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

The number of women and men employed on Capitol Hill is roughly equal, but more than twice as many chiefs of staff are men. The disparity is even starker among Republican members, who employ more than four times as many men than women in their top staff spots. In offices headed by Democrats, the number of male and female chiefs of staff is almost equal in the House, while men still outnumber women 2-to-1 in the Senate.

The paucity of senior women congressional aides is just as pronounced among legislative directors, who generally occupy the No. 2 spot in a member's office. Men outnumber female legislative directors by almost 2-to-1. Down the job ladder, the imbalance doesn't disappear until reaching mid-level legislative-assistant jobs. These positions represent the bulk of the professional jobs on the Hill. Among House members, slightly more women than men hold legislative-assistant posts. Men have a slight edge in the Senate.

The relative gender parity among mid- to lower-level congressional staffers is not surprising. No one disputes that it is far easier for women to get hired in entry-level public-policy jobs, or in mid-career professional slots, than it was even 10 years ago. Legislative-assistant positions are a traditional gateway to more senior lobbying or government roles. These are jobs in which ambitious men and women excel but aren't likely to linger as they head up or out to more lucrative gigs with better hours. Men may hold more of the top spots in congressional offices simply because it takes longer to advance to them. Women are only starting to get to those levels.

The pattern of female workers in the executive branch mirrors that of Capitol Hill. The overall number of male and female federal workers in Washington is about equal, according to the most recent data from the Office of Personnel Management. But there are half again as many men than women at the General Schedule 15 level, where the annual salaries range from $99,000 to $129,000. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that women make up 44 percent of the overall federal workforce nationwide, but they are overrepresented at lower levels and underrepresented at senior levels.


Lessons on effective salary negotiation are a common feature of women's networking organizations in D.C. They address a widely held fear among the capital's women that they are at a disadvantage in negotiating pay. Conventional wisdom holds that women are less likely to ask for a raise or a promotion. "They often come across as shrill," said one female executive who has been involved in several high-level political hiring negotiations and who spoke on background for the express purpose of being forthright. O'Leary, of the Public Leadership Education Network, says that the pay gaps can start in a woman's first job negotiation, particularly if she appears overeager to break in. (Men, everyone agreed, are naturally more aggressive about salary discussions.) "The magic phrase we tell them to use is, 'This number is important to me. What can we do to get me closer to this number?' Then smile and shut up," O'Leary said. "Don't accept the offer immediately."

A predetermined and ostensibly gender-blind government pay scale somewhat narrows the pay gap between Washington's male and female political professionals. If a woman is placed in a certain position in the federal government, she must earn the same as a similarly situated man.

Likewise, almost no difference exists in pay for men and women in comparable congressional jobs, according to the figures compiled by LegiStorm. The slightly higher pay for men on Capitol Hill, at about $30 per day, is attributable to the greater concentration of men in higher-ranking positions.

The pay situation gets far murkier when examining the private-sector employers and nonprofit groups that thrive on Washington politics. The existing data are either proprietary or too generalized to provide any meaningful conclusions. For example, the Census Bureau shows a $9,000 gap between the median earnings of men and women who live in the District of Columbia and work in "public administration." But the figures don't reveal what positions those men and women hold or whether they even work inside the District.

NJ conducted its own salary survey of the heads of more than 500 Washington-based associations, which found a pay gap of 10 to 20 percent between men and women. The difference between the median annual compensation of female and male leaders of trade groups is on the 10 percent side, with women earning about $433,000 and men earning $483,000. Averaging the compensation, however, reveals a gap closer to 20 percent. A few unusually high compensation packages for men in the lobbying community, such as the $11.6 million for Billy Tauzin, former president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, helps to skew that figure.

NJ's survey clearly illustrates the scarcity of women in top lobbying and trade-group posts. Four times as many men than women hold these leadership positions.

Anecdotally, it is easy to point to the seven prominent female association presidents who make more than $1 million a year. But it is worth noting that the lowest annual compensation in the survey, at $93,757, also belongs to a woman -- Margaret Baptiste, formerly of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

Outside of government jobs, the situation for women in political Washington isn't far off the national picture. Full-time working women across the country earn about 82 cents on the dollar compared with men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis started working in D.C. as a litigator in 1979, when few women were lawyers and even fewer were partners. Like every professional in the city, she has war stories. A college professor threatened to flunk her because she was a woman. She had to finish a Supreme Court brief hours after giving birth to her third child. Her struggle to balance work and family (she has four children) peaked during an unpleasant legal dispute over a landfill in Islip, N.Y., which required her to be away every weekend. "At the end of that I said, 'There is more to life than garbage.' "

Washington can offer a rare gift to professionals like Mohrman-Gillis who are coping with family and work conflicts -- it gives them the chance to reboot their vocations without losing ground. When litigating became untenable, Mohrman-Gillis took a job at the Federal Communications Commission. "Washington in general is just very wide open in giving opportunities for talented professionals, whether they are men or women, to redirect their careers," she said. "It is unlike other cities where the economy is more based on for-profit companies."

Mohrman-Gillis is now the managing director of public policy and communications for the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, and she has spent the past several years making sure that the financial-planning community has a seat at the regulatory table, especially now, in the wake of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law. The effort has put the group on the public-policy map.

Decades of life experience separate Mohrman-Gillis and O'Leary of the Public Leadership Education Network, but they and the other professionals who spoke to NJ share the same impression about women in Washington: Although career barriers still exist, they far are less daunting than they once were.

A woman may be alone in a boardroom full of men, but now nobody questions her right to be there or her ability to run the meeting. A hidden expectation of underperformance may still dog women professionals, particularly younger ones. Those biases can be overcome, however.

To succeed, women have to be at the top of their game. To survive, they have to know when to alter their career path to accommodate their rest of their life. The benefits of working in the political class in Washington lie in the rich array of career options it offers. The government will always be here, along with the businesses and interest groups that deal with it. And those organizations will always need women.

Catherine Hollander contributed

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