This blog was updated on January 13, 2021.

First President from First State Produces Many Firsts

By Isabella Epstein and Paul Hitlin

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to form a diverse administration that would “look like America.” His choices for leadership positions would make his Cabinet the most diverse in the country’s history.

President-elect Biden has announced 24 people to fill Cabinet-level positions as determined by The Washington Post. Of those, 17 are identified as women, people of color or LGBTQ. He has also announced 11 nominees to other positions requiring Senate approval, many of whom will be the first women or people of color to hold their posts. These nominations include the historic election of Kamala Harris as the first woman, African American and South Asian American vice president. Pending Senate confirmation, the Biden team will include among its leaders:

Undoubtedly, the racial, gender and sexual identities of the Biden team are only some measures of diversity. Many stakeholders are looking to different or specific individual metrics to assess the diversity of Biden’s cabinet. And, despite the symbolism of his appointments, the federal government has a long path ahead in its pursuit of comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion at every level. For example, only 22% of those in the Senior Executive Service – the elite corps of career civil servants responsible for leading the federal workforce – identify as people of color, compared with about 40% of the U.S. population.

Recognizing this issue, presidents before Trump increasingly prioritized diversity in their initial Cabinets. A New York Times study compares initial Cabinet appointments:

Beyond creating a government that represents the country’s population, diversity enhances the decision-making process. As a Harvard Business Review article suggests, diversity precludes groupthink, encourages debate and improves strategic thinking. Thus, differences in background, opinion and perspective can produce better policy outcomes. As the Partnership for Public Service’s DEI statement explains, “The work of diversity, equity and inclusion is a challenging, continuous journey that demands humility, empathy and growth.”

Considering these factors, President-elect Biden’s Cabinet picks are historic.

By Paul Hitlin

August 18, 2020, will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote. While this conferred a decisive role for women at the ballot box, it has not yet opened all doors for them to participate in every element of the federal government.

Women have filled many essential jobs, yet there are still important leadership positions that have never been held by a woman. For example, not only has no president or vice president been female, but three Cabinet agencies have never had a woman secretary: the departments of the Treasury, Defense and Veterans Affairs.

The following are 12 important positions in the federal government that have never been filled by a woman.

  1. President – None of the 44 individuals who served as president have been women. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in 2016.
  2. Vice president – Only two vice presidential nominees of major political parties have been women: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has announced he will select a woman to be his running mate in 2020.
  3. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Twenty men and no women have filled the most senior position in the U.S. armed forces since its creation in 1949.
  4. Chief Justice of Supreme Court Only four justices in the 230-year history of the Supreme Court have been women, and none have been appointed chief justice.
  5. Chief of Staff to the President – Since President Harry Truman appointed the first chief of staff in 1946 – called the assistant to the president at the time – none of the 29 people to hold this position have been women.
  6. Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – The first leader of the FBI was appointed in 1908, and none of the 20 directors (including those in an acting capacity) have been women.
  7. Director of National Intelligence – All six people to hold the Cabinet-level position since it was created in 2004 have been men.
  8. Director of the National Security Agency – Women have never held the highest-ranking position in the NSA since the intelligence agency was founded in 1952.
  9. Secretary of Defense The Department of Defense has never been led by a woman since its inception in 1947. No woman has been confirmed to be deputy secretary of defense either, although Christine Fox was named acting deputy secretary in 2013.
  10. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was the first in this position in 1789, and none of the 76 secretaries who followed have been women.
  11. Secretary of Veterans Affairs The Department of Veterans Affairs was formed in 1989, and all 10 of the Senate-confirmed officials who led the agency have been men.  
  12. Senate Majority Leader No Senate majority leader has been female since that role was created in 1925. In fact, no Senate minority leader has been a woman during that period either.

This list is not exhaustive. Other important positions such as the NASA administrator and secretary of the Army also have not been held by a woman. Some positions have only had a woman official recently. For example, Gina Haspel became the first female director of the CIA when she was confirmed in 2018.

As the country prepares to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment, women who have served as leaders of our democracy deserve recognition and appreciation. At the same time, their absence from key positions in government, and thus from critical conversations in domestic and foreign policy, is worth highlighting.

Extensive research indicates diverse and inclusive teams produce better outcomes, and that well-qualified women are ready to lead. While the last 100 years has witnessed some progress, more work needs to be done to ensure the top levels of our government resembles the country it serves. To learn more about the role women have played in national security, listen to our Transition Lab podcast.

Women are vastly underrepresented in leadership roles within the federal government and in national security fields. In this Transition Lab episode, Jamie Jones Miller, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, and Nina Hachigian, a former U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, talk to host David Marchick about their own careers in government, how they handled uncomfortable situations and the importance of bringing more women into leadership positions. Both women are members of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, an organization dedicated to improving gender diversity in the national security field.   

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked how Miller felt when she was the only woman present when decisions were being made. 

Miller: “I was aware of it. I was aware I was the only woman in the room. That carries with it a certain burden. You want to perform well because you’re carrying the weight of all of the other women who want to be in the room and who should be in the room…And then I start to think about how I get more women…at the table. So I’ve made it. Great. I’m aware of it, but how do I open the door for others?” 

