President-elect Joe Biden is on track to have a record number of women serving in his Cabinet. Although all the positions haven’t been finalized, Biden seems poised to deliver on a commitment he made after becoming president-elect.
“I promise you, it’ll be the single most diverse Cabinet based on race, color, based on gender, that’s ever existed in the United States of America,” Biden told reporters in early December.
As of December 23, Biden will have at least 10 women serving in his Cabinet, according to a running tally by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University (CAWP). The bulk of these positions will be contingent on Senate confirmation.
In its total, CAWP only includes Senate-approved positions and Kamala Harris, since the vice president-elect will be a part of the Cabinet. Those positions are:
- Kamala Harris, vice president
- Janet Yellen, secretary of Treasury
- Jennifer Granholm, secretary of Energy
- Deb Haaland, secretary of Interior
- Marcia Fudge, secretary of Housing and Urban Development
- Neera Tanden, director of the Office of Management and Budget
- Cecilia Rouse, chair of Council of Economic Advisors
- Katherine Tai, U.S. trade representative
- Avril Haines, director of National Intelligence
- Linda Thomas-Greenfield, ambassador to the United Nations
Biden has publicly announced additional women who could serve in positions that are either expected to be a part of his Cabinet or his inner circle. Biden has picked 20 people who are slated to serve in his Cabinet.
Bill Clinton is considered the current record holder in terms of women’s representation in a president’s Cabinet. He had nine women serving concurrently during his second term in office, according to CAWP.
“To see that at this high level of appointments, we could be either very close or at parity at the start of this administration, is a point of progress and something we want to normalize so that we can make it the expectation for future cabinets,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at CAWP.
No American president has ever had an equal number of women and men in a Cabinet. More governments around the world in recent years have enacted policies aimed at achieving gender parity, and data shows that increasing women’s representation helps economies and improves efforts toward conflict prevention and resolution.
The center’s Cabinet tracking dates back to the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who appointed Frances Perkins as U.S. secretary of labor, making her the first woman to serve in an American Cabinet. CAWP’s tally includes Senate-approved nominees and Cabinet-level positions; it does not include acting officials.
Dittmar said it’s difficult to compare presidents’ Cabinet picks in part because the number of positions has fluctuated over time. President Barack Obama had eight women serving concurrently during his second term, when he had 23 people in his Cabinet; President Donald Trump had six women serving concurrently during his term, when he also had 23 people in his Cabinet (some organizations count 24 positions).
“Every president makes a different determination of what counts as Cabinet and Cabinet-level, which gives us a forever-headache in terms of comparisons,” she said.
There is no comprehensive data of the racial and ethnic demographic of presidents’ Cabinets, though there is an agreement among several experts on gender that American presidents have favored White men. The New York Times in 2017 examined the number of women and minorities in the first Cabinet of each president between Ronald Reagan and Trump. Trump had 6 people who were not White men; Obama had 14; George W. Bush had 9; Clinton had 12; George Bush had 5; and Reagan had 2.
FiveThirtyEight estimates that as of December 17, Biden had 11 people of color in Cabinet-level positions, a tally that included Harris. On Tuesday, there were reports that Biden will choose Miguel Cardona, a Latino education commissioner in Connecticut, as his education secretary. The Biden transition team as of December 23 said it has 12 people of color slated to join the Cabinet.
Biden’s pending announcements mean it’s too soon to definitively measure the full scope of gender and racial diversity in his Cabinet. But there are already takeaways, according to experts.
It’s likely future presidents will be further expected to match or increase Cabinet representation, said Susan Franceschet, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and co-author of the 2019 book “Cabinets, Ministers, and Gender.” She said there is a “concrete floor” for women’s representation in Cabinets. When a new threshold of representation is reached, it’s harder to reverse course without public criticism. (There was coverage of Trump having fewer women in his Cabinet, and analysis of the overall gender makeup of other White House appointments).
“We use the metaphor of the concrete floor, because floors can be built on. They’re very hard to break. Not that they can’t be broken, but you’d have to take a jackhammer and break it,” Franceschet said.
There was also an expectation that Biden would choose a Cabinet that better reflected the country’s gender and racial demographics because of the make-up of the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
“Biden has an added layer of pressure because it is no secret that having a Democratic primary that was the most diverse ever, leading to the nomination of a White man who’s been in politics for 40+ years, was disappointing to a lot of people, and particularly those who thought it was time to change the image and expectations of who held presidential power,” Dittmar said. “And so this is another space for him to recognize some of that disappointment, and address it and also make good on the investment that women, Black women, Latinas, played in his success.”
Still, Biden has not named any Latinas to his Cabinet yet, a point that Latinx leaders have highlighted. Anna Sampaio is a professor at Santa Clara University in California who studies issues of race, gender, ethnicity and immigration, with a particular specialization on Latina politics. Sampaio is disappointed at the lack of Latina representation in Biden’s Cabinet picks, especially given how their voter turnout helped him in key battleground states.
Sampaio said although prominent Latinas like Michelle Lujan Grisham and Lily Eskelsen García were reported as top contenders for some posts, “we have seen Latinas be bypassed over and over.” She pointed out that no Latina names circulated publicly in the discourse over who would fill Harris’ seat in the Senate. Alex Padilla, who is Latino, was announced Tuesday.
“What I would hope is that there is significant effort by their camp … to reach out to Latinas specifically, and find places, if there are no longer Cabinet positions, to advance Latina leadership,” she said. “Whether that’s in undersecretary positions or deputy secretary positions, but also to think about where they can invest in Latina outreach and mobilization for congressional races coming up in 2022.”
Biden is also facing growing pressure to have more representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Franceschet said it’s been interesting to watch the more public advocacy to push Biden to select women and people of color to the Cabinet. She pointed to the collective efforts by multiple groups to encourage Biden to select U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary, a position that has never been held by a Native American.
“We’re in a moment globally, where attention to inclusion and diversity are just so much a part of the public conversation that leaders are more attentive to it and members of groups that want representation are aware that, ‘Hey we’re in a moment where we can really push this agenda and people are going to listen,’” she said.
There is also more public consciousness on the power of a president’s top administrative posts following Trump’s time in office.
Jennifer Piscopo is associate professor of politics at Occidental College in California and has collaborated with Franceschet to study the impact of gender quotas (they co-authored a book in 2012 on the subject). Piscopo said Trump’s policy decisions on immigration made more advocacy groups and average citizens alike rethink the importance of the secretary of homeland security, just like climate change made them be more critical of who oversees environmental policy in the Cabinet.
“The Cabinet is really powerful, but the U.S. tends to think about policy power as being fully vested in Congress,” she said. “I think one consequence of Trump is that people are recognizing that the Cabinet matters, too. Who is in these offices does matter for policy outcomes.”