Employment figures on professional women in Washington are spotty at best. Surveys are akin to several flashlights shining on various parts of an elephant. They offer just enough information to suggest her massive presence but do not illuminate the whole animal. The most basic statistics on the nongovernment political sector are simply missing. We don’t know, for example, how many lobbyists are women.
The employment picture for women on Capitol Hill serves as a template, albeit an imperfect one, for how Washington works. The gender inequities are the greatest at the very top—only 17 percent of elected members of Congress are women—and the disparities diminish down the ladder. LegiStorm, which keeps track of congressional staff and their salaries, provided NJ with a salary breakdown of congressional aides by gender.
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.