Joe Biden’s Cabinet is set to make history. If all of his nominees are confirmed, 12 of the 24 offices he has designated as Cabinet-level1 will be held by women. And as the chart below shows, that would break a record. Up until now, the most women to serve in these positions at once was eight, first during Bill Clinton’s administration and then again during Barack Obama’s administration.2 What’s more, under Biden, women will occupy three high-profile Cabinet-level posts for the first time: vice president, secretary of the treasury and director of national intelligence.
An equal number of men and women in the Cabinet is a rare accomplishment indeed. It would be the first gender-balanced Cabinet in U.S. history. And it’s rare globally, too. According to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, as of Jan. 1, 2020, only 14 countries had cabinets or cabinet equivalents where at least half of the appointments were held by women. (The U.S. would also be the largest of these countries by far.)
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Biden’s Cabinet is also poised to reach another remarkable milestone: A majority of its members aren’t white, and many will break barriers by serving in their future role.3 Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, for instance, will be the first Black person and first South Asian American to serve as vice president. And Lloyd Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense in American history, while Xavier Becerra and Alejandro Mayorkas would be the first Latinos to lead, respectively, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, Deb Haaland would be the first Indigenous person to lead the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and has jurisdiction over all public lands, which Native Americans have been fighting the federal government over for centuries. And Council of Economic Advisers Chair-designate Cecilia Rouse, Office of Management and Budget Director-designate Neera Tanden and U.S. Trade Representative-designate Katherine Tai would also be the first women of color in their respective roles. In total, Biden’s Cabinet picks include six Black people, four Latinos, three Asian people and one Native American.
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This all represents progress, to be sure, but some barriers remain unbroken. For instance, the “inner Cabinet” — the vice president, attorney general and secretaries of state, defense and treasury, who typically have the closest ties to the president — will still be three-fifths white and three-fifths male. And the most diverse part of Biden’s Cabinet will be the Cabinet-level positions that are not part of the presidential line of succession (the bottom grouping of offices on the chart). So just because women and people of color are equal in number to men and white people does not mean they are equal in terms of influence. And even though Biden has appointed a historic number of women, they still struggle to gain a foothold in stereotypically male Cabinet posts; we have still never had a female secretary of defense, secretary of veterans affairs or chief of staff.