WASHINGTON » Behind the roiling conversation over whether President Barack Obama might make Janet L. Yellen the first female leader of the Federal Reserve is an uncomfortable reality for the White House: the administration has named no more women to high-level executive branch posts than the Clinton administration did almost two decades ago.
The White House has taken steps to even its gender balance in recent months with high-profile nominations like Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations and Susan E. Rice as national security adviser. But by most measures of gender diversity, including the proportion of women at Cabinet level, the executive branch looks little different from 20 years ago, even as the House of Representatives, the Senate and corporate America have placed significantly more women in senior roles.
"There’s room for improvement, and we’ve seen some missed opportunities," said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "We’re all watching the Fed to see what will happen there."
Obama is choosing from a small pool of candidates for the Federal Reserve position — probably the most important economic appointment he will make in his second term. The finalists include Yellen, the Fed’s current vice chairwoman and a former Clinton administration official. The favored candidate among several top Obama aides is Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and Obama economic adviser.
Overall, Obama has named 13 women to Cabinet-level posts, matching the historic high achieved by the Clinton administration. Obama has also put a record number of women in judicial slots, including two on the Supreme Court. Women make up about 42 percent of confirmed judges appointed by Obama, compared with 22 percent appointed by George W. Bush and 29 percent by Bill Clinton.
Yet the ratio of men to women in the administration is where it was two decades ago, if not a little more heavily male. The Obama administration has a smaller proportion of women in top positions than the Clinton administration did in its second term, for instance. Women hold about 35 percent of Cabinet-level posts, compared with 41 percent for Clinton and 24 percent for Bush at similar points in their presidencies.
"The president’s commitment to diversity is second to none, and his track record speaks to it," Alyssa Mastromonaco, the deputy chief of staff, said in an email message. "This is a man who has appointed women as national security adviser, as White House counsel, as budget director and to lead the task of implementing our single most important domestic policy accomplishment," namely Obama’s health care law. "This president has single-handedly increased the diversity of our courts, and he will continue to select from a field of highly qualified and diverse candidates for all federal posts."
The Fed opening has stoked an unusually lively public debate, including questions about whether the Obama administration’s economic team is too insulated and too much of a "boy’s club," in the words of some critics.
"All else equal, I would not lightly dismiss the opportunity to break a glass ceiling," said Jared Bernstein, a former Obama economic adviser and now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who lauded both Summers and Yellen on their merits. (Bernstein is a contributor to The ‘ Economix blog.)
Criticism became louder earlier this year after prominent office holders like then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis left the administration. Slots at the departments of State, Defense and the Treasury that many liberals had hoped would go to female candidates ended up being filled by men.
Obama himself responded to the criticism.
"I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they’ve seen all my appointments, who is in the White House staff and who is in my Cabinet, before they rush to judgment," Obama said at a news conference in January as he was starting his second term. "Until you’ve seen what my overall team looks like, it’s premature to assume that somehow we’re going backwards. We’re not going backwards, we’re going forward."
Since those remarks, he has named a series of women to top posts, including for interior secretary, commerce secretary, budget director and director of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But speaking privately, some administration officials have said that imbalance has resonated within the building and caused the White House to put a priority on considering female candidates earlier this year.
As of June 2012, 43 percent of Obama’s appointees had been women, according to a analysis of federal employment data. That is about the same proportion as in the Clinton administration, and up from the roughly one-third appointed by George W. Bush.
The largest gains in the number of women in the executive branch occurred in the Clinton administration. In no administration before his did women hold more than 18 percent of Cabinet-level jobs; in his second term, the share exceeded 40 percent. At that level, women held a substantially larger share of senior roles in the executive branch than they did in Congress or in corporate America. During Clinton’s presidency, no more than nine women were ever serving in the Senate, whereas 20 do today.
The share of women holding board seats on Fortune 500 companies has also risen over the last two decades, to 16.6 percent last year from 9.6 percent in 1995, according to Catalyst. The executive branch continues to have a larger share of women in senior roles than Congress or corporate America, but it has also changed less since the 1990s.
Several White House officials bristled at the suggestion that gender would play any role in the Federal Reserve decision, and at the notion of any sort of institutional bias within the White House, which has approximately half male and half female employees.
A former Obama and Clinton administration official said that concerns about gender had perhaps been more prominent in Washington in the 1990s. The Clinton administration had an overt and open policy of trying to make the administration "look like America." The Obama administration makes a priority of naming women to high-ranking positions, but the goal is not as pressing, the official said.
Another former Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested that Obama might feel inoculated against criticism were he to name Summers or another man for the Federal Reserve position because of his recent record in promoting women.
Other experts argued that the administration should be judged not just on its appointment record but on its broader record.
"It’s important to look at the bigger picture," said Victoria A. Budson, the executive director of the women and public policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "It’s not so much about how many women, but are women represented, are the policies helping women?"