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Workplace Games Probably Do Matter

Independent of whether it’s a worthwhile use of time for political pundits to spend their time closely tracking who has next during President Barack Obama’s pick-up games, it seems that people are starting to lose perspective on the significance of the story.

Of course, perspective was among the first casualties in the development of this story. Honestly, the Onion couldn’t have written a better article than what is actually being reported.

While NOW president Terry O’Neill moderately describes Obama’s choice of basketball buddies as "troubling", U.S. News & World Report editor Bonnie Erbe claims that Obama is no more comfortable dealing with women than "the dearly departed former Sen. Jesse Helms". Following Erbe’s argument, one might be led to believe that Obama repealed Title IX rather than choosing competition for a friendly game of basketball.

As though the sensationalized political critiques weren’t enough, now Hall-of-Famer Nancy Lieberman has challenged Obama to invite her to the games and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has challenged Obama to a game of Scrabble.

Let’s stop, pause, and start over again.

I actually do think there is some nugget of significance underlying all of this that is worthy of our attention (after we solve the economic, our dilapidated public education system, health care, and the war(s) in the Middle East). The early attackers have just been a bit…overzealous.

As such, I would disagree with those who would say that this is a non-issue because it either has nothing to do with core feminist advocacy or that we shouldn’t care because women like White House communications director Anita Dunn don’t care.

So why should we care? I think LatoyaPeterson of the Jezebel blog has said it best.

So if they don't care, should we?

I think so. I can definitely understand how many women may not be interested in playing sports at work; however, having read dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and attended conferences on how women and minorities advance in the workplace, this question shifts a little. It isn't quite a question of opportunity, as much as it is a question of access. And doing things like going golfing with the boss are part of the traditional path to access. This is one of the opportunities for your boss or potential client to get to know you outside of a business capacity, which may make a crucial difference in decisions about projects and promotions.

The Obama Administration has shown its commitment to women on many different levels, so I'm willing to assume the best on this count. But this recent attention is actually a valuable reminder to watch the traditional paths to power. After all, adequate representation is only half of the battle - do women hold enough clout and access to make major decisions and to push forward their own ideas?

The problem embodied within this situation is not that Obama has systematically excluded women from his entire life and therefore needs to spend some time – any time -- with women to rectify the situation. It really is only a metaphorical reminder of "the traditional paths to power" as described by Peterson.

Although women are getting closer to the places where decisions are made, there is still a level of access with the power-broker-in-chief that they do not have yet and it has daily consequences. I’m not sure that’s news to women who have worked in business, politics, or any number of other fields – some might even call it a "glass ceiling". And, unfortunately, while I think there are plenty of things to critique Obama’s administration for, I’m not sure this should be a priority right now.

It’s neither a Helmsian moment nor should it be entirely dismissed. It has been over-blown at this point and playing with Lieberman would not change the workplace dynamics. But we should probably be wary of dismissing sexism too quickly…again.