White House Women Are Too Busy Working to Hobnob

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The Oval Office.
The Oval Office.Photo: Pete Souza/White House

It’s been frequently documented that women in the workplace are relegated to roles that require invisible labor, taking on tasks that keep companies running while their male counterparts get to showboat. In an excerpt from political correspondent Jay Newton-Small’s new book, Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works, which appeared in Time today, that dismal reality is put into stark relief at — of all places — the White House.

For her book, Newton-Small interviewed Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco, who kept Barack Obama’s White House running smoothly when they worked as his deputy chiefs of staff. The two called themselves the Smurfettes, shouting out the lone female character on The Smurfs, who was created by mistake. “I kept waiting for one of the guys to say something and no one ever asked,” DeParle told Newton-Small about the little Smurfette figurines the pair kept on their desks. They also took on new Secret Service names to make the men around them a little uncomfortable: Popsicle and Peaches.

But while the Smurfettes were busy being productive and keeping operations running, the men in powerful positions around them often spent their time gloating over their importance. Neither woman was in the Situation Room on the night Osama bin Laden was killed, but unlike some of their male colleagues, they don’t claim that they were, or that they knew about it in advance. “I shouldn’t have [been there] because that’s not my job,” Mastromonaco said. “And that’s part of the problem is if people aren’t swimming in their lanes.”

The deputy chiefs of staff were so good at quietly being productive, in fact, that even Obama noticed they weren’t jockeying for position around him, unlike co-workers who would rush to get into his limo whenever the chance arose. Obama asked DeParle, “Is there something about me that you don’t like sitting with me?” She responded, “‘No, Mr. President, it’s not that. I just felt that you deserved some time to be by yourself.’”