Does the Obama Administration Have a Woman Problem?

The president comes under fire and defends his track record of hiring women.

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President Obama with United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As he decides who will be appointed to head the Federal Reserve, President Obama is once again hearing whispers of a spotty track record when it comes to appointing women. The loudest whisper can be found in the New York Times, which notes the strides Obama has taken toward gender balance in his Cabinet, but takes him to task for not doing enough.

The White House has taken steps to even its gender balance in recent months with high-profile nominations like Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations and Susan E. Rice as national security adviser. But by most measures of gender diversity, including the proportion of women at the cabinet level, the executive branch looks little different from 20 years ago, even as the House of Representatives, the Senate and corporate America have placed significantly more women in senior roles.

Obama's next test is in his appointment of the leader of the Federal Reserve, a Cabinet position designated to handle the all-important issue of the economy.

Mr. Obama is choosing from a small pool of candidates for the Federal Reserve position — probably the most important economic appointment he will make in his second term. The finalists include Ms. Yellen, the Fed's current vice chairwoman and a former Clinton administration official. The favored candidate among several top Obama aides is Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and Obama economic adviser.

But should he choose to name Lawrence Summers over Janet L. Yellen, Obama still can defend his record of hiring women by pointing to his judicial appointments. Overall, his record of hiring women for executive positions in the White House falls right in the middle of his two predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama has also put a record number of women in judicial slots, including two on the Supreme Court. Women make up about 42 percent of confirmed judges appointed by Mr. Obama, compared with 22 percent appointed by George W. Bush and 29 percent by Bill Clinton.

Yet the ratio of men to women in the administration is where it was two decades ago, if not a little more heavily male. The Obama administration has a smaller proportion of women in top positions than the Clinton administration did in its second term, for instance. Women hold about 35 percent of cabinet-level posts, compared with 41 percent for Mr. Clinton and 24 percent for Mr. Bush at similar points in their presidencies.

But even with those numbers, and the nominations of Samantha Power (United Nations ambassador) and Susan Rice (national security adviser), critics note after the resignations of Hillary Clinton (secretary of state) and Hilda L. Solis (labor secretary), Obama filled those positions with men.

Mr. Obama himself responded to the criticism. "I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they've seen all my appointments, who is in the White House staff and who is in my cabinet, before they rush to judgment," he said at a news conference in January as he was starting his second term. "Until you've seen what my overall team looks like, it's premature to assume that somehow we're going backwards. We're not going backwards, we're going forward."

Since those remarks, he has named a series of women to top posts, including for interior secretary, commerce secretary, budget director and director of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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