Offices Can Be Sexist Even When They're Oval

Female White House staffers felt marginalized and that Obama wouldn't do much about it

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Female White House staffers felt marginalized by male colleagues who were -- perhaps unintentionally -- sexist, they confessed to Ron Suskind in hours of interviews for his book on President Obama's economic team, Confidence Men. Former White House communications director Anita Dunn called it a "hostile workplace," and Christina Romer, former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said she felt like "a piece of meat." Now, unsurprisingly, they're trying to walk those statements back. But what is surprising is that they're not walking back the comments all that much.

The male staffers who don't come off so well in Suskind's book -- and not just for office politics reasons -- are aggressively attacking it. "I lived the original, and the reality I lived -- we all lived together -- bears no relation to the sad little stories I heard reported from that book," Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told ABC's Jake Tapper. As Suskind told The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz:

"The White House's position is books like this are the last thing they want. It's an unmanaged expression or rendering of their life and the life of the White House, so right now they're trying to rein everybody in, give them their message cards, and say 'just read this' and then vanish."

But the women aren't being reined in quite so much. "I can't imagine that I ever said this," Romer said. Dunn said her quote was taken out of context, so Suskind played the audio recording for The Washington Post's Peter Wallsten and Anne E. Kornblut:

"I remember once I told Valerie [Jarrett, senior adviser to Obama] that, I said if it weren't for the president, 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."

Jarrett tells the Post that she went to Obama with the female staffers' concerns, and he hosted a dinner with them November 5, 2009, to hear them out. She says she told the president, "Look, I think that we have some issues with making people, particularly the new women, a part of the team and giving them a better sense of you and how you value their opinion." The issues? Women weren't invited to meetings, and in the ones they did go to, they felt ignored by Obama. There were clashes with National Economic Council director Larry Summers and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Though Obama was a sympathetic listener, Suskind told Kurtz -- and you can see Obama sympathetically listening in the photo above; below, he gives Michelle Obama's chief of staff, Susan Sher, a fist bump of encouragement at the dinner:

But the women felt "deflated" afterward because "there was not more action, maybe, not more of what some bosses might do, calling in some of the participants and having a hard word with them." Obama told them that Summers and Emanual "are important people to me, and I need these guys."

Though the complaints of sexism seem real, there also seems to be just a teeny bit of subtle sexism the reporting on sexism -- the women staffers felt "left out" like schoolgirls on the outs with their clique, instead of marginalized like grownups in a competitive work environment. They felt "overpowered" with their tiny little woman arms. That portrayal doesn't really fit in with this quote from Suskind's book, when Elizabeth Warren was convincing Romer that the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should be a tough regulator: "Why is it always the women?" Warren asked. "Why are we the only ones with the balls around here?"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.