Though the president’s Cabinet is meant to expose him to a diverse set of perspectives and backgrounds, until recently, that meant diversity of geography or ideology, not diversity of gender or race. It took until 1933 for the first woman to be appointed to a Cabinet position (Labor Secretary Frances Perkins) and 1966 for the first African American (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Robert Weaver). And even since then, women and people of color have consistently been underrepresented in the Cabinet.
But Joe Biden’s administration seems determined to change that. The president-elect has chosen nine people of color1 for Cabinet-level2 posts so far and has promised that his Cabinet will be the most racially diverse in history. And with his reported nomination of former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm for secretary of energy, he has now chosen nine women (compared with eight men) to serve in these positions as well.3 According to our research, if they’re all confirmed, it would break the record for the most women ever to serve in the 25 current Cabinet-level positions.4 It also raises the possibility that Biden’s Cabinet could be the first in American history to include at least as many women as men.
But while gender parity represents progress, numeric representation in and of itself doesn’t mean that men and women have equal political power and influence. For example, women have historically been underrepresented in the “inner Cabinet” — the vice president, attorney general and secretaries of state, defense and treasury — who typically have the closest ties to the president. And although we can expect a number of firsts under Biden (the country’s first female vice president, treasury secretary and director of national intelligence5), a handful of Cabinet-level posts still have yet to be led by a woman. Historically there have just been fewer women than men in careers relevant to these roles, and those who are floated for these offices often run up against gender stereotypes that women lack the traits to succeed in them.
For example, a woman has never led the stereotypically male-dominated Department of Defense — and that is one barrier that the Biden administration will not break in 2021. Although former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy was initially considered the front-runner for defense secretary, Biden eventually opted for retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin (who, notably, would also make history as the first Black defense secretary).
Research by political scientists Tiffany Barnes and Diana O’Brien may explain why a woman has yet to hold this office. Focusing on the post-Cold War era, they found that women were less likely to be appointed as defense ministers in countries engaged in international conflicts with at least one death or where military spending is high. “Women are stereotyped as more dovish,” O’Brien told FiveThirtyEight, noting that one reason a woman hasn’t been named secretary of defense is that “our defense position fits a stereotype about conflict and war.” However, Barnes and O’Brien found that this isn’t the case everywhere: In countries that are more concerned with peacekeeping or with breaking from former military abuses of power, women are more likely to be appointed as defense minister.
These dynamics may also explain why so few women have held other national-security- or military-related Cabinet posts. President Trump’s outgoing appointee Gina Haspel is the only woman to have led the Central Intelligence Agency, and Avril Haines is slated to be the first female head of the U.S. intelligence community.6 And since the Department of Veterans Affairs became a Cabinet department in 1989, it has never been led by a woman — a streak that will continue under Biden with his appointment of Denis McDonough.
In the same vein, there has never been a female treasury secretary in 231 years of American history; Biden appointee Janet Yellen would be the first. What’s more, there are only a handful of women who have held the equivalent post in other countries with large economies.
However, ongoing research by Barnes and O’Brien has also found that women are more likely to be appointed to economic posts in precarious times, such as during, or following, a financial crisis or economic scandal. This finding is especially troubling, as they argue this phenomenon often fosters the perception that women are less effective leaders in these roles — often referred to as the “glass cliff.” And given the economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Yellen’s appointment certainly fits this pattern, making her appointment high-stakes for future female treasury secretaries.
By contrast, other Cabinet-level departments — such as the Small Business Administration, the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency — have seen more women at the helm.
This stems partly from the fact that these departments are more in line with stereotypes of female leadership or draw from career paths in which there are simply more female professionals. Women’s presumed issue expertise in areas like welfare and health care doesn’t map neatly onto all Cabinet positions filled by more women, but it’s one possible explanation for why more women are appointed to some roles and not others.
The Small Business Administration is particularly interesting in that its explicit economic focus doesn’t fit neatly into this framework. Nevertheless, almost an equal number of men (eight) and women (seven) have led it since 1977, making it the Cabinet position that has historically come the closest to gender equality.7
Similarly, six of the 13 labor secretaries since Jimmy Carter’s administration have been women — and, as we mentioned at the outset, the first woman to ever serve in a president’s Cabinet, Perkins, was tasked with running the Labor Department. Perkins was an advocate for workers’ rights in this position and helped implement aspects of the New Deal, including unemployment insurance, child-labor laws and other protections for workers like a minimum wage. Even today, more than 80 years later, this department is concerned with safeguarding workers, which increasingly includes fair employment practices and a more female workforce. This, in turn, might help explain why women often head this agency, as research has shown that they are often perceived as better able to handle these issues, and, in fact, have had an impact in these roles.
So while you may think that Biden didn’t appoint enough women to his inner Cabinet, or that the lack of women leading stereotypically masculine departments continues to be a problem, Biden’s appointment of a record number of women does matter. Picking more women as Cabinet officials has a snowball effect. As Barnes told us, “Once you start on a trajectory of nominating more women, it’s hard to roll it back.”
And, as you saw in the first chart, administrations tend to maintain (or closely maintain) the momentum of the previous administration, a phenomenon often referred to as the “concrete floor.” For instance, Carter started his administration with two female Cabinet members, Ronald Reagan with two, George H.W. Bush with three, Bill Clinton with five, George W. Bush with four and Barack Obama with eight. (Granted, Trump represented a step back, starting his administration with just four women in his Cabinet.) But, generally speaking, the more opportunities women see available in leadership roles, the greater their motivation will become to pursue professional opportunities. In turn, the more women who populate these pipelines to power, the better-positioned they will be to assume political leadership.
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