In 2016, Kalisha Dessources Figures was standing in the East Wing of then-President Barack Obama’s White House when she heard a young black girl say, “I could be president one day.” The girl was about to perform a dance routine in front of first lady Michelle Obama.
In that moment, Dessources Figures realized that “visibility really mattered,” she says. The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Dessources Figures had started as an intern in the Obama White House in her mid-20s in 2014; by the time she left in January 2017, when President Trump’s administration took over, she was serving as a policy adviser to the Obama administration’s Council on Women and Girls.
It was in the Obama White House that Dessources Figures, who’s now 29 and pursuing a PhD in sociology at Yale University, saw women like her stationed in some of the most powerful posts in the highest office of the country. Her boss was Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest advisers.
“Being able to see other black women lead work in that White House made me feel like I could do that as well,” Dessources Figures says. “Before coming to the Obama White House, I honestly believed policy was just made by old, white men.”
On Monday, at a private event in Singapore regarding leadership, Obama “mused what a world run by women would look like,” the BBC reported. According to the BBC, the former president said, “Now women, I just want you to know; you are not perfect, but what I can say pretty indisputably is that you’re better than us [men].”
He went on to add: “I’m absolutely confident that for two years if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything … living standards and outcomes.”
The comments weren’t the first time Obama has championed women’s ability to lead. At an invitation-only event in Paris in 2017, Obama spoke about “the importance of more focus on putting women in power, because men seem to be having some problems these days,” France 24 reported.
According to Victoria Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, Obama “largely gets it right”: Research shows that women score higher than men in most leadership skills, including taking initiative and driving for results. She also says Obama “walked the talk” — that his track record in terms of appointing women was the best of any president thus far.
In his time as president, Obama made several high-profile appointments that elevated women to positions of power: Samantha Power as the United States ambassador to the United Nations; Susan Rice as national security adviser; Janet Yellen as the first female leader of the Federal Reserve. He also appointed more female judges than any other president — 42 percent of his 324 judicial appointees.
According to women who worked in Obama’s White House, Jarrett was particularly influential for younger women in the administration. Ashley Allison, who was deputy director and senior policy adviser in the White House Office of Public Engagement from 2014 to 2017, said it was great to have Jarrett “as a mentor and a leader,” and that it was “often women who lifted other women up” in the administration.
Allison, who’s now executive vice president of campaigns and programs at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, says that Jarrett tasked her with leading the office’s criminal justice portfolio. The appointment “took a lot of trust and faith,” Allison says. “And if I ever made a mistake, she never left me standing alone.”
In the early years of the Obama administration, Jarrett was one of few women in positions of power: As The Washington Post reported, when Obama took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men. “It’s fair to say that there was a lot of testosterone flowing in those early days,” Jarrett told The Post in 2016.
Obama was aware of the criticism, too. When he started his new term in January 2013, he said he intended to appoint more women. “Until you’ve seen what my overall team looks like, it’s premature to assume that somehow we’re going backwards,” he said at a news conference.
Ashleigh Axios watched the Obama White House morph over the years. Working as creative director in the White House Office of Digital Strategy from early 2012 through 2016, she says she “felt a change” in those years in terms of representation in leadership.
“Women, we got together and would talk about the things we were struggling with and were frustrated by, and most of that I would say was due to external pressures and broader cultural concerns,” Axios says. She recalls instances in which women would be left out of photographs of particular events, for example, or when women in the White House, including Michelle Obama, would draw headlines for what they wore instead of the substance of their work.
Axios says she believes that over the course of his time in office, Obama “really saw how unfair and complicated dynamics were for working women who were already putting in long hours and sometimes doing more at home than their male counterparts were.”
By Obama’s second term, half of all White House departments were headed by women, though the average man still earned about 16 percent more than the average woman in the White House. In terms of his Cabinet, women held 35 percent of positions during his second term, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
The effect is that policy may not reflect the experience of groups that “may not have always experienced the benefits of American citizenship in the same ways,” Gillespie says. “These identities matter because they are politicized.”
This is the crucial takeaway for Budson, too. “Often people will focus on what the numbers show us — how many women, or how many underrepresented minorities were appointed,” she says. “But the most important question is, did one create a Cabinet that enabled the work of all America to get done? Getting it right isn’t about the numbers, it’s about the policy.” For Budson, Obama “got it right on both”; she points to his administration’s efforts at addressing violence against women and attempts at closing the pay gap.
At the Singapore event, Obama reportedly said, “If you look at the world and look at the problems, it’s usually old people, usually old men, not getting out of the way.” That has been a sticking point in the Democratic presidential primary field; younger candidates have called on Joe Biden, who served as a U.S. senator from 1973 to 2009 and as vice president in the Obama administration, to step aside and let the next generation lead.
Dessources Figures says the current political climate has “been really tough” to watch. For her, one recent “bright spot” was the 2018 midterms, when a historic number of women were elected to Congress.
“I know policy is better when it’s made by diverse people,” she says. “I know policy is better when it’s not just made by a room of white men.”