I couldn’t resist commenting on the mini-controversy swirling around Ron Suskind’s new book about the Obama administration and the allegations of sexism contained therein (previous Inkwell coverage: here, and here). At this point, it looks like the administration is successfully battling the spin, as two of the White House officials quoted in the book are disputing Suskind’s quotes. Both Christina Romer and Anita Dunn told the Washington Post that Suskind had taken them out of context.  He had apparently left out a rather important clause in Dunn’s comment about “this place would be in court as a hostile workplace” – namely, “if it weren’t for the president.”  It makes me wonder what these allegations of sexism were supposed to accomplish, exactly. Divorce the progressive feminist movement from Barack Obama?  (Excuse me while I double over laughing at that idea).

Anyway, Obama deserves some credit for the way he addressed his female staffers’ discomfort: he actually set aside time to hear what they had to say. The WaPo reports:

Obama convened the dinner with women on staff. It took place in the White House residence on the night of Nov. 5, 2009 — just hours after a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Tex., dominated the president’s attention.

An official White House photo depicts Obama, his hand on his chin, listening intently as the women sit with serious expressions.

"I really want you guys to talk to me about this openly because recently there has been this suggestion that there are some issues here,” Obama said, according to Suskind’s account of the session. “I’d like to know how you guys feel."

Compare that to the way most internet conversations about sexism (warning: adult language) end up going, and you’ve got to hand it to Obama and the staffers for handling the situation like grown-ups. It’s unfortunately too common for men (and for women) to dismiss concerns about perceived sexism as alarmist, or with paranoid mutterings of some “feminist agenda.” But this ignores the fact that while the formal gender discrimination and sexism of the last, oh, 10,000 or so years of human experience has been on a downward trend in America, there still exists a more subtle, yet still pervasive, kind of cultural bias regarding men and women.  This bias doesn’t have explicit rules that keep women out of professional positions; rather, it’s a system of interlocking norms and expectations and perceptions about gender roles. It’s why the same played-out, unrelatable female character tropes get shoehorned into so many Hollywood movies, and it’s why many high-performing women feel they need to sacrifice friendship and likability for success. Last year, Clay Shirky caught the blogosphere’s attention when he pointed out that men and boys are rewarded for their self-promoting behavior, while women and girls tend to avoid looking even slightly boastful (Rachel Simmons documented how girls learn this self-censorship during childhood in her book Odd Girl Out).

None of these problems necessarily demand legislative or legal remedies, but in my opinion, it’s important to be cognizant of these external forces. In Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 TED talk, which I highly recommend, she noted that even she herself, after giving a similar talk about women in the workplace, was obliviously answering more men’s questions than women’s. As Sandberg advises, women need to claim more seats at the table. And once we’re there, we need to have the guts to speak up, especially when confronted with sexism.