When K.T. McFarland first heard the 2005 tape of Donald Trump boasting about grabbing women’s genitals, she talked to her two daughters.
“If anybody ever says stuff like that to you, walk away,” she told them.
But just six weeks later, McFarland got a call from Trump, then the president-elect, with an offer she couldn’t refuse.
A veteran of the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations and a longtime Fox News contributor, McFarland was elated at the chance to serve as the president’s deputy national security adviser — a top White House position.
To McFarland, the opportunity Trump gave her is proof that he trusts and respects women, regardless of what he’s said in the past in an “inadvertent, locker room kind of way.”
“If you want to honour women, give them an opportunity in the workplace,” she told Business Insider.
But McFarland is on her way out — she’s expected to take an ambassadorship to Singapore and will be replaced by an Army general — shrinking the already small group of women with Oval Office privileges.
A gender-blind president
Once McFarland officially leaves the White House, just five of the 28 highest-paid White House staffers will be women.
The lack of diversity among those in top positions under Trump extends outside of the West Wing: Just six of the administration’s 24 Cabinet secretaries are either women or people of colour — and none of them occupy top seats.
The discrepancy marks a break in a bipartisan trend toward greater diversity among White House staff and presidential cabinets. Over half of Bill Clinton’s first-term Cabinet, almost half of George W. Bush’s, and almost two-thirds of Barack Obama’s were made up of women and non-white men.
While Hillary Clinton pledged to fill half of her Cabinet with women, Trump subscribes to a strain of conservative thinking that regards targeted recruitment as “philosophically opposed to choosing the best person for the job,” Kelly Dittmar, a professor at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, told Business Insider.
The White House said it looks to hire whoever is “most qualified” to hold any given position.
“When you look at this White House, it’s not about male versus female, it’s about who is best-suited and most qualified to hold that position,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters told Business Insider.
“That is a sort of code for saying, ‘We don’t do targeted hiring,'” Dittmar said.
McFarland believes the president didn’t consider gender when he offered her the national security post.
“I don’t think he cares two hoots whether I was male or female,” she said. “He just thought I could get the job done.”
But while Walters said she thinks it’s important to have both male and female “perspectives” in the West Wing, gender parity isn’t necessary.
“I think it would be a problem if there were no women,” Walters said. “If there were no female representation within senior staff, I think that would be a problem.”
Dittmar argued that while the number of women in the White House is “symbolically important” because it indicates “what sort of message the White House wants to send to the country about their valuation of that diversity,” it’s secondary to whether women have influence in decision-making.
“What’s most important is: who’s at the table and who’s in the room when the most serious and significant decisions are being made,” Dittmar said. “Who are the strategic people, who’s involved in the president’s agenda-setting? Are [women] in that cadre?”
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor and former campaign manager, agrees with that way of thinking.
“Attaching a hard and fast number to it is not as relevant as the contributions that are made by the women who are at the table,” Conway told Business Insider.
But the discrepancy in the numbers has been enough to provoke occasional outcry, such as after the administration published photos of Trump signing executive orders and negotiating healthcare legislation with groups of exclusively male aides and the all-male House Freedom Caucus.
Conway said that response illustrates a frustrating preoccupation with optics, and noted that she was in the room when some of the photos were taken.
“It’s like, well, I was sitting next to the cameraman, so I was right there, but I’m not in the shot,” Conway said. “But that doesn’t mean that those men haven’t heard from the females. … We’re heard and we’re seen and we’re listened to and we are sought out and sought after for our opinions and our judgment and our ideas and our insight.”
Gender imbalance is not unique to the Trump White House — the issue is pervasive throughout the Republican Party and in Democratic politics, too. Just five of the GOP’s 52 senators are women, and about 10% of its Congress members are women. (There are twice as many Democratic women in the Senate, and about three times as many in the House.)
Sue Zoldak, a political consultant who volunteers for the RightNOW Women PAC, which supports Republican women running for office, says she and many other conservative women are working hard to promote women within the party.
“We’re not the minority that people like to think of us as,” Zoldak told Business Insider. “Women Republicans do exist.”
But Mary Frances Berry, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former chairwoman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, told Business Insider that gender equity isn’t “a priority” for the women who voted for Trump, and to the extent that the GOP is putting pressure on the White House to diversify, the administration isn’t responding.
“Those of us who look at his administration and care about women and the roles in which they’re permitted to function and the opportunities that they get think it’s a problem,” Berry said. “But I don’t think the Trump administration thinks it’s a problem.”
Women as messengers and gatekeepers
Trump’s inner circle of White House aides includes five women: Conway; Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter who recently took on an official advisory role; Hope Hicks, the 28-year-old White House director of strategic communications; Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal deputy press secretary and daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; and Dina Powell, a deputy national security adviser and senior counselor on economic initiatives.
While Ivanka and Powell act largely as policy advisers, Conway, Hicks, and Sanders focus on communications and public messaging. Conway is working on a portfolio of policy issues, including the opioid crisis and veterans issues, but it’s unclear how much influence she wields in those areas, given that Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, counts veterans affairs among his team’s projects and handed the reins of the opioid effort to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
When it comes to Trump’s public image, women feature prominently as defenders and media liaisons, while top male advisers, including Kushner, chief strategist Steve Bannon, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, rarely engage with the press or speak publicly.
Women also hold other prominent communications roles. Omarosa Manigault, a former “Apprentice” star who directed African-American outreach for Trump’s campaign, directs communications for the Office of Public Liaison, and Helen Aguirre Ferré, a Latina journalist and former Trump critic, heads the media affairs office.
