well-doc­u­mented bas­tion of testos­terone, due largely to the dom­i­nat­ing roles of men such as chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, and then-eco­nomic ad­viser Lawrence Sum­mers. At a din­ner in Novem­ber 2009, sev­eral se­nior fe­male aides com­plained to the pres­i­dent men en­joyed greater ac­cess and of­ten mus­cled them out of key pol­icy dis­cus­sions.

“If you didn’t come in from the cam­paign, it was a tough cir­cle to break into,” said Anita Dunn, who left her post as White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor shortly after that meet­ing. Dunn says it was a mat­ter of sim­ple math: “Given the makeup of the cam­paign, there were just more men than women.”

The at­mos­phere has changed con­sid­er­ably in Obama’s sec­ond term. Many of the orig­i­nal play­ers have moved on. To­day, Obama’s clos­est aides — the ones who sit in the 7:30 a.m. meet­ing and earn the top White House salary of US$176,461 a year — are equally di­vided be­tween men and women. Over­all, the av­er­age man still earns about 16 per cent more than the av­er­age woman. But half of all White House de­part­ments — from the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to the Of­fice of Leg­isla­tive Af­fairs — are headed by women.

“I think hav­ing a crit­i­cal mass makes a dif­fer­ence,” said White House se­nior ad­viser Va­lerie Jar­rett, who came in with the pres­i­dent and re­mains one of his top aides. “It’s fair to say that there was a lot of testos­terone flow­ing in those early days. Now we have a lit­tle more es­tro­gen that pro­vides a coun­ter­bal­ance.”

Na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Susan Rice also has served through­out Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. In pre­vi­ous po­si­tions, Rice said, she had to push to get into key gath­er­ings. “It’s not pleas­ant to have to ap­peal to a man to say, ‘In­clude me in that meet­ing,’” she said.

Now, said Do­mes­tic Pol­icy Coun­cil di­rec­tor Ce­cilia Muñoz, “The folks who were jock­ey­ing to get into meet­ings or strug­gling over man­i­fests are just kind of not around any­more.”

To­day, “If we’re not in the room,” Rice said of her­self and other se­nior fe­male ad­vis­ers, “it’s not happening.”

Sec­ond terms have tra­di­tion­ally served as a crit­i­cal pe­riod for women, an op­por­tu­nity to move up after the men move out. After Obama’s re-elec­tion, Jen­nifer Palmieri re­placed Dan Pfeif­fer as com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor. She re­mem­bers the mo­ment the pres­i­dent ex­pressed his con­fi­dence in her and shared his high ex­pec­ta­tions.

“This is it, you’re in the room. There is no other room: this is the Oval Of­fice,” Palmieri re­calls him say­ing. “You’re here for a rea­son, and I want to know what you think.”

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