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

Two schools of thought prevail about how work and family mesh in Washington. One is a traditional feminist notion that workplaces need to adapt to allow women to have both a career and children. And workplaces aren't there yet. "I wouldn't say that Washington, D.C., is a family-friendly town," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, who advocates for gender equity in the workplace. "There are huge disparities in how women with children fare versus men with children. There is a level of discrimination in caregiving roles that affects women's ability to move up the career ladder."

The bias against women in the workplace isn't as overt as it was in the 1970s and '80s when women were routinely denied employment, Ness says, but it still exists. "It's not as obvious when a woman doesn't get a promotion because she has kids."

The second school of thought, likely to be expressed by conservative and business-oriented women, is more mercenary. You can't be the head of a major lobbying association if you have six children, these women said. You also won't pass the laugh test on a high-level executive search if you look like Grandma. The family and work balance can be managed, as many women in the city have shown, but it requires tough decisions and sacrifices from the whole family.

"How honest are we with each other about our family demands?... We choose, I believe, often not to put in 50 or 60 hours a week to be with our kids, where someone else is willing to do that," said Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America.

Several of the women on NJ's 25 most influential list credited their husbands for stepping off the career fast track to allow them to advance. Reliable nannies are also essential, others say.

Being a woman can actually be a boon to winning the top nongovernment jobs in Washington, Spencer Stuart's Hortum says. She has placed many women as trade-association presidents and corporate vice presidents. "Most of our clients ask us for a diverse slate of candidates. Some will say, 'It would be great to have a woman,' " she said.

Women who have young children, however, may not be the best fit to lead an association. "I'm really honest. I will say if a job requires an awful lot of travel. It is certainly something that a woman thinks about," Hortum said. Executive-search committees know they cannot ask directly about a candidate's commitment to her family versus her job, but they can make sure she knows what they expect. "You have to be really clear about the requirements of the job," Hortum emphasized. The candidates "make that choice."

ACT LIKE A MAN, THINK LIKE A WOMAN

Politics thrives on relationships. The most powerful professionals have access to the key administration and congressional aides who can give them vital information that affects their industries. The best lobbyists and politicians have deep networks built on years of trust and friendship, some of it created during off hours sipping martinis or teeing off on the golf course.

Yet the qualities needed to navigate the political scene--empathy, observation, loyalty--are particularly innate to women. "This whole field of politics and public affairs has become increasingly female over the years," said Public Affairs Council President Doug Pinkham, whose group represents public- and government-affairs executives "There is a much stronger move toward an integrated approach to advocacy, not just old buddies sharing a scotch on Capitol Hill."

Women working inside the Beltway already have the same hard-charging drive associated with men, Pinkham observes, but they also have an ability to see the forest through the trees. "It's not this, 'I win, you lose.' It's a much more broad, inclusive, ambiguous approach, where you don't know if you're going to win. It's about building allies. I think that Washington is slowly becoming less of a man's world."

"Women are the best networkers in the whole world," contended Susan Scanlan, who runs the Women's Research and Education Institute. She has observed the trends for Washington women since the 1970s. Thirty years ago, Scanlan says, female professionals "had been conditioned to treat other women as rivals." Now, the swelling ranks of professional women in the city make it easier for them to work in teams and help each other out.

Women in Government Relations is one of many networks that focuses on the needs of professional women in policy and politics. Its members span the policy arena--working in such fields as transportation, education, and health care--but they share common concerns. "We really talk about some of those challenges we face. It still remains a very male-dominated industry," said Patricia Gaitan, the group's executive director. "This is what you need to do in order to ask for a raise. This is what you need to do to make sure your name is in this document. This is the way you get the credit you deserve."

The key to success for women in Washington is turning the unspoken prejudices to their advantage, says Peggy Tighe, who has worked in the city for more than 20 years. Now a partner at the Strategic Health Care lobbying firm, she is a former president of Women in Government Relations and regularly speaks to up-and-coming women about how to make it inside the Beltway.

"Strom Thurmond touched my ass," Tighe said of the late senator from South Carolina, who was notorious for his interactions with women. "You don't scream and yell and be offended. I literally grabbed Strom Thurmond's hand and said, 'Oh, Senator, it's so good to see you,' so he wouldn't touch my ass. Don't assume that everything you were taught in your feminist class is actionable. You've got to be tough to work in this town." Tighe says she doesn't shy away from acting like a man in her job. She drinks with her male colleagues, curses, and tells dirty jokes. It doesn't pay to be easily offended, she says, but it also helps to have other women to share her experiences with. "There is the old boys' club and the not-so-old girls' club," Tighe said. The girls' club "is about how to handle your infertility and your boyfriend as well as how to ask for a raise."

INCOMPLETE PICTURE

Employment figures on professional women in Washington are spotty at best. Surveys are akin to several flashlights shining on various parts of an elephant. They offer just enough information to suggest her massive presence but do not illuminate the whole animal. The most basic statistics on the nongovernment political sector are simply missing. We don't know, for example, how many lobbyists are women.

The employment picture for women on Capitol Hill serves as a template, albeit an imperfect one, for how Washington works. The gender inequities are the greatest at the very top -- only 17 percent of elected members of Congress are women--and the disparities diminish down the ladder. LegiStorm, which keeps track of congressional staff and their salaries, provided NJ with a salary breakdown of congressional aides by gender.

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Fawn Johnson is a correspondent for National Journal.

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