Conway, widely seen as the most influential woman in the White House other than Ivanka, has remained one of the president’s principal surrogates and advisers on communications and big-picture strategic messaging.
The New York Times reported that, after Conway turned down the press secretary job, Trump wanted another woman to be responsible for briefing the press. He considered conservative media personalities Laura Ingraham and Kimberly Guilfoyle, but ultimately decided on Spicer, the former spokesman for the Republican National Committee and a Washington insider.
The gender balance on the White House communications team reflects a broader trend: Women make up 59% of corporate and non-profit public relations specialists and 71% of PR managers, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. (Women are 47% of the overall American workforce).
The most oft-cited reasons for this phenomenon are that women are better at listening and building interpersonal relationships than men.
“Women are slightly better listeners and that sounds like the opposite of your role as a communications person, but in order to effectively counsel someone on communication you have to really understand that person,” Zoldak said. “I think women are more open to having a more intimate and emotional connection with someone at work than men are.”
‘My gender has helped me with the president’
Conway attributes her ability to communicate effectively with the president, in part, to her gender.
“I could tell you a great way that my gender has helped me with the president,” she told Business Insider. “I’m actually unafraid to express my mind, but I do it very respectfully. Very respectfully and very deferentially.”
Conway told an audience at the Women Rule Summit in Washington that she’s able to deliver bad news “with a big smile,” but without “sugarcoating.” (It was Conway who broke the news to Trump about the release of the Access Hollywood video in October.)
“I think there’s a femininity that is attached to the way one carries herself or the way one executes on her duties,” she told Business Insider.
In a New York Times profile of Hicks, one of Trump’s longest-serving political aides whom Politico has called the president’s “gatekeeper and security blanket,” Trump described Hicks’ interactions with him in similar terms.
“She will often give advice, and she’ll do it in a very low-key manner, so it doesn’t necessarily come in the form of advice,” Trump said. “But it’s delivered very nicely.”
Both Hicks and Conway, despite their closeness to Trump, have always addressed the president as “Mr. Trump,” “Mr. President,” or “Sir.”
“I don’t consider him my peer, he is my boss and he is my elder … so I don’t address him by his first name,” Conway said. “That has actually allowed me, in my view, to respectfully but forcefully express my opinion on certain matters.”
‘Post-feminist, anti-feminist — a non-feminist, definitely’
No one has been a fiercer defender of Trump’s treatment of women — even amid numerous allegations of sexual harassment during the final month of the 2016 campaign — than Conway. Conway has called women who claim Trump mistreated them “false accusers,” and she pivots to his history of working with and promoting women to the highest levels of his company.
While Conway has said that she faced unwanted sexual advances by older, more powerful men as a young political consultant, she nevertheless stands by “the old boys’ network,” which she told Business Insider “was lovely to me.”
“I’m 50 years old, so I grew up in a time when, I think, men were much more bold and aggressive and thought they could get away with a lot more in the workplace, in pseudo-business situations — out to dinner or travelling for work,” Conway said. But she is quick to add she doesn’t harbour “self-pity,” and considers herself “blessed” to work in an environment and for a president who supports her.
She describes herself as a “post-feminist, anti-feminist — a non-feminist, definitely” in part because today’s feminism is “anti-male.”
Ivanka, a self-described advocate for women’s empowerment who’s leading the White House’s policy efforts to promote women in business and other realms, has shied away from the feminist label. In her new book, “Women Who Work” — a “Lean In”-esque advice manual — there’s no mention of the word “feminism” and no discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace.
At the same time, Conway, and other women close to Trump, are quick to accuse political opponents and journalists of mistreatment of women. Recently, the White House has become increasingly outspoken about what they see as sexism directed toward their spokeswomen.
“Go and take a look at the way I’m treated and tell me it’s not sexist, tell me it’s not based on my gender,” Conway said, referring to her media coverage. “When’s the last time you saw a great story about the beer bellies and the bad comb-overs in Congress versus what was I wearing or what was a female saying or doing?”
She added that her 9-year-old daughter recently asked her why an interviewer (she did not name who) subjected her to particularly sharp questioning.
“I didn’t have a good answer for her,” Conway said.
Jessica Ditto, White House deputy communications director, echoed this criticism, telling Business Insider that “the only time” she’s experienced sexism as a political aide was in her treatment by the media.
“Twice Politico reporters have described me as ‘junior,’ which is a false characterization for a commissioned Deputy Assistant to the President and White House Deputy Communications Director,” Ditto wrote in an email following a conversation with Business Insider.
She added, “That kind of treatment is deeply insulting and disappointing.”
Earlier this month, Mike Huckabee called Saturday Night Live’s satire of his daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “sexist” and “misogynist.”
While the gendered criticism Conway, in particular, has faced — from Twitter users, SNL, and even a Democratic congressman — has prompted people from across the political spectrum, including Chelsea Clinton, to speak out in her defence, Conway has also admitted that she enjoys turning accusations of sexism back on liberals.
Defending her allegation that former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, displayed sexism by repeatedly interrupting a female debate moderator, Conway told Fox News in November, “I love using that word.”
“It’s the word that the left and the Democrats and Hillary Clinton folks love to employ against everyone who doesn’t support her,” she added. “If you don’t support Hillary Clinton, you’re a sexist.”
While Conway condemned what she views as sexist media coverage of Clinton during the 2008 presidential primary — she mentioned articles concerning Clinton’s cleavage and displays of emotion — she denies that misogyny played any role in the Clinton’s 2016 defeat.
“Of course sexism exists,” Conway said, “but it usually doesn’t exist for a woman who was the former first lady of the United States of America, has a Yale law degree, and was the secretary of state and United States senator.”
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