Were the first years of Obama’s White House hell for the women who worked there? According to Ron Suskind’s new book, “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President”, the early days were tough times for female staffers.

Suskind’s book alleges that women working in the White House were not pleased with the testosterone driven culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.- a culture lead mainly by strong male personalities like Rahm Emmanuel. “Confidence Men” claims staffers felt alienated and left out in meetings where at one point, footballs being tossed around during briefings was a regular occurrence.

Ruth Graham of The Grindstone writes that though the initial quotes from the book made Obama’s White House seem like a hostile environment for women, that the quotes needed to be put in further context. She writes:

First, it’s important to note the full text of Dunn’s widely quoted accusation that the White House was a “genuinely hostile workplace to women.” That certainly got my attention — it became the headline of the post I wrote yesterday about this. But today Dunn’s full quote emerges, and it makes clear that Obama himself was not the problem: “I remember once I told Valerie [Jarrett] that, I said if it weren’t for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” Dunn says in Suskind’s recording of their interview. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.” [Emphasis added.]

At first, the president dismissed the complaints on the grounds that the White House was a naturally competitive, intense environment. In other words, the women would just have to deal with it if they wanted to thrive.

That’s when senior advisor Valerie Jarrett came to the rescue. As she relays it, “I said, ‘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.’ ”


Indeed Valerie Jarrett’s roles seems to be the true high point of the story as the Washington Post reports she was the first to address the tension directly with the President.  After hearing similar concerns from several female staffers, Jarrett raised them with President Obama and changes were made.

Those tensions prompted Obama, urged on by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, to elevate more women into senior White House positions, recognize them more during staff meetings and increase the female presence in the upper ranks of the reelection campaign. “There were some issues early on with women feeling as though they hadn’t figured out what their role was going to be on the senior team at the White House,” Jarrett said in an interview Monday. “Most of the women hadn’t worked on the campaign, and so they didn’t have a personal relationship with the president.”


The situation in Obama’s White House seems to show that sexism can surface in even the most enlightened environments if the fraternity culture is left unchecked. Still, it seems without a female senior advisor close enough in the ear of President Obama that other female staffers could have seen the frat environment continue.

What do you think about the tension for female staffers in the White House? Expected for high-pressure environment or unacceptable anywhere? Tell us what you think Clutchettes and gents- weigh in!

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  • I would like to hear more about the incidents, the information given here makes it seem that the women didn’t want to be a part of an competitive environment.

    • The WaPo article linked gives an example.

    • Yeah I read it but from what I gathered from it was this was more of an old guard not being accommodating to the new “kids”. The biggest complaints was about being ignored and the competitive environment at the White House. This tell me that the source of the “hostile” atmosphere wasn’t just necessarily gender based but an establish culture set by veterans and were incoming minds were having trouble adjusting. The President was great in making room for those minds and making them feel part of the team. But I don’t like the way this whole thing has been laid out in the press as if women were being attacked in the white house for being women or the alternative that the women were incapable of competing and fitting in with the culture, so they needed to be rescued, as if they needed their hands held.

  • Angelica

    I’m just glad he rectified it.

    • Angelica

      And I believe that such a culture probably existed. It’s not uncommon for people of a majority or with power (men to women, Whites to minorities, Westerners to “Third Worlders” etc. ) to not *see* how they are being exclusive.

  • Kudos to Jarrett for speaking up on behalf of the others, she could very well have not said anything since she was already well respected.