Gender Parity in the Next Presidential Cabinet: A Worthy (and Achievable) Goal

This weekend, the New York Times published a report on Hillary Clinton’s plans for her first 100 days in office, relying on interviews with advisors, friends, and campaign insiders. Among the top goals mentioned was a plan to “tap women to make up half of her cabinet.” While reference to this plan for gender parity did not come directly from Clinton, she has described it as a goal in multiple interviews to date. In April, when asked by Cosmopolitan if she would commit to having at least 50% women in her cabinet, she answered: “That is certainly my goal. A very diverse Cabinet representing the talents and experience of the entire country. And since we are a 50-50 country, I would aim to have a 50-50 Cabinet.” A few weeks later, Rachel Maddow asked Clinton a similar question, and she reaffirmed that, “”I am going to have a cabinet that looks like America, and 50 percent of America is women, right?”

Both questions were prefaced with comparisons to Canada, asking Clinton if she would – like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – commit to, and make good on, selecting a gender-equal cabinet upon taking office. Both a stated commitment to gender parity and a cabinet with at least 50% women would be unprecedented in U.S. presidential politics. Even globally, the presence of true gender parity cabinets remains relatively rare. However, multiple scholars have observed and sought to explain the shift away from all-male governments worldwide. As Mona Lena Krook and Diana O’Brien detail, Finland, Norway, and Sweden – which each had parity cabinets in the 1990s – have been joined by countries like Chile, Spain, Switzerland, South Africa, and Canada at the start of the 21st century. Moreover, research by Maria Escobar-Lemmon and Michelle Taylor-Robinson demonstrates that, in contrast to early appointments of women, women are increasingly likely to hold high-prestige and high-visibility posts in government, becoming “power players at the highest levels of the executive branch,” at least in the presidential democracies they studied. A gender parity cabinet in the United States could contribute to these trends and build upon the (relatively recent) progress of women’s leadership at the presidential level.

Cabinet of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins)
Cabinet of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins)

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 48 women have held a total of 54 cabinet or cabinet-level appointments in the history of the U.S. If we limit our count solely to those posts formally designated as cabinet, only 30 women have served in all of U.S. history. Only 10 presidents (of the 44 we’ve had to date) have appointed women to cabinet or cabinet-level positions. While Frances Perkins became the first woman cabinet appointee in 1933, it was not until 1992 that the proportion of women appointed by any one president exceeded 20%. That same president, Bill Clinton, came closest to gender parity in his cabinet and cabinet-level appointments, with women constituting 41% of his second term appointees. But no U.S. president has ever hit 50% in cabinet appointments, and doing so would not only make history, but also make an important statement about both women’s political advancement and a president’s commitment to gender inclusion in their administration.

The goal of gender parity in presidential appointments is not a new one, however. In 1976, the National Women’s Political Caucus launched its Coalition for Women’s Appointments – which later became the Women’s Appointments Project – to advocate for greater gender equality among presidential appointees including and below the cabinet. Their model took hold among women in some states throughout the nation who launched appointments projects of their own to urge incoming governors to keep an eye to gender parity in their selection of key staff and appointments to boards and commissions. A number of states have their own appointments project, including New Jersey, Missouri, and Rhode Island, but the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project (MassGAP) got presidential attention in 2012 when Republican candidate Mitt Romney mentioned the “binders full of women” he received as governor of that state in 2002. It was MassGAP who provided those binders of vetted women applicants for gubernatorial appointments and, with the strong support of Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, 42% of Romney’s new appointments by 2004 were women.

The point is that women’s advocacy organizations have long believed in the benefit of increasing women’s representation in government beyond elected offices, and Clinton’s comments on creating a more representative cabinet appear to align with those beliefs.

But what are the benefits? Comparative scholarship has tried to measure the policy effects of having women in cabinet positions, though it proves particularly difficult to isolate policy influence in countries like the U.S., where cabinet members do not initiate legislation. Moreover, U.S. cabinet members are frequently constrained to the policy agenda of the president under whom they serve, posing hurdles to policy entrepreneurship. However, cabinet members importantly provide counsel to the president and advocate to the president on priorities and positions in their policy portfolios. Those priorities may be shaped by distinctly gendered perspectives, as was evident when Hillary Clinton pledged in her confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State that she would “view [women’s] issues as central to our foreign policy, not as adjunct or auxiliary or in any way lesser than all of the other issues that we have to confront.” She went on to create the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department, making good on that promise. While possibly the most overt example, Clinton is surely not the only woman appointee whose influence was at some point shaped by her experiences and perspective as a woman in America.

Beyond representativeness and perspective, there are two other reasons why it might matter to have gender parity in the next presidential cabinet. First, research shows that having more women running for and serving in political office increases engagement among the public, especially women. More specifically, Lonna Rae Atkeson and Nancy Carillo find that increasing women’s representation in state legislatures and state executive offices promotes female citizens’ sense of political efficacy – or perception that government will be responsive to them. Perhaps these findings would translate to federal executive representation. At a more basic level, seeing more women testifying to Congress, standing at governmental podiums, or sitting alongside a U.S. president may alter long-entrenched expectations of who can and should lead America’s political institutions.

Lastly, increasing the numbers of women presidential appointees could build the bench of women who will be rumored, tapped, or chosen as presidential candidates. While it has been a rare path to the presidency over the past century, cabinet service is among the credentials that often stir speculation about presidential aspirations and bolster perceptions of qualifications to serve. That may become even more likely if Clinton is successful this year. Creating more opportunities for women to take this route to the Oval Office might help to ensure that future presidential campaigns’ representation of women is more than 9% of candidates who run.

Should she win in November, will Hillary Clinton make good on her promise to aim to appoint women to more than half of her cabinet positions? Research reminds us that U.S. presidents have actually fewer hurdles to doing so than other chief executives throughout the world, with greater discretion over who they select and without being limited to individuals already elected to office. The pool of eligible women appointees is large and growing, creating no shortage on the supply side. As a result, the goal of gender parity among the next president’s top appointees is surely achievable, but time will tell if the political will remains (for Clinton) or emerges (for Trump) to make it happen in their first hundred days.