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What the Biden Cabinet signals about gender parity's importance to democracy

Biden's Cabinet

Terrell is executive director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan group advocating for policies that would result in more women holding office.

President Biden's proposed Cabinet would have 24 members. Assuming the newly Democratic Senate confirms all of his nominees, a process that got started last week, it would be the most diverse Cabinet in history and the first to reach gender balance.

Three of the most prominent positions are going to be filled by women for the first time: Vice President Kamala Harris and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, the first confirmation of the Biden administration, will soon be joined Monday evening by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

Harris has also become the first Black and the first South Asian-American vice president. Lloyd Austin was confirmed Friday as the first Black person to lead the Department of Defense. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico is on course to be the first Native American secretary of the Interior. Xavier Becerra at the Health and Human Services Department and Alejandro Mayorkas at Homeland Security will be the first Latinos to lead those departments. And when Pete Buttigieg takes over at Transportation he will be the first openly gay Cabinet secretary.

Biden joins 14 other heads of government around the world with gender-balanced cabinets, many of whom ran on platforms committed to improving diversity in leadership through appointments.

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Spain has the highest share of women in the cabinet, 67 percent, and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is the first executive to appoint more women than men to an executive cabinet in recorded history. By selecting a majority of women for the cabinet and appointing them to top positions within it, he has signaled a commitment to gender equality and highlighted the importance of including diverse perspectives at the decision-making table.

Countries with gender-balanced cabinets also tend to have higher shares of women in their national legislatures. Twelve of the 14 countries have higher women's representation than the 25 percent global average. The United States currently ranks 68th in the world for the share of women's representation in the "lower" legislative chamber — with 27 percent of House seats now held by women. But now its push toward legislative gender parity outranks only Peru, Colombia and Guinea-Bissau among the nations with gender-balanced cabinets.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 picked the first woman for a Cabinet post, worker rights advocate Frances Perkins to be secretary of Labor. "The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered," she said at the time — and it took 20 years for another woman to reach a Cabinet-rank post.

Of the previous 45 presidents, only eight have nominated women to their Cabinets. Of the 54 women who have served before now, 31 have been Democrats, 23 have been from the GOP — and three-quarters have been white. The Biden team will change those numbers perceptibly: Of the dozen women he wants in his Cabinet, half are women of color.

Despite these historic successes for diversity, there remains work to be done. Three-fifth of Biden's Cabinet picks are white and the so-called inner cabinet — the vice president and the heads of the Justice, State, Defense and Treasury departments, who typically work the closest with the president — will still be three-fifths male and three-fifths white. And the average age of the nominees is 59.

Additionally, Biden's would be the first Cabinet in 20 years without an Asian-American or Pacific Islander. That is "the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States electorate," notes Madalene Mielke of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, and "the lack of an AAPI Cabinet secretary only serves to further distance AAPIs from having their voice heard in public policy."

The steps Biden has taken toward diversity in nominating his Cabinet are historic and noteworthy — but they should just be the first steps in the larger path toward diversity and inclusion in the executive branch. And commitment to diverse and inclusive appointments should not be limited to the national level. State and local executives should use their powers to improve the racial, gender, age and economic diversity of their own cabinets and any other appointments.

Naming diverse senior teams in American governments is the fastest way to bring diversity into our nation's leadership and bring new and unique lived experiences to decision-making at the highest levels.

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Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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