People should take note when conservative Republicans and progressive feminists are saying the same thing: that women are sadly underrepresented in all areas of government. There is distinct pessimism reflected among women in politics about their career breaks compared with men. In a National Journal survey of 717 professional Washington women, 73 percent said that men have more opportunities for advancement than women. Six out of 10 said that it is harder for women to attain positions of leadership than it is for men.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is not a liberal feminist, but she echoes feminists’ concerns when she says that more women need to run for office. “I was around the 200th woman to ever serve in Congress, Republican or Democrat.... There has been something like over 11,000 members who served in Congress,” she said in an interview. “We need to encourage women to run for office, especially on the Republican side.”
McMorris Rodgers is unusual. She is the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress and the congressional liaison for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “It’s still relatively new to see women serving in all these positions and taking on more leadership,” she said.
Perhaps that novelty is why NJ’s survey about women in Washington turned up an overall negative outlook, a surprising finding considering the ostensible array of powerful women influencing national policy, from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to American Insurance Association President Leigh Ann Pusey. Half of the survey respondents said they had experienced sex discrimination at work. Among women over 60, that number was a whopping 71 percent.
“There are a lot of very high-powered women, and that obscures to some extent the overall problem,” said Jennifer Lawless, a professor who runs the Women and Politics Institute at American University. Lawless’s research suggests that two of the biggest factors contributing to women not running for office relate to their perception of themselves compared to men. First, they think that there is a bias against women in elections. (There actually isn’t, Lawless said. Female and male candidates fare equally.) Second, women think they aren’t qualified to be political candidates. “Men look at themselves, and even if they think they can’t do it they still do it,” she said. “Women hold themselves up to a hypothetical bar that no one could ever reach.”
Women make up 17 percent of Congress. They are underrepresented in the top congressional, administration, and lobbying jobs in Washington, according to NJ’s analysis of available data. Republican women are slightly less likely to attribute the career barriers to gender; 57 percent of Republicans said men have more opportunities than women, compared with 78 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents.
Women are populating the lower- and mid-level political jobs in greater numbers, suggesting that it may only be a matter of time—who knows how much—before the gender ratios are less skewed. In the face of these difficulties, NJ’s survey shows that women in Washington are relatively cheerful about their own advancement prospects. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) said they believed that they could advance as far as their talents would take them. That level of optimism was even higher for respondents ages 21 to 29, at 86 percent, and 30 to 39, at 75 percent. Oddly, optimism about career advancement was lower among women in the executive branch (55 percent) than among women on the Hill (75 percent) or in the private sector (72 percent).
In terms of professional opportunities for women, most respondents believed that Washington is either ahead of the rest of the nation (59 percent) or on pace with it (33 percent). Only 9 percent said that Washington lags behind.
This article appears in the July 12, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.