Marchick asked how the women handled situations when male colleagues were dismissive. “How would you approach it to reduce tensions, but also stand your ground?” 

Hachigian: “It helps to have some seniority and to be older. I wouldn’t suggest to younger women to just let it go…I think men don’t often realize what they’re saying can be offensive. It’s partly educating your colleagues to become allies.” 

Miller: “It is not just the responsibility of the woman in the room to point that out or to correct the behavior. It is the responsibility of everyone in the room to build that culture of awareness and to point out behavior that is not appropriate and not productive or not welcome in the workplace.” 

Marchick asked about the work of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security and how the organization hopes to get more women in important federal government positions. 

Miller: We are compiling a database of women who are qualified for the most senior Senate confirmed roles. We want to be sure that we have a women of color. We’re also putting together advice about how (an administration) can hire diverse teams, some of the tricks of the trade. And I’m holding a series of webinars for women who are interested in advice about the appointments process.” 

Marchick asked what the data show regarding organizations that have diverse workforces. 

Hachigian: “The data show that diverse groups in leadership are more creative. They’re more innovative. They’re more likely to avoid group think. Women in Congress are judged to be as or more effective than their male colleagues, for example. And in the private sector, we have all kinds of data that show literally that firms are more profitable and that their turnover is less when there are women in management. But the point is that if you have different points of view to bring, you’re likely to get better results.”  

Marchick asked about Mitt Romney being ridiculed during the 2012 presidential campaign for saying he had “binders full of women” when in fact he was making a concerted effort to find qualified women to serve in his Cabinet and other important government positions. 

Miller: “Knowing what we know today, it is a best practice…to be intentional about finding a diverse slate of candidates. I have to give Romney credit for that. It sounds like there was the game plan and a process. Unfortunately I think `binders full of women’ became a quote that everybody seemed to be using and throwing around.”  

Marchick asked Hachigian if she had advice for young women seeking mentors. 

Hachigian: “Older people who have had some experience love to talk to younger people about their careers and really love to help. And so it really is just a matter of asking for some time to talk through  your career, what you’re looking for in life and to ask advice and then just to keep up those relationships. That most often happened for me with people I’ve worked for and who I’ve kept in touch with, but it could be a professor or others. 

Marchick asked Miller which parts of the government have done a good job promoting women and creating more opportunities and which have not? 

Miller: “Capitol Hill is a great place for women, especially today in that there are a number of congressional staff organizations dedicated to helping grow women professionally. My experience in the executive branch is limited to the Department of Defense. The most senior women in the department made a very concerted effort to get to know the younger political appointees and staff members, but those things were all led internally. We had to make those things happen.” 

Marchick asked Hachigian about the opportunities for women at the State Department. 

Hachigian: “I do think they’re trying, but as far as I can tell, the number of women in senior management hovers around 30%, so it’s not great. There’s no pipeline problem…People are entering  the Foreign Service at about a 50-50 ratio. It’s just that they (women) fall out of the system for a variety of reasons. I think they’re trying, but we need to see more progress.” 

Marchick noted that the CIA conducted a diversity study several years ago and found gender parity for entry-level jobs, but anemic numbers for those with 10 years of experience. He asked what causes women to leave. 

Hachigian: “I think there’s a variety of reasons…It could be a sense that they’re not getting promoted and so they feel like this is a dead end. For some, they’ve encountered serious problems of harassment or assault. For some, it’s just being overlooked or not being heard. I think for some there’s the problem of balancing childcare responsibilities. There’s not good leave parental leave policies at all.” 

As we mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, it is clear women have made progress at all levels of government. Officials such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during George W. Bush’s administration, senior advisor Valerie Jarrett during Barack Obama’s administration, and Gina Haspel, CIA director since 2018, have shaped history through their public service.

The past 100 years have also marked a shift in the federal government, with each presidential administration relying more on its advisors, or “A-Team.” Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow of Governance Studies Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, in her new study, “The President’s Advisors: An Analysis of Women on the President’s ‘A-Team’” found that women have made up less than one fourth of this influential group during the past 36 years.

Tenpas quotes presidential scholar Bradley Patterson, who explains the importance of the presidents’ advice-givers. “Staff members have zero legal authority in their own right, yet 100 percent of presidential authority passes through their hands.”

These advisors serve as content filters for the president, informing every decision they make. The team is critically important, but even today, these advisors are overwhelmingly male.

Tenpas analyzes the National Journal’s list of “Decision Makers,” which outlines the most influential members of a president’s team, to create her A-team of the advisory positions that have consistently played a key role in the past five administrations—from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. Here’s what she learned about the A-teams that served from 1981 to 2017:

While women have earned more seats at the table – in 1981, only 5% of Reagan’s A-team members were women versus 34% in 2009 during the Obama administration—Tenpas’ research shows there’s still much progress to be made towards equality.

Though slow progress is better than no progress, women remain dramatically underrepresented in presidential advisory roles. As the presidential candidates consider who will influence their administration beginning in 2021, it’s important that their advisors adequately reflect the country they serve.