After Tuesday’s town hall debate, President Obama is playing up his record on women’s issues and ridiculing Mitt Romney for his “binders full of women” comment, but Mr. Obama has a mixed record when it comes to hiring women at the White House.
Team Obama clearly believes he thumped Mr. Romney on the question of equal pay and job opportunities for women.
“Mitt Romney still won’t say whether he’d stand up for equal pay, but he did tell us he has ‘binders full of women,’ ” Mr. Obama tweeted Wednesday morning, and his campaign later hosted a press call with equal pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter and Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood.
Although Mr. Romney has had several opportunities, he still hasn’t said whether he believes the government should give women legal protections for pay equity, but during the debate he talked up his commitment to hiring several senior women staffers while governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Romney said he went to a “number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
The binders comment immediately turned into a viral parody on social media networks and even had its own Twitter account with more than 12,000 followers by the end of the debate.
Later Wednesday in Iowa, when talking about his commitment to education and hiring more teachers, the president hammered Mr. Romney again on the binder comment.
“We don’t have to collect a bunch of binders to find talented qualified young women” for these fields, Mr. Obama said.
But President Obama’s own record on closing the gender pay gap is less than stellar. Using late 2011 figures, the latest available at the time, The Washington Times earlier this year surveyed 121 White House employees who were paid at least $100,000 and found that 47 were women and 74 were men. That is only slightly better than in 2003, the third year of the Bush administration, when 39 of the top 121 employees were women.
When all White House employees are considered, the Obama administration’s record dims a bit further. Female employees earn a median salary of $60,000, roughly 18 percent less than men, whose median salary is $71,000.
While Mr. Obama has taken steps to ensure that senior women in the White House on average make as much or more than men, he has not dramatically increased the number of women at the highest levels compared with those serving under Mr. Bush.
In the highest-paid positions when Mr. Bush was in office — aides making $151,000 — four of 14 were women: Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser; Harriet Miers, a deputy chief of staff; Dina Powell, an assistant to the president for personnel; and Mary Spellings, an assistant for domestic policy.
In 2011, Mr. Obama had seven women compared with 14 men making the top White House salary — $172,000 — an increase of three women in the top ranks from the Bush administration’s third year. Those women are: Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser; Melody Barnes, director of domestic policy; Stephanie Cutter, who served as deputy senior adviser before moving to the campaign; Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco, deputy chiefs of staff; Kathryn Ruemmler, White House counsel; and Christina Tchen, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
And statistics don’t tell the whole story. Despite progress on closing pay disparities and hiring women for senior roles, the president has incurred persistent criticism that women in his White House for the most part are kept out of the inner circle.
The same woman who was one of Mr. Obama’s debate coaches, Anita Dunn, complained that the White House when she worked there would have been in court for being a “hostile workplace” for women, according to Ron Suskind’s book “Confidence Men.” Ms. Dunn says she was misquoted.
Even though some of his brashest, testosterone-pumped aides such as Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley, his two former chiefs of staffs schooled in in-your-face, Chicago-style politics, have left the White House, and David Axelrod, his senior adviser, has moved on to the campaign, the president has faced a nagging perception of the White House as an exclusive boys club.
Mrs. Jarrett is undeniably one of Mr. Obama’s closest and most influential advisers, but since the first year Mr. Obama took office, he has struggled to dispel the notion that women were taking a back seat to men in influencing the president. At one point in late 2009, women in the White House felt so marginalized that Mr. Obama held a dinner to let the senior female aides voice their complaints directly to him.