Washington, D.C.: Still a Tough Town for the Ladies

Even after decades of progress, women in the capital say they have to work harder than men to get ahead. In their view, job opportunities are not equal.

In 1991, a group of female representatives marched to the Senate to express concern about Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court. (Associated Press)

The air conditioning at the Firehook Bakery near Farragut Square in Washington is barely keeping up with the 100-degree temperature outside. Pamela O'Leary and Mwende Katwiwa find a private table in back. Katwiwa readies her notebook and pen, while O'Leary sips her coffee. "What are the main differences between Washington, D.C., and other places you've worked?" Katwiwa asks.

"You always have to dress really conservative here," O'Leary responds. "Dressing well, doing your hair properly, wearing makeup. I got called out by my female mentors because of that. I appreciated that, but I don't know that a female supervisor would do that to a male."

O'Leary and Katwiwa are practicing the time-honored networking tradition of the "informational interview." O'Leary specializes in teaching young women the rules -- particularly the unwritten ones -- of climbing the professional ladder in the nation's capital. She offers feedback to Katwiwa when the interview is over. "You did great. You showed up early. You had lots of great questions .... Always remember to watch the time. These things should go about 20 to 30 minutes. Do you remember what else you are supposed to ask?"

Katwiwa, a Tulane University student who is interning this summer at the United Nations Population Fund and hopes to find a job in Washington after graduation, dutifully repeats what she has learned. "Is there any other person I can contact? Oh, and remember to send a thank-you note."

After the mock interview, Katwiwa reflects on the encounter's curious blend of Emily Post etiquette and girlfriend sharing. "I had never heard of an informational interview. It seems like such a D.C. thing. I would never think to ask a person about her life. I would think it would be too personal or improper."

O'Leary has conducted hundreds of these practice sessions with female college students who want to break into the capital's cloistered political class. The mission of the Public Leadership Education Network, where O'Leary is executive director, is to place women in leadership posts in all areas of public policy.

O'Leary tells her charges to lower their voices, shake hands firmly, introduce themselves with their first and last name, and attend cocktail parties where they don't know a soul and come away with at least one contact. She teaches them about 15-second elevator pitches and personal branding. ("Take the drinking photos off your Facebook page. Set up a Google alert of yourself.")

"Washington, D.C. -- the government in any form -- is the ultimate old boys' network," O'Leary told National Journal. Women "excel in the traditional education system," she said. "We study hard. We get good grades. But that doesn't translate into gender parity."

At 27, O'Leary is not far removed from the experiences of the women she coaches, and that makes her both accessible and mildly intimidating to them. "It's the whole idea of self-promotion. That's what it comes down to," she said. "That's part of your job. You have to do these things on a regular basis in order to succeed." If you are a natural introvert, she added, "it's not going to feel comfortable."

O'Leary knows that her own success in Washington depends on her willingness to push boundaries without coming across as too aggressive. She leaped at the chance to work in a congressional office, consciously risking the goodwill of her bosses in Los Angeles by turning down a two-year appointment there. "We're all OK now," she said. She changed her name from Pammy to Pamela when she moved east. She is taking golf lessons to improve her networking opportunities.


O'Leary is a younger version of the typical political professional in Washington -- highly focused, whip smart, and well aware that those traits alone won't get her ahead. She echoes the feelings of many women in the city when she says that she must work doubly hard because of her gender. The overwhelming prevalence of this "we work harder" idea is surprising, considering that the town's network of lobbyists, political advocates, government-relations officers, congressional aides, and administration officials is teeming with women.

An NJ online survey of 717 women professionals and nearly two dozen interviews with women across the spectrum of policy and politics echoed O'Leary's perspective: This is a tough town, and it's even tougher for women. Almost three-fourths of the women surveyed (73 percent) said that men have more opportunities to get ahead than women. Half said they had personally experienced discrimination at work because of their gender. Older women told NJ that the path is easier now than when they started out. But women still have a long, long way to go.

Sixty percent of the respondents said that it is harder for women than for men to attain positions of leadership. Yet almost the same number of women (65 percent) said they believed they could advance as far as their talents would take them, regardless of gender.

The current cover story in The Atlantic (which is owned by Atlantic Media, National Journal's parent company), "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," captured the dilemmas of professional women in balancing work and family. NJ's research into the status of women in Washington shows that those problems are no less potent in a political town that, in many ways, represents the ultimate professional meritocracy. An Ivy League education is less important than being able to spot a problem in a draft bill and knowing someone on the Hill who can fix it.

A tour of duty through Congress or the administration is a virtual requirement for high-level policy and lobbying jobs, and that path has an equalizing effect on women's employment in public policy. An added leveling component comes from the political correctness that fuels this town. Women matter as a voting bloc. They need to be represented, at least pictorially, in the power factions of government. "In government, the salaries are capped at the top for men, and women have a chance for reaching that top," said Heidi Hartmann, a George Washington University professor who heads the Institute for Women's Policy Research and studies women in the workplace. "In Congress and the federal government, women are moving up and getting a higher share of the federal jobs," she added. "It's a continuing problem to still get in there on equal footing."

The "but" that lingers in Hartmann's analysis crops up in every conversation or query about the role of women in Washington. Women are indeed muscling their way toward the back rooms where the most important decisions are made. But the door is still closed much of the time. Even President Obama, who arguably is one of the most feminist presidents in U.S. history, is not immune to criticism. "The people he plays basketball and golf with are male. Most of his Cabinet secretaries are men," Hartmann said. "There does still seem to be a sense in which the inner circle is frequently male-dominated."


Washington has always provided opportunities for white-collar professionals. The government serves up a steady stream of jobs that are oriented toward the social sciences. Nowadays, those jobs attract more women, who cluster in social-science or arts-oriented studies and are graduating from college at higher rates than men. The city is home to several major universities, a key factor in upping women's labor participation. Women also tend to have the kinds of attributes -- diligence, good manners, smarts -- that make them easy hires. "Washington is one of those markets where it's really all about your talent," said Leslie Hortum, who manages the D.C. office of Spencer Stuart, an executive search firm.

The city's professional women are already luckier than a broad swath of the people in the country who didn't have access to higher education. Yet they still face career barriers, and often the biggest one is having a family. The most prestigious jobs tend to be the worst for families. Top lobbyists, congressional aides, and White House staffers cope with long and unpredictable hours, lots of travel, and relentless pressure to influence the legislative or regulatory machine. Several women who mentor younger professionals told National Journal that balancing work and family is one of the foremost concerns in women's minds even before they graduate from college. Men typically don't worry about family as often or in the same way, they observed.

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