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.
“Women are moving up and getting a higher share of the federal jobs.” —Heidi Hartmann, Institute for Women’s Policy Research
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.
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.