Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Girls In The Government

Al Kamen tells us today that

President Obama, with his constant chatter about change and shaking things up and new ways of doing things, had rattled some traditionalists in this area -- especially those lacking a proper level of cynicism.

But a review of the early demographic data of Obama's first 56 selections for Senate-confirmed top jobs in the departments and agencies shows a marked tendency to choose old, white guys from the East Coast with credentials from elite universities.

In other words, not to worry. The Establishment remains firmly established. The Beltway is king.

In fact, half of Obama's first 56 senior-level picks are from the D.C. area and an additional 18 percent are from elsewhere on the East Coast. New York has four appointees, Massachusetts two, and there's one each from Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Virginia, according to a count by our colleague Sarah Cohen.

As would be expected, Illinois is well represented -- home to four appointees. Five come from California. No other state has more than two people in the mix. Overall, it appears more than half, 55 percent, are retreads from the Clinton administration.

Thirty-eight of the 56 appointees (68 percent) are men. (But white men, representing 46 percent of all picks, fall short of a majority.)

Nearly 70 percent of these appointees are white, 7 percent are of Asian or Pacific island descent, 16 percent are African American, and 7 percent are Latino.

If you do sums in your head you can figure out that 32% of the appointees are women. This is higher, according to Kamen (I haven't checked his figures), than the percentages of women among the first nominees of both Bill Clinton (25%) and George W. Bush (14%). It's hard not to see those rising numbers as a welcome trend. I hope that they are the beginning of one but perhaps not. The next Republican administration will surely back-pedal again and so on.

Kamen's overall argument is interesting and worth looking into in more detail. Has Obama indeed proven himself to be a friend of the status quo as Kamen states, and what does this mean? And what is it that those percentages should look like if Obama indeed changed the government in some meaningful way?

I can't help getting myself mired in the mud of old arguments about quotas and such here, because every time anyone in the past pointed out the low percentages of women in various desirable posts the opposition would yell and call you a quota-queen and argue that you prefer incompetent people over competent people and so on, and that the Best Man Should Win. Well, you know what I mean.

So it helps to take a step back and ask why we look at these types of percentages in the first place, and the best way to explain the reason is to ask you to think of a truly democratic and fairly just society and to imagine what its powerful layers would look like if the society consisted of men and women of various races and ethnicities.

In the absence of some real group differences in abilities or interests (and given the lack of discriminatory rules and laws in this imaginary paradise), we'd expect to see the population percentages roughly reproduced among the powerful. That's why I always point out that women are over fifty percent of all Americans, and that one might be a bit worried if the percentage of women in the U.S. Congress is around 20% of the total.

The next step for the opposition is then to point out that the top layer can't have the percentages of the general population if the layer right below it doesn't, and so it goes. Because then one can say that it's a pipeline problem and once enough women have entered the second-from-the-top layer everything will be blissful for us feminists. Except that nobody makes an effort to get them to that layer, so that the pipeline argument has now been used for over forty years, successfully.

Of course the really dedicated anti-feminists skip all that and go directly into the biological arguments that it's the silver-backed male chimpanzees who are the natural leaders and that women don't like politics because it's so much like male posturing and so on. And then one has to ask why the taking-care-of-our-common-house is framed as male war or sports and why women wouldn't be interested in that taking care part of the business. Also, one might point out that women in some other countries appear to have different genes as they are entering politics in large numbers, which points out to cultural differences and such.

Anyway. Revisiting those arguments is useful, because they show something about those percentages which really do differ from the status quo: The percentages of Asian-Americans and African-Americans in the Obama administration are at least equal to their population percentages. It's the Hispanic percentage that is still too low. Of course the white male percentage is rather a lot higher than their share in the population.