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An Up(Hill) Climb for Women on Congressional Staffs | Commentary

As political pundits and campaigns ramp up for the 2014 midterm elections, the media is focusing again on the female vote and female candidates. There is good reason for the attention on women. The 2012 elections brought more women than ever before into the halls of Congress. Even at a relatively paltry 18 percent, female participation is now at record-breaking levels for Congress. In 2012, exit poll results showed that women accounted for 53 percent of voters, showing that the female vote is a key determinant for winning an election in America today.

While the spotlight shines on female candidates and office holders, little is known about the state of women’s participation as key advisers to congressional leaders. Behind every member of Congress and every congressional committee are the staffers who wield tremendous power — formulating policy positions, drafting legislation and keeping their bosses informed on the key issues.

The number of women in Congress tells just part of the story about women’s advancement in American politics.

A new report by Women In International Security — an organization that supports women’s equal participation in international peace and security careers — provides a peek behind the curtain of congressional offices with a sampling of the views and experiences of women working on foreign policy and national security portfolios. The report shows that despite an increasing number of women on the Hill, key national security portfolios, such as national defense and intelligence, remain male-dominated. The study also points to the propensity for male staffers to advance further and faster than their female counterparts. For example, women still occupy less than 50 percent of chief of staff positions in either chamber of Congress. The disparity translates in considerable salary inequities. On average, female House staffers earn $5,863 less than their male counterparts and female Senate staffers earn $7,278 less.

Women’s advancement on the Hill is also impeded by inconsistent human resources policies that vary widely across offices, and the absence of any uniform procedures for evaluating staff and management on an annual basis. As one interviewee observed, “Senators and members of Congress may be progressive, but it is not a progressive institution.”

As a result, there are very few employee protections in the workplace, which leaves congressional staffers at the mercy of individuals in senior leadership in their offices. Often, there is little support for workplace benefits such as adequate family leave policies or flexible hours, and female staffers say that female lawmakers are not always vocal supporters of these concerns. This parallels trends in other industries — when women remain in the minority of leadership positions, they tend to resist opening themselves to criticism for taking up feminist causes.

At a time when congressional approval levels have hit record lows, women in congressional offices seem to mirror the public’s frustration with the lack of leadership in Congress. Women interviewed for the WIIS study said that in general, members of Congress and senior staff members were poor managers. Not surprisingly, inside congressional offices, women report that there is very little value placed on learning or rewarding the collaborative leadership approaches that are most needed to overcome partisan gridlock, or to create more progressive working environments on the Hill.

As we enter another election cycle, it is time look at the whole picture of women in politics, including those who are shaping our policies from within. If we want to encourage more women to succeed in public policy environments, we need to fix the workplace climate and culture on the Hill. A first step would be to improve the transparency around salaries and positions and to standardize family-friendly workplace policies across offices. More opportunities for mentoring and professional development training would also help women, who typically do not get enough of this type of career assistance.

Women working for Congress can change the political game by bringing gender sensitivity and diverse perspectives to the lawmaking process. More women in public policy decision-making — including behind the scenes — would be a good thing for Congress and for America.

Jolynn Shoemaker is the former executive director of Women In International Security. She is the author of “Women in Peace and Security Careers: U.S. Congressional Staffs” and a previous WIIS report, “Women in Peace and Security Careers: U.S. Executive Branch.”

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