President Obama’s top female White House aides earn more on average than their male counterparts, a reversal from the pattern in the George W. Bush administration, The Washington Times found in an analysis of 2011 pay records.
Top female employees on average earned nearly 4 percent more than top male employees under Mr. Obama, compared with a deficit of 12 percent under Mr. Bush.
Despite Mr. Obama’s claims of championing the plight of women in the workplace, his record at the White House on closing the gender pay gap is mixed: In a broader survey of the 121 White House employees who were paid at least $100,000, 47 are women and 74 are 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.
Mr. Obama’s record on pay equity in the White House is drawing additional scrutiny as he and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney engage in a pitched battle for female voters heading to the November election.
The president and his Democratic allies accused the GOP of launching a “war on women” this year after Republicans objected to mandated contraception coverage in the president’s national health care law. Mr. Obama’s campaign challenged Mr. Romney over his stance on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — the first legislation Mr. Obama signed into law in 2009 — which extends the window for women to sue over pay discrimination.
Mr. Obama has highlighted the gender pay gap in the workforce as evidence of discrimination that harms families and the economy. Even though women in the U.S. are increasingly becoming family breadwinners, they earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, the president said.
“So closing this pay gap, ending pay discrimination, is about far more than simple fairness,” he said during a White House women’s economic forum last month. “When more women are bringing home the bacon but bringing home less of it than men who are doing the same work, that weakens families, it weakens communities, it’s tough on our kids, it weakens our entire economy.”
Leveling the playing field
When asked about the president’s record on equal treatment for women in the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama remains committed to “a level playing field.”
“Ensuring that women receive equal pay for equal works remains a top policy priority for President Obama — and has been since the Lily Ledbetter Act was the first bill signed into law by President Obama,” he said. “As he said at a conference he recently hosted at the White House to examine how women in America are impacted by the economy, the president believes that a level playing field isn’t just good for women; it’s important for all middle-class families that rely on a woman’s salary to pay the bills.”
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.
In analyzing income data from the Obama and Bush administrations, The Times evaluated staffers with the highest White House incomes in 2011, the most recent staff salary index available, and 2003, the third year of Mr. Bush’s presidency. In the Obama administration last year, 121 staffers earned $100,000, compared with the Bush White House in 2003, when 75 people earned more than $100,000 and 46 made between $70,000 and $100,000.
Beyond the numbers
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 his inner circle.
“It’s kind of disappointing about how women have fared in the Obama White House,” said Diana Owen, a professor of political science at Georgetown University. “Putting the salary issue aside, the Bush White House had more top-staff-level people who were women and were very visible.”
The same cannot be said for Mr. Obama, Ms. Owen said.
“When [Mr. Obama] talks about women, he may be saying the right things, but he certainly is not putting them into actions when creating a staff,” she said.
Mr. Obama has been criticized for preferring male-dominated environments, such as frequent golf outings with mostly male colleagues and friends and off-hour hoops with NBA basketball stars, male Cabinet officials and congressmen.
The criticism reached a crescendo last year after Ron Suskind’s book “Confidence Men” quoted veteran Washington political adviser and former White House communications director Anita Dunn calling the White House a “hostile workplace” for women. She said the quote was taken out of context.
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.
Jennifer Lawless, who runs the Women and Politics Institute at American University, gives Mr. Obama credit for hiring more senior women and paying them better than those in previous administrations. She said voters care more about the national policies benefiting women that Mr. Obama promotes than the dynamics behind the scenes at the White House.
“The fact that Valerie Jarrett or Condi Rice is at the table doesn’t necessarily translate into better policies for women as a whole,” she said.
Aside from his White House staff, Mr. Obama has appointed women to a range of top positions, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan; health care senior aide Ms. DeParle; Mrs. Jarrett; and Ms. Barnes. But none of these women, including Mrs. Jarrett, has had the same access and influence as Ms. Rice or Karen Hughes during the Bush years.
Mr. Obama could easily shed the negative publicity about the White House as a boys club by practicing exactly what he preaches, hiring more women at the highest levels and treating them as trusted confidantes, Ms. Lawless said.
“There’s kind of an easy fix here,” she said. “It’s shocking that there’s still the perception out there of an old boys club. When you have to explain it all the time, it becomes a pattern.”