Does Sexism Pervade the White House?

Former female officials say no time for chauvinism in high-stakes workplace

ByABC News
September 19, 2011, 6:07 PM

Sept. 20, 2011 — -- President Obama, who rose to power on a message of inclusion and equality, came under fire this week when an author quoted female members of his administration as saying the White House was a sexist and "hostile" work environment.

Since excerpts leaked from the book "Confidence Men," journalist Ron Suskind's take on how the Obama administration handled the financial crisis, Anita Dunn, former White House communications director, and Christina Romer, former head of the Council of Economic Advisers, have denied the substance of their remarks and said they were misquoted.

"I felt like a piece of meat," Romer was quoted in the book as saying of one meeting with Larry Summers, former chairman of the National Economic Council, complaining she was "boxed out" of the discussion.

According to the Washington Post, Dunn says in the book: "This place would be in court for a hostile workplace because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women."

The two women seemed to briefly open a window on the White House, giving a rare glimpse inside a tightly messaged administration, only to quickly close it. Accusations, however, that Obama favors male staffers have dogged him since his election when reporters noticed he spent critical face time on the basketball court and the golf course exclusively with men.

But the whispers about how the Obama administration works behind the scenes contrast sharply with the president's public persona, the father of two daughters who appointed two women to the Supreme Court, and six women to cabinet or cabinet-equivalent positions.

Women, both Democrats and Republicans, who have worked in the White House in previous administrations describe the environment as intense and competitive. Interviews with female officials who worked under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush said White House culture rewards the best ideas regardless of who came up with them.

Though they haven't worked in the Obama White House, these female ex-officials said they were surprised by the way Dunn and Romer were quoted as characterizing their workplace. They said they did not experience workplace harassment or sexism and were inclined to believe Dunn and Romer had indeed been misquoted.

"I can't speak to what goes on in Obama White House," said Sara Taylor, the White House political director in the Bush White House, "but politics is a survival of the fittest business. If you're good, you do well and if you're not, you don't. Sex isn't really an issue."

In fact, Taylor said, she found a post-White House career in corporate America to be far more sexist than life outside the Oval Office.

"I always say that I used to think sexism was dead until I got into the corporate world," she said.

Another Bush official, Torie Clarke, the former Pentagon spokeswoman, said White House officials can't afford to be sexist – the stakes are too high.

"The pressure is so great to get the job done. It didn't matter if you were male, female, black or white," she said.

Even those serving under Bill Clinton, who admitted to breaking the rules when engaging in sexual activity with intern Monica Lewinsky, said on the on the whole sexism wasn't an issue in the White House.

"In my experience, I never saw [sexist behavior]," said Melinda Romash who worked for former Vice President Al Gore. "But I understand why people say it."

Suskind, in an interview on NBC today, defended his book.

"Everyone is under a great deal of pressure, it's a political season. The fact of the matter is all of them said everything. We have extensive tapes and notes for this book. With Anita [Dunn], the Washington Post this morning confirmed the quote… I let the Washington Post listen to the tapes, there it is, clear as a bell."

Pressed on whether he took Dunn's quote out of context, Suskind said he called Dunn to confirm the substance of the quote and she confirmed it before publishing.

Suskind said that the White House had actually pushed him to write about women in the workplace, believing that the president had solved this issue in his adminstration.