Female staff in Obama White House felt edged out: New book

September 20th, 2011 - 10:06 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama Washington, Sep 20 (IANS) Senior female aides in the White House felt threatened by the men who had greater access to President Barack Obama in the first two years of his office, according to revelations in a new book.

The friction about the roles of women in the Obama White House grew so intense that he was forced to take steps to reassure the senior women staff that he valued their presence and their input.

This is revealed in a controversial new book, “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President,” by journalist Ron Suskind, writes the Washington Post.

In fact, the tensions grew to such a level that at a dinner in November 2009, several senior female aides complained directly to the president that men enjoyed greater access to him and often edged them out of key policy discussions.

The tensions prompted Obama, urged by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, to place more women into senior White House positions, give them more recognition during staff meetings and increase the female presence in the upper ranks of the re-election campaign.

“There were some issues early on with women feeling as though they hadn’t figured out what their role was going to be on the senior team at the White House,” Jarrett said in an interview Monday.

The book is based on more than 700 hours of interviews, including one with Obama. It quotes a number of top officials describing a difficult work environment at the time for women, due largely to the dominating roles of male officials such as economics adviser Lawrence H. Summers and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the daily writes.

The acknowledgment Monday by White House officials of discontent among high-level female staffers in the early days came even as Obama aides tried to paint the book as inaccurate.

One of the quotes in the book is from former White House communications director Anita Dunn, who was reported as saying “This place would be in court for a hostile workplace”.

However, Dunn says she was quoted out of context.

Other episodes were relayed to Suskind by Christina Romer, former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Romer is quoted by Suskind as saying, after being excluded by Summers at a meeting, “I felt like a piece of meat.”

The complaints began circulating early.

In interviews at the time, female officials complained that top aides fuelled the high-testosterone atmosphere. Footballs were occasionally thrown during staff meetings, by one account, and rough language abounded.

Obama convened a dinner with women on staff. It took place in the White House residence on the night of Nov. 5, 2009 - just hours after a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas.

“I really want you guys to talk to me about this openly because recently there has been this suggestion that there are some issues here,” Obama said, according to Suskind’s account of the session. “I’d like to know how you guys feel.”

The complaints seemed to subside over the last year, the Post writes, as officials made a greater effort to promote women.

The 2012 re-election team includes two senior women, deputy campaign managers Julianna Smoot and Jen O’Malley Dillon. At the White House, Alyssa Mastromonaco, Obama’s former scheduler, and former health care czar Nancy-Ann DeParle have been promoted to deputy chiefs of staff. Stephanie Cutter is now in a senior communications role. The White House counsel as well is a woman.

Melody Barnes, Obama’s top domestic policy adviser who this year took on a wider role dealing with health care and energy, said that the president and other officials, “including myself, have made great efforts to make sure women have prominent seats at the table,” the daily writes.

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