gender politics

Valerie Jarrett and the ‘Wears Many Hats’ Trap

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

One time, at a networking event for young women, I took a quick, informal poll: “Who here has a job description?” Only one or two hands went up. I was appalled. A job description is how you mark your progress up the career ladder. It’s your basis for negotiation, the starting point for a conversation with your boss when you realize your responsibilities and workload have outpaced your salary and title. Without a job description, it’s hard to say, “Here’s what you hired me to do, here’s what I’m doing now, here’s the gap in between.” And without a clear title, it’s also hard to develop a professional narrative, to identify the rungs on your career ladder.

I was thinking about this as I read the New York Times’ attempt to figure out exactly what Valerie Jarrett does for a living.

The senior White House adviser and BFF of Barack Obama is certainly important — that much comes across — but the jury seems to be out on how effective and competent she is in her nebulous, high-level role. “From the first, her official job has been somewhat vague,” according to the Times, “But nearly four years on, with Mr. Obama poised to accept his party’s renomination this week, her standing is clear, to her many admirers and detractors alike.”

Is it? Take this quote, from an anonymous senior adviser: “Valerie is effectively the chief of staff, and [Obama] knows, but he doesn’t know.” Effectively? Her boss knows, but he doesn’t know? Oof. The Times points out that, “to some extent,” Jarrett is “part of a White House tradition” of West Wing powerhouses with indeterminate roles, like Bruce Lindsey, Karen Hughes, and Harriet Miers. But is she also part of an American tradition of women who, in working beyond their job descriptions and without formal titles, end up undermining themselves?

As someone who has had, at various points in my career, job responsibilities that outpaced my title and salary, Jarrett’s “effective” role hits close to home. Working beyond my job description was at times a huge opportunity and other times a curse. I appreciated the opportunity to punch above my weight class, but I grew resentful as I watched the recognition and accolades accrue to my boss — even when he did his best to privately recognize the work I was doing. In every case, I think my gender was a factor in creating that work dynamic. How many women do you know who are “effectively” doing the job of someone with more status and a higher salary and a better title? Now, for how many men can you say the same?

Women, both in stereotype and in reality, tend to wear many hats. In the workplace, we juggle, we fill the gaps that need to be filled, we strive to be everything to everyone. Whether we acknowledge it at a surface level or not, usually it’s a result of being raised to please and trying to compensate for casual sexism. And so saying a woman does everything and is important to everyone isn’t a compliment, it’s just a description of a professional coping mechanism. Jarrett submitted a single statement for the article: “My role is to ensure that a wide and diverse range of perspectives are heard to inform the president’s decision making process” and to “give the president candid advice.” Pretty vague.

Why does this matter? Consider the criticism directed at Jarrett — that she’s too influential, or that she tends to overstep her professional bounds. High-ranking officials with concrete job descriptions can use them to respond to their detractors: “Hey, I’m just doing my job.” That’s pretty tough to do without a description to point to, some backup as to your primary area of focus and responsibility. In jobs as in fashion, there is value to wearing just one hat. You can always add secondary accessories.