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High Hurdles

Even after decades of progress, women in Washington say they have to work harder than men to get ahead. In their view, job opportunities are not equal.



The air conditioning at the Firehook Bakery near Farragut Square in Washington is barely keeping up with the 100-degree temperature outside. Pamela O’Leary and Mwende Katwiwa find a private table in back. Katwiwa readies her notebook and pen, while O’Leary sips her coffee. “What are the main differences between Washington, D.C., and other places you’ve worked?” Katwiwa asks.

“You always have to dress really conservative here,” O’Leary responds. “Dressing well, doing your hair properly, wearing makeup. I got called out by my female mentors because of that. I appreciated that, but I don’t know that a female supervisor would do that to a male.”


O’Leary and Katwiwa are practicing the time-honored networking tradition of the “informational interview.” O’Leary specializes in teaching young women the rules—particularly the unwritten ones—of climbing the professional ladder in the nation’s capital. She offers feedback to Katwiwa when the interview is over. “You did great. You showed up early. You had lots of great questions.… Always remember to watch the time. These things should go about 20 to 30 minutes. Do you remember what else you are supposed to ask?”

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Katwiwa, a Tulane University student who is interning this summer at the United Nations Population Fund and hopes to find a job in Washington after graduation, dutifully repeats what she has learned. “Is there any other person I can contact? Oh, and remember to send a thank-you note.”


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After the mock interview, Katwiwa reflects on the encounter’s curious blend of Emily Post etiquette and girlfriend sharing. “I had never heard of an informational interview. It seems like such a D.C. thing. I would never think to ask a person about her life. I would think it would be too personal or improper.”

O’Leary has conducted hundreds of these practice sessions with female college students who want to break into the capital’s cloistered political class. The mission of the Public Leadership Education Network, where O’Leary is executive director, is to place women in leadership posts in all areas of public policy.

O’Leary tells her charges to lower their voices, shake hands firmly, introduce themselves with their first and last name, and attend cocktail parties where they don’t know a soul and come away with at least one contact. She teaches them about 15-second elevator pitches and personal branding. (“Take the drinking photos off your Facebook page. Set up a Google alert of yourself.”)


“Washington, D.C.—the government in any form—is the ultimate old boys’ network,” O’Leary told National Journal. Women “excel in the traditional education system,” she said. “We study hard. We get good grades. But that doesn’t translate into gender parity.”

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At 27, O’Leary is not far removed from the experiences of the women she coaches, and that makes her both accessible and mildly intimidating to them. “It’s the whole idea of self-promotion. That’s what it comes down to,” she said. “That’s part of your job. You have to do these things on a regular basis in order to succeed.” If you are a natural introvert, she added, “it’s not going to feel comfortable.”

O’Leary knows that her own success in Washington depends on her willingness to push boundaries without coming across as too aggressive. She leaped at the chance to work in a congressional office, consciously risking the goodwill of her bosses in Los Angeles by turning down a two-year appointment there. “We’re all OK now,” she said. She changed her name from Pammy to Pamela when she moved east. She is taking golf lessons to improve her networking opportunities.


O’Leary is a younger version of the typical political professional in Washington—highly focused, whip smart, and well aware that those traits alone won’t get her ahead. She echoes the feelings of many women in the city when she says that she must work doubly hard because of her gender. The overwhelming prevalence of this “we work harder” idea is surprising, considering that the town’s network of lobbyists, political advocates, government-relations officers, congressional aides, and administration officials is teeming with women.

An NJ online survey of 717 women professionals and nearly two dozen interviews with women across the spectrum of policy and politics echoed O’Leary’s perspective: This is a tough town, and it’s even tougher for women. Almost three-fourths of the women surveyed (73 percent) said that men have more opportunities to get ahead than women. Half said they had personally experienced discrimination at work because of their gender. Older women told NJ that the path is easier now than when they started out. But women still have a long, long way to go.

Sixty percent of the respondents said that it is harder for women than for men to attain positions of leadership. Yet almost the same number of women (65 percent) said they believed they could advance as far as their talents would take them, regardless of gender.

Catherine Hollander contributed contributed to this article.

This article appears in the July 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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