Will the White House's lady showcase make a difference?

Posted at 12:00 PM Mar 31, 2010

By Andrea Grimes

President Obama's Council on Women and Girls, signed into existence earlier this month, has posted its first profile of a female senior-level staff member on WhiteHouse.gov, and the lucky inaugural lady? Dr. Rebecca Blank, Under Secretary for Economic Affairs at the Department of Commerce. Pretty sweet. Of course, it wouldn't be an interview with a successful woman if we didn't wonder how she balances work and family!

Per WhiteHouse.gov:

One of the goals of the Council on Women and Girls is to call attention to the inspirational women working in the Federal Government and to learn more about their paths to their current positions. In the first of this series, Meet the Women of the Administration, we asked Dr. Rebecca Blank to reflect on how she developed an interest and expertise in economics and to weigh in on how she balances work and family. Take a look and find out what keeps Dr. Blank going!
A fascinating woman with a fascinating and important job! BUT WHAT ABOUT HER BABIES AND HUSBAND? Ugh.

Let me be clear: my panties are minimally wadded about the fact that part of Dr. Blank's profile focuses on her family. I think that overall, profiling these women is super-cool and exciting--I mean, how often do you get to read a woman quoted like this:

"I certainly never thought "I want to be an economist when I grow up!"  But I took an introductory economics class and it was so interesting that I took another.  And I never quite escaped after that.   Economics requires rigorous math and analytical skills, which I found challenging but fun.  At the same time, economics has a lot to say about how the world works.   After graduate school I became increasingly interested in how government policies could (or couldn't) affect behavior and economic outcomes.  That led me into lots of interesting research areas.  And my research on the impact of policy in turn opened up opportunities to work directly on real world policy issues inside government."
What I find disappointing is not that Dr. Blank was asked about her family--I think that's a logical question when you're profiling someone--but that Dr. Blank was asked how she balances work and family life, which is a question almost never asked of prominent men unless there's some kind of unusual homelife situation going on. (See Biden, Joe.) In asking Dr. Blank about her work-family balance, and asking this mostly of successful women rather than men, there's the implication that, regardless of their professional success, women are to some degree inextricably tied to the domestic sphere. The work-family balance question is much, much less of an issue for men of status, particularly if they're married. Sure, the media asked Barack Obama about the presidency's impact on his family, but the answer wasn't really all that important--of course Michelle would manage the home and kids, and so would Grandma.

For men, it seems to be more a question of "How is your family going to handle the fact that you have this position?" And for women, it's a question of "How are you going to handle your family in addition to this position?" In a society wherein working women still do the majority of housework and child-rearing, I think taking these kinds of issues seriously is paramount--men must be made to be held accountable for their share of domestic life, and one way we can do that is by refusing to only tangentially associate maleness with the private sphere.

[Via Feministing]


BorgQueen said:

First, the CWG is 20 different flavors of awesome for all the reasons stated above.

I think that by asking about the work-family balance, maybe, and I am feeling particularly optimistic today, they are trying to show girls and young women who are reading this article, that there ARE options, that you can have a career and family and this is how women who have both make it work.

This next generation of women are being raised by a generation that has completely flipped the notion of gender roles on it's head, where women may be the main (or sole) breadwinners and men are the domestic warriors. Just as when roles were more traditional, they may grow up seeing an "either/or" situation, either you are the breadwinner or you are the stay-at-home parent. Maybe by showing women that can do both, it is encouraging little girls to see that they don't have to choose.

I agree that there is a problem in that they highlight this in successful women more than successful men, but it is a start. As feminists we have to encourage women make the choice to structure their careers and their family lives as they see fit and by saying, you can do X or Y, OR you can do X and Y, it tells young girls they they can do what works best for them.

Joe said:

I think another interesting example of a high profile women in the Obama Administration worth examining for these discourses is DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. With no discernible "family" life to speak of she has risen to prominence, first as Governor of super Red Arizona then as a high ranking cabinet official, with largely an absence of these discussions.

Though at the same time they have instead trended toward veiled discussions of her sexuality. After all if a high ranking woman in politics doesn't have a family, or a spouse, she must probably be a lesbian right? I mean look at the way she is dressed. These same discussions did not go on with Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, and her conspicuous absence of a "family life", but she seemed to profiled more intensely about it.

Nicki E. said:

This is a really interesting article. I am pretty sure, as a journalist, I have been guilty of asking this question to women and not always to men, not because I don't consider myself a feminist, just simply out of habit and from reading other interviews with successful women. Thanks for the reminder, Andrea!

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