Shortly after Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency in November 2016, the New York Times (Landler & Haberman, 2016) published an article titled “Trump Diversifies Cabinet; Picks Nikki Haley and Betsy DeVos.” I found the article remarkable; I set it aside to comment on; and now, belatedly, I am doing that.
The premise behind that article’s remark about diversity was that, as the authors wrote, Haley (named to be ambassador to the United Nations) and DeVos (selected as education secretary) “would be the first women in Mr. Trump’s cabinet.” The title did not mention Dr. Ben Carson, but the text acknowledged that Trump had also selected him as secretary of housing and urban development.
Thus, while proclaiming an interest in diversity, the article conveyed a distinctly non-diverse emphasis: women! As in, if you want real diversity, hire women. Black people like Carson, hey, that’s good too.
With that fixation on women, it was perhaps inevitable that the article would proceed to imply that hiring women is good and necessary, it is the essence of diversity, no matter who those women are or what they may do.
That was really strange. Because as the article itself demonstrated, this way of seeing diversity could actually work against liberal priorities. As the authors said, in choosing such people for his cabinet, Trump was selecting “reliably conservative” candidates. DeVos, in particular, has turned out to be extremely unpopular among liberals. From the perspective of the Huffington Post (Terkel, 2017),
Everyone hates the education secretary . . . . Lawmakers and activists say they’ve heard more about Betsy DeVos than any other Cabinet secretary ever ― often from people who aren’t usually politically engaged.
“All the time,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “This is true in town halls, when I’m walking down the sidewalk in my neighborhood, when I go into the grocery store. People come up to me to talk about Betsy DeVos. There’s just no comparison. I’ve never had this happen with any other Cabinet secretary.”
“There is no one in America more unpopular than Betsy DeVos,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “To have somebody who scorns public education, who never went to a public school, her children never went to a public school… to be in charge of public education is an outrage.”
In fairness, conservatives (e.g., the American Enterprise Institute) also seem uncertain, at best, as to whether DeVos is effective or even competent. So, wow, the Times was right on target, when it treated her as noticeable because she has tits. You really can’t get much more stereotypically male than that.
I don’t know that DeVos is a bimbo. I haven’t studied her, or her work. I do think Trump would be capable of choosing a bimbo; and the message from this Times article is that, if he did, the most important thing about her, in the eyes of the Left, would be her sex. So there we have a real “win” for women, don’t we? and for liberalism to boot. The message is clear: that hiring a woman is simply better and more important than hiring a man, competence be damned — and that women, especially, approve of such muddled priorities, when choosing the people who will run our government.
If you want good government, you have to hire good people. If the best people are all male, then you have a problem. The problem is not that you need more women involved because somehow that will work magic. It won’t. As I point out in another post, research suggests that the women rising to the top are likely to be very similar, in attitudes and priorities, to the men at the top.
Rather, the problem is that, if the best candidates for a job — in the sense of being most competent — are male, there is a substantial risk that the perspectives of ordinary women will not be heard. To resolve that, you have to figure out a way of taking female perspectives into account. It’s not good enough to hide behind the excuse that the cabinet or executive suite happens to contain a few women; they could be the nastiest sharks of the lot. You need something that insures genuine female input. For that, you could mandate attention to issues of interest to women; you could require female approval or review. You don’t have to form a government of tokens who are neither representative of women nor suited for their jobs.
Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, is undeniably competent. That, and especially the differing nature of her duties in the Trump administration, may explain why she is much less controversial than DeVos. She differs from DeVos in another, particularly important way: she is not rich. In terms of net worth, the Times (Buchanan et al., 2017) puts DeVos and Haley at the extreme opposite ends of the list of people in the Trump administration. With kids who are not yet launched, and with a net worth of $165,000 at age 46, Haley appears to be in a place, financially speaking, of knowing what it’s like to be middle-aged and wondering if she will be able to afford to retire.
Haley thus reminds us that diversity is situational. Disparaging men or women for their sex is sexist; disparaging whites or blacks for their race is racist. It doesn’t matter that Haley is Indian-American, nor that she is female. What matters is that she may be a particular type of female, or that she may be an Indian-American in a context where that identity is important. It is not clear how DeVos’s sex is making much practical difference in her education post, but Haley’s sex and/or ethnicity may be important in her post as this country’s ambassador to the United Nations, insofar as that post displays the face of America to the world. It advertises what we’re about. If her sex does motivate her to try to improve life for women around the world, that’s great, but it does not make her intrinsically superior to, say, some man who would have used the U.N. position to focus on helping the world’s refugees, or its victims of torture or disease.
This is the last important thing that the Times article got wrong. Wealth can make a difference; but wealth, like sex and race, is not an issue per se. In other words, what the Left dislikes about DeVos is not that she has money. The Democratic Party has always had many wealthy supporters. What the Left dislikes about DeVos is that her money has evidently put her far out of touch with the educational realities confronting ordinary people. It is not a matter of calling for a token poor person in the government, who may or may not actually represent the views of poor people; it is a matter of calling for people in government, rich or poor, who know what it’s like to be poor — or, even better, who will work to reduce poverty.
Being a woman does not make DeVos very similar to Haley. Being female was simply not a shared salient fact about those two. If leading news organizations like the New York Times keep shining the spotlight of femininity in your eyes, eventually they may blind you to what’s really important. In this case, that red herring drew attention away from important issues of policy. Women are as likely as men to be harmed by that sort of distraction.