US Women’s Cabinet Representation Falling through the Concrete Floor

Since 1993, every U.S. president, regardless of party, has included at least three women in his initial Cabinet. Clinton appointed four women in his second term (and five total across his presidency). Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, had three female appointees in his first term and four in his second. Barack Obama appointed four women in his first term and, eventually, another four in his second term. According to political scientists Claire Annesley,  Karen Beckwith, and Susan Franceschet, the United States, for decades, has had a “concrete floor” of nominating at least three women to cabinet posts.

Annesley, Beckwith and Franceschet are completing a comparative study on patterns of women’s appointments to cabinet posts in seven advanced industrialized democracies. They find that each country has a “concrete floor” or a minimum number of women necessary for a cabinet to be perceived as legitimate. As they summarized in the Washington Post: “Concrete floors matter because regardless of which party wins office, a minimal threshold of female appointments is generally predictable, and because selectors generally adhere to the standard set by their predecessors.”

How has U.S. President Trump fared?  At this point, he has fallen through the “concrete floor” with just two women nominated and confirmed for his cabinet. This marks a stunning reversal to a decades long norm.

While different countries have different norms in cabinet selection – for example Canada’s cabinet must always contain a representative from each province whereas in the United States geographic representation is less important than at least some racial and ethnicity diversity –  Beckwith and her colleagues found that all the countries they have studied consider women’s representation in cabinets to be salient.  Yet, norms on the degree of gender balance varies. In some countries, such as Germany and Spain, cabinets come close to being evenly balanced between men and women. In other countries, such as Britain, women tend to make up a substantial minority of cabinet positions.

In Evolving Norms and the Demand for Equal Female Inclusion in Governing Cabinets, Beckwith, Annesley and Franceschet discuss the most recent example: Trudeau’s cabinet, which was the first one with gender parity ever constructed by a North American government. They ask “How is this possible? How did Trudeau manage to find fifteen women to serve as ministers in his first government – enough women to staff the entirety of the smaller U.S. presidential cabinet – while during the same era in the United States, President Barack Obama only found four women out of 318 million people to nominate for his initial cabinet?” And now President Trump has not even met that standard.

When it comes to the more US-specific norm of cabinets having at least some racial and ethnic diversity,  Beckwith also points to divergence from the norm; President Trump has been heavily criticized for forming the first cabinet without a Latino in decades.

The Washington Post used photos of all white men in decision-making mode to convey “the glaringly obvious” lack of diversity in the Trump administration.  Among those photos is one that Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) used on the House floor to questions this administrations’ representative legitimacy – the photo was of Vice President Pence and six male advisers in the Oval Office surrounding President Trump while he signed an order restricting federal funds for abortion-related activities in foreign countries.

These forms of push back demonstrate the “concrete floor” and consequences of ignoring it. According to Beckwith and colleagues “Wealthy democracies can no longer have men-only cabinets, or, as we have written elsewhere, a prime minister can no longer ‘over-select from just half the population’ in appointing a cabinet. Having women in the national cabinet has become crucial and conventional – even in the United States, where women have now served in every presidential cabinet since 1983, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. Indeed, having just one token female in a cabinet is no longer enough.”

Of course representational criteria are not the only criteria the Trump administration has broken with precedence to ignore.  Experiential and affiliation are described in greater detail in our video clip and below.

Beckwith and her colleagues make the point that for cabinet appointments across the countries they studied neither supply nor process is an obstacle to achieving gender parity in cabinet posts. “Across all parties, wealthy democracies have large numbers of highly educated, politically elite women who could serve in cabinets as ministers or department secretaries… an incoming head of government can, if she or he wants to do so, quickly and effectively establish a gender parity cabinet with relatively little opposition.”  Present President and the U.S. included.

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