Barack Obama is the 44th U.S. president to appoint a man as secretary of the Treasury. (Hint: There have been 44 presidents.) In fact ,he has appointed men twice: Tim Geithner in his first term and now Jack Lew. No woman has ever served in the post. Does it matter? Yeah, a lot. (Do a search for the terms “Obama,” “women,” “appointments” to see how widespread the debate and dissatisfaction is.) But it doesn’t matter for the reasons you might think.
Why? Because in a truly egalitarian society, the proportion of women appointed shouldn’t matter. In such a society, women’s influence and salaries would be equal to men’s, and women would be as likely as men to be at the top in business. In such a society, ability would be the most important criterion for appointment to senior positions in government and business.
First, as to the appointment of a new Treasury secretary: By picking Lew, Obama's chief of staff and former budget director, the president is clearly sending the message that he is pivoting from recession recovery issues to the continuing fight over the budget, spending and the deficit. In tapping Lew, he’s picking someone he has long known and trusted. I doubt gender played any role in the choice.
Reports suggest that the president has tapped Ruth Porat, chief financial officer at Morgan Stanley, to be Lew’s deputy secretary. Porat is seen as one of the most knowledgeable and able financial experts on Wall Street and will surely be the administration’s continuing eyes on the recovery. Also likely is the appointment of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Wal-Mart Foundation and former senior officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as budget director. So the Treasury will continue to have a male chief, but two very senior fiscal positions will likely be filled by women.
When it comes to gender equity, President Obama's heart is in the right place. In 2009, the first legislation he signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which extends the statute of limitations for filing an equal pay lawsuit. President Obama was also mostly correct when he said in a press conference this week that he’s proud that his administration is as diverse as any.
Here’s the gist of President Obama’s quote at that press conference: "And I intended to continue [seeking women to fill important administration positions], because it turns out when you look for the very best people, given the incredible diversity of this country, you're going to end up with a diverse staff and a diverse — a diverse team, and that very diversity helps to create more effective policy making, and better decision making for me, because it brings different perspectives to the table."
The president has also set out a detailed description of his goals and achievements on equal opportunity, saying, “I ran for president to put the same rights, the same opportunities, and the same dreams within the reach for our daughters and our sons alike.”
Is the Obama administration it as diverse as any? Close. About 36% of the Obama cabinet members are women, compared to 19% for George W. Bush’s first term. (Here’s a pretty good chart from the New York Times showing the percentage of female appointees in various executive branch departments today.) The best so far: Women represented 41% of Bill Clinton’s cabinet in his second term, according to a recent Huffington Post piece.
Despite these improvements, we’re not there — far from it in the private sector, in fact. Despite the Lilly Ledbetter Act, women still earn a bit more than 80% of male salaries for similar work. In 2010, women who worked full time had median weekly earnings of $662, or 81.4% of the $813 median for men. And in 2010, only some 14% of executive positions at Fortune 500 companies were held by women. The glass ceiling, “the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements,” clearly still exists.
So what to do?
To my mind there is no bigger national bully pulpit than the White House. Creating a diverse and egalitarian White House will be a goad to those in government and business still moving at a snail’s pace. I’m not calling for affirmative action — a good idea that has gained a bad name. I’m not calling for quotas, or even hiring goals.
What I’m calling for is a society in which what matters is your skill and ability and not your gender or race or ethnicity. We've still got a long, long way to go, and I can think of no better place to start than by making America’s most visible piece of government a shining example of what the rest of the nation should be.