When President Obama recently announced the formation of a White House Council on Women and Girls, he caught heat from both sides — from women who accused him of doing too little for their sex, and from those who accused him of doing too much, insisting that it's boys and men who need special attention these days, not girls and women.
Guys do seem to be having a tough time of it. Look at the job statistics: A year ago, the unemployment rate for men aged 45 to 55 was below the national average, now it's 8.7 percent compared to the 8.1 percent for the nation as a whole. For women of the same age, the jobless rate falls to 5.7 percent. Similar discrepancies hold out across the board, for men and women of all ages and all education levels.
College admissions tell a similar story. The census bureau recently reported that 55 percent of undergraduate spots are going to women, plus 60 percent of the places in graduate schools. College, of course, is only for those who make it through high school, and there again the numbers for boys aren't great. About three-quarters of the girls who enter high school graduate; the number drops to about two-thirds of the boys.
Why not a White House Council on Men and Boys? Because men still run everything, that's why. The "visuals" of the announcement of the White House Council made the roles of the sexes quite clear — a man, President Obama, stood at the lectern eloquently proclaiming that he would work "to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements"; the women, including the president's accomplished wife, sat in the audience and applauded.
Given the fact that women make up the majority of the electorate and of colleges and professional schools, their numbers in positions of power are remarkably small. Yes, there's a female speaker of the House, but only 17 percent of the U.S. Congress and just about the same percentage of partners at major law firms are women. Only 13 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and women make up only about one-third of college professors, with the numbers going down as the prestige of the institutions goes up.
In our own business, news, the numbers are about the same. The most recent survey of broadcast news showed 28 percent of major stories reported by women, and at newspapers women make up not quite 40 percent of the writers/reporters and a little more than one-third of the supervisors. That might be the reason that, as tennis champion Billie Jean King once complained in an interview with Cokie, "we get 8 percent of the sports page — horses and dogs get about 7 percent, or about what we do."
To pick up the paper or turn on the television, you'd never know that two-thirds of the students in journalism schools are women. You'd also never know that white men made up only 36 percent of the electorate last year; you'd think they were the majority. And the place where men, especially white men, still hold almost all the power? It's the place where the decisions that affect millions of lives are made — corporate boards of directors. An analysis published just this month shows that only 15 percent of the seats on public boards are held by women, and 13 percent of publicly traded companies have no women at all among their directors.
So, yes, women and girls still need special attention. A White House Council is welcome, even if the president is only doing the minimum to try to placate women who supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination battle, some of whom are demanding a Cabinet-level position for women's concerns or a "blue ribbon" presidential commission on women. That demand is a little ironic: When President Kennedy created just such a "blue ribbon" panel, he infuriated supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment who were looking for his endorsement rather than what they saw as some squishy commission.
But out of that commission came the landmark law requiring equal pay for men and women in government. Perhaps even more important, it spurred a full-blown women's political movement that brought about many of the advances that women have made in the almost half-century since then. Who knows what a White House Council might do? Let's give it a try.
Cokie Roberts' latest book is "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation" (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.