Delaying Biden’s Cabinet Appointees Impacts More than the Operations of Government

The pace of the confirmation process in the Senate is off to a questionable start for the Biden’s women Cabinet appointees. Having these women confirmed and leading in government normalizes women’s role in those workplaces.

Delaying Biden's Cabinet Appointees Impacts More than the Operations of Government
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)

President Biden has nominated a more diverse Cabinet than any other president. However, the pace of the confirmation process in the Senate is off to a questionable start for the Biden appointees: Ten of the twelve women that President Biden has nominated into various federal positions have yet to be confirmed.

Getting appointees confirmed is a necessary for the function of government operations at the federal level. The president appoints approximately 1,200 positions that the Senate must approve. However, a slow or difficult confirmation hearing process does more than impact the operations of the government. It has an impact on the mentoring and support of diversity inside the government. I know because I was one of them.

In 1989, I started my job as project engineer at one of the national laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy. During this period, there were less than 20 percent of women and minorities with science backgrounds being represented in the work force. The number shrank when looking at the same demographic in graduate level programs. 

My first experience dealing with the disproportionate amount of men to women happened on my first day of orientation and training. I was the only woman in the session of approximately 25 new employees. This was no different from my doctoral seminars at Texas A&M University in the mid-1980s, where only one female professor taught me in the program of over two dozen professors in the department, and there were less than five women in my cohort group.

The importance of having others like you in the workplace and university can not be understated for diverse employees and students. It matters to have someone who you can self-identify with. As a young professional at her first job, and from a lower socioeconomic status than most of my male counterparts, I was almost like an alien. People like me did not exist in these spaces.

After I left the university to work full time while completing my dissertation research, Karen Poore hired me at the U.S. Department of Energy. She worked for the first Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, spending her career with the U.S. Department of Energy from its inception. She taught me how to operate inside a large federal agency. I represented the next generation of women who were trickling out of the universities more educated in environmental policy and science than in the past. 

Shortly after arriving at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., I ran into the Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary in the building. I know how much having women represented in management positions matters because at 58 years old, I still think about the impact of Hazel O’Leary and Karen Poore, who I encountered about three decades earlier. Hazel O’Leary was one of three women nominated to the President Clinton’s Cabinet in 1993 and the only Black woman nominated.

Delaying Biden's Cabinet Appointees Impacts More than the Operations of Government
President Bill Clinton posing with members of his administration at the Congressional Black Caucus Dinner at the Washington Convention Center in D.C. From left to right: Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, and U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. (Ralph Alswang / Creative Commons)

I saw Hazel O’Leary step off the elevator at the U.S. Department of Energy headquarters building. With so few role models who looked like me, I was awe-struck as she passed and stared as if a rock star were walking by.

What I was feeling must have been obvious on my face because O’Leary stopped to ask my name and where I worked in the organization. After I answered, she followed up with questions about my dissertation research on nuclear waste, and encouraged me to finish it. This motivated me to complete the last chapter of the work—which was delayed as a result of balancing a full time job in the federal government, affording tuition and completing the dissertation.

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This short interaction, in which she stopped to learn more about me and encouraged me to keep going, left a career-lasting impact on me. While there were not many diverse women in top positions in the government, knowing they existed and meeting them kept me motivated even when I felt extremely out of place.

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O’Leary was a Black woman in a space that was not welcoming to either. Even so, what impressed was her work. Her record coming into the Cabinet was already distinguished. She served as an assistant attorney general and assistant prosecutor in the state of New Jersey and was appointed to the Federal Energy Administration under President Ford and to the United States Department of Energy under President Jimmy Carter.

In 1989, she became executive vice president for environmental and public affairs for the Minnesota Northern States Power Company, and in 1992 she was promoted to president of the holding company’s gas distribution subsidiary.

Against considerable opposition, she opened up the U.S. Department of Energy’s decades of secrecy by declassifying information without the risk of national security to allow the public a view into our nuclear weapons testing and operations of the past. She was a leader who believed everyone had the right to be heard, and understood the disproportionate impacts to those without a voice from the impacts of the past actions of nuclear weapons testing. Karen Poore and Hazel O’Leary were motivators in my path to completion of my degree which helped propelled my career. Both believed in me and were role models.

President Biden has proposed more women in his Cabinet than previous presidents. If confirmed, women stand to lead notable departments such as commerce, energy, interior and more. However, the U.S. still has fewer women in top positions in the federal government than other western democracies like Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Spain and the U.K.

To be sure, a diverse Cabinet does not ensure that the complex policy issues will be solved in four years. However, having leaders in the federal government who represent the entire nation’s population—not just half of it—can begin to unravel the years of inequity in which women are not accounted for.

The underlying current of having these women confirmed and leading in government is that it normalizes women’s role in those workplaces; a situation that still remains uncommon in the 22nd-century. In 1989, I was one of only a handful of professional women working at the Department of Energy. O’Leary encouraged me to keep going and bring others up with me.

As I look at President Biden’s Cabinet and see how many more women were nominated this administration than in 1993, it gives me hope that the trend continues forward for future women in the workplace. The 12 women at the helm of nearly half of the Cabinet will accelerate the representation of women in the federal government. But only if confirmed.

Delaying Biden's Cabinet Appointees Impacts More than the Operations of Government
The Ms. Winter 2021 print issue cover.

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Dr. Kelly Tzoumis is a professor at DePaul University. Before entering academe, she worked in the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory. She also worked in the Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, DC. and was a Congressional Fellow for the US Department of Energy to former Senator Paul Simon, where she worked on environmental and science policy on Capitol Hill. Dr. Tzoumis was the Fulbright Distinguished Chair Scholar recipient in Environmental Studies (2003) and taught Environmental Treaties and Governance at the Politecnico di Torino. She is an OpEd Fellow through the Public Voices Fellowship at DePaul.