January 9, 2009


To Achieve Change President-Elect Obama Needs to Bet on Women

By Linda Tarr-Whelan

President-elect Obama has now moved swiftly to name talented and creative people to Cabinet-level offices and the key members of the White House team. But a nagging thought keeps coming back to me: Why isn’t he naming more women to bring our experience, creativity and energy to address the problems that face us?

Until only recently it looked like Obama’s Cabinet-level composition held only three women. But the announcement that Gov. Bill Richardson will not be taking the Commerce Secretary slot leaves an open position to fill, and one more chance for diversity.

Whereas the presidents of Chile and Spain, also elected as change candidates, appointed women to one-half of their Cabinet seats, Obama has named (including Richardson), 12 men to the 15 Cabinet-level department head positions. Leaving his team very diverse in terms of race and ethnicity — but not in gender. This is a diminished representation from both Bush presidencies and the Clinton administration.

More important than numbers is the talent that is missing and how out-of-step we are compared to the rest of the world in terms of who leads and why it matters. Since 1995 the global standard has been at least one-third women at power tables to revitalize economies and advance democratic participation.

Here we are stuck or moving backwards compared to the rest of the world. The U.S. is ranked 27th on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report and 71st in terms of women’s representation in Congress. Outside of government representation at the current rate increase it will take women 73 years to reach parity on corporate boards.

Why does Obama — and all of us — need more women making decisions? Women “get it” about the importance of education and have gone to school in droves. Women now earn 58 percent of college and master’s degrees and are at least even in professional and Ph.D programs. Women-owned businesses, despite persistent obstacles, generate sales equal to the gross domestic product of China. Women make 80 percent of the consumer decisions. As almost one-half of the workforce and the bulk of nurses and teachers, women are the secret to achieving improvements in the economy, education and health care.

Failing to maximize the power and potential of women as leaders for change is neither smart politics nor good business. Women were the majority of all voters — and with a 7 percent gender gap over men voters, the majority of Obama voters. In part that was because the campaign specifically addressed pressing problems in women’s lives where there has been little action for decades — family and work, health care, equal pay and violence.

I’ve had my time to serve in government. Based on my experience, I would recommend a plan recently presented to the Obama-Biden transition by the heads of 38 prominent women’s organization who represent 14 million women. They proposed the creation of a Cabinet-level Office on Women reporting directly to the president, an Inter-Agency Council on Women and an Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach.

As the former head of the White House Office on Women’s Concerns for President Carter, I know first-hand the importance of the coordination between the president, the administration and women across the country. In the Clinton administration, as the CEO of a nonprofit, I worked closely with Betsy Myers, later head of Women for Obama, and others who headed the Office of Women’s Outreach. All of us found it difficult to deliver the president’s agenda for women without Cabinet status. In my role as ambassador I met women ministers from around the globe and saw how their work informed progress for women and their countries and participated in the work of the very effective Inter-Agency Council on Women.

All of these offices were cut out by the Bush administration — our next President will face a clean slate and a pressing need. President-elect Obama — and all of us — will be well-served by taking on board the full recommendation of an integrated approach on women led by a Cabinet-level Office on Women.

An Obama administration will move the whole country forward when it effectively tackles existing inequities, eliminates possible disparate impacts of supposedly “gender-neutral” policies and taps the full potential of our women. Women are not a special-interest group. We are the current and future talent for the economy, the anchors for most families and the change agents for a better future.

Women have embraced the Obama call for change. Now we want to be sure it happens.

Tarr-Whelan is a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow on Women’s Leadership. Her book, “Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World” will be published in 2009. She is the former Ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage