A Cabinet That Looks Like America

With Kamala Harris and 11 women nominees, seven of them women of color, President Joe Biden’s Cabinet will be, as he promised, “the single-most diverse … that’s ever existed.”

When approved, 48% of President Biden’s Cabinet will be women—the most in U.S. history. (Graphic free to reuse with proper accreditation: Richard Bronshvag / Ms. magazine)

In 1992, shortly before he first took office as president, Bill Clinton was the target of a campaign led by the Feminist Majority pressuring him to appoint more women to his Cabinet. Outraged, Clinton derided the feminists as “bean counters” more interested in quotas than quality, and, he retorted, “I think I’m doing a good job” (at that point, he had nominated two women to Cabinet positions).

Nearly three decades later, feminists are still counting—and President Joe Biden’s Cabinet adds up.

Like politics in general, U.S. presidential Cabinets have typically been dominated by white men. Women have never represented more than eight of the 24 or 25 Cabinet or Cabinet-rank positions, and people of color are even less likely to occupy these posts.

Biden pledged to disrupt this pattern by appointing the most diverse Cabinet “that’s ever existed in the United States.” He is keeping true to his word. In addition to Vice President Kamala Harris, he selected 11 women alongside 13 men. Biden’s Cabinet will include 13 people of color, eight of whom are women. And he nominated the first openly gay Cabinet member, Pete Buttigieg.

If all of the president’s appointees are confirmed by the Senate, 48 percent of his Cabinet will be women—the largest proportion in U.S. history. This is more than the gender breakdown of the Democratic Party’s House delegation, and far greater than women’s overall representation in Congress. What’s more, it allows the U.S. to be, for once, a global leader on women’s political representation.

The U.S. typically lags behind when it comes to women’s leadership in politics (with women just 27 percent of Congress, it currently ranks 87th for women’s representation in national parliaments).

But globally, women occupy only 21 percent of Cabinet posts. Biden’s Cabinet will place the U.S. ahead of countries like the U.K. and the Netherlands. And it puts Biden on par with leaders who have advanced gender-balanced or “parity” cabinets, including presidents and prime ministers in Canada, France, Spain and Sweden.

The Ms. Winter 2021 print issue cover.

It’s Not Just About the Numbers

Biden’s Cabinet is also a historic one because of the positions women will hold. Janet Yellen will be the first woman to serve as secretary of the Treasury. This is one of the most powerful executive branch posts, and one of the few Cabinet positions that has been held exclusively by men. The selection of Yellen is especially noteworthy—both because Biden is trusting her to navigate a major economic crisis and because our research finds that women rarely hold the Treasury position in countries with large economies.

Biden’s economic team will include a constellation of women. Neera Tanden, who is Indian American, will be the first woman of color to serve as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Her position is key, as she will be charged with developing and overseeing the president’s budget.

Cecilia Rouse will become the first African American woman to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, making her the president’s chief economist.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo was selected for commerce secretary, responsible for promoting American businesses.

And Isabel Guzman will head the Small Business Administration, the chief officer responsible for advancing small business in the U.S. Though not the first Latina to hold this position, Guzman stands out as the only Latina nominee to Biden’s Cabinet.

Shattering another glass ceiling, Avril Haines will be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. In this role, Haines will head the U.S. intelligence community, oversee the National Intelligence Program and advise the president on intelligence and national security. As with Yellen’s, this appointment bucks global trends. Our research shows that women are often excluded from Cabinet positions related to national security, particularly in countries with strong militaries and those engaged in international conflicts. The U.S. still has never had a woman defense secretary—but with the appointment of Haines, women will have accessed every other Cabinet-level national security post.

Other historic firsts include Katherine Tai, the daughter of immigrants and the first woman of color and first Asian American to serve as U.S. trade representative. Likewise, Deb Haaland as interior secretary will be the first Native American Cabinet member ever, as well as the first to hold the Cabinet post responsible for the management and conservation of federal and tribal land and natural resources. A vocal critic of Trump administration policies that opened up public land for fracking and drilling, Haaland will now be in a position to restrict future fossil fuel extraction.

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Though not “firsts,” other women appointees include Marcia Fudge as housing and urban development (HUD) secretary, Jennifer Granholm as energy secretary and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Fudge’s role, like Yellen’s, has particular urgency in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: Her agency faces a severe housing crisis, with millions of Americans coming up short on rent or mortgage payments.

Granholm, a former Michigan governor, will oversee a shift to electric vehicles and clean energy. “My commitment to clean energy was forged in fire,” she said at the press conference announcing her nomination, referring to the role that clean energy made in repairing Michigan’s economy in the wake of the 2008 recession.

And Thomas-Greenfield, the former chief diplomat to Africa, will return to the State Department after being forced out by former President Donald Trump.

Diverse Cabinets Shape the Nation

The face of Biden’s Cabinet is unlike any that have preceded it. But does a diverse Cabinet matter for the U.S. public? Evidence points to yes.

Cabinet appointees don’t just enact the president’s wishes; they also shape policy and guide the administration’s priorities. And researchers find that women’s presence in Cabinets can lead to more gender-equitable outcomes. More women in Cabinets is associated with more government spending on public health and family benefits, as well as female-friendly labor policy. Women can also bring a gendered perspective to their specific policy portfolio. Our work shows women defense ministers are more likely to enact female-friendly military reforms and women treasury ministers are associated with more gender-egalitarian tariff policies.

Importantly, research shows that women’s presence in politics can affect policy outcomes, even if these appointees don’t explicitly focus on female-friendly initiatives. Because women have distinct life experiences, they bring unique viewpoints, preferences and behaviors into the policymaking process. As Yellen explained, “The underrepresentation of women likely constrains the range of issues addressed and limits our ability to understand familiar issues from new and innovative perspectives.”

Haaland noted on Twitter that someone like her has never been a Cabinet secretary. In the press conference following her nomination, she explained, “My life has not been easy. I struggled with homelessness. I relied on food stamps and raised my child as a single mom. These struggles give me perspectives, though, so that I can help people to succeed.”

The public also seems to respond favorably to diversity in Cabinets. For instance, our study of 58 countries demonstrates that women’s appointments to Cabinet posts is associated with more confidence in, and satisfaction with, the government. Likewise, other research shows having more women in Cabinets bolsters women’s civic engagement and heightens men’s support for women political leaders.

But Are They Just Tokens?

Of course not everyone is excited about Biden’s historic Cabinet picks. Conservative critics (and even some liberals) lampooned the president’s focus on inclusion with arguments about tokenism and sacrificing merit for diversity. Women frequently face these types of criticisms. Yet research consistently finds that women who break glass ceilings and reach historically male-dominated posts tend to be as or more qualified than their male counterparts.

Biden’s appointments are no exception. Yellen, for instance, has a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University and will be the first person to have held all three of the traditional top U.S. economic policy positions—chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, chair of the Federal Reserve and now secretary of the Treasury. She will succeed Steven Mnuchin, a former hedge fund manager and investor with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Guzman, a former deputy chief of staff at the Small Business Administration and director of California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate, spent part of two decades as an adviser for banks and consulting firms, specializing in business development and entrepreneurship. Trump’s first small-business administrator, Linda McMahon, was a chief executive at WWE, the pro wrestling company.

Similarly, Haines brings experience as a former White House deputy national security adviser, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and deputy counsel to the president for national security affairs. In contrast, the previous director, John Ratcliffe, was largely unknown by intelligence officials before his appointment and was criticized for being a “relatively disengaged member of the House Intelligence Committee.”

As Biden’s nominations demonstrate, the president’s focus on diversity has led to more-, not less-qualified appointees. 

Be Wary of Higher Standards

Nominees like Yellen, Guzman and Haines bring sterling credentials to their positions. More generally, including women and people of color in the set of eligible nominees broadens the talent pool for executive-branch posts. When presidents commit to selecting a Cabinet that reflects the electorate, they are forced to consider the full range of candidates. Focusing mostly on white men, in contrast, yields a much narrower subset of prospective appointees. In this way, committing to diversity ensures that we are actually choosing from the “best of the best.”

Still, we have to be careful not to hold women and people of color to different, or higher, standards than their white male counterparts. We rarely highlight the identities of white men appointees, nor do we assume that they were nominated because they are white men. And men’s credentials seem to receive less scrutiny. That we assume women are nominated because they are women—and focus more on whether they are suitably qualified—is fundamentally unfair. This double standard underscores the need to appoint more women to U.S. Cabinet posts. Nominating women to positions from which they’ve historically been excluded disrupts gendered expectations of women’s role in government and helps to reshape stereotypes about where women belong.

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Until women in U.S. Cabinets become the norm, we may also have to accept that the women who reach these posts are unlikely to be outsiders and mavericks. It’s understandable to want women appointees with unconventional pathways to power or radical new policy goals. But because women receive greater scrutiny than men, they often have to come from traditional backgrounds—and have more political experience—in order to be nominated and confirmed. In this case, for example, aiming for a diverse Cabinet may also mean accepting a Cabinet with many former Obama administration appointees.

Make Diverse Cabinets the New Normal

Of course, there will be presidents after Biden. Whether his dedication to diversity will carry into future administrations remains to be seen—though there is reason for optimism. For one thing, women’s roles have changed, not only in the U.S. but worldwide. For another, research suggests that a personal pledge from the head of government is the most important factor for achieving and maintaining gender diversity in a Cabinet. And once women’s representation in the Cabinet becomes an established norm, it’s hard for future administrations to revert backward.

Still, there are reasons to fear that Biden’s commitment to gender equality might not be shared by his successors, particularly in Republican administrations. This is especially true because the women appointed now will assume office during a major crisis. When a woman is selected as CEO in difficult times and the firm’s performance declines, a woman is less likely to succeed her. Yellen’s selection during a big economic slowdown, for example, might hamper future women’s access to the position at Treasury. This only reinforces the need to hold men and women to the same standards, rather than expecting more from women like Yellen.

Perhaps most important, we need to seize this opportunity to make women’s inclusion the new normal. Moving forward, a gender-balanced Cabinet should be our expectation, rather than a historic achievement.

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About and

Tiffany D. Barnes is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter at @tiffanydbarnes.
Diana Z. O’Brien is the Albert Thomas associate professor of political science at Rice University. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter at @dianazobrien.