The Hill Life: The Uphill Climb
Sep 21, 2011
This week, Washington is abuzz with talk about Ron Suskind’s new book “Confidence Men.” One of the most frequently quoted passages is a quote by former communications director, Anita Dunn. Here is the quote from the transcript the Washington post has of that conversation:
“I remember once I told Valerie [Jarrett] that, I said if it weren’t for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” Dunn is heard telling Suskind. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”
This prompted mainstream media into an almost-endless, cyclical discussion about whether politics and government is hostile place for women to work. Pundits, journalists, “experts” and public figures are suddenly realizing that maybe Washington, D.C. isn’t the easiest place to be a professional woman.
The Suskind controversy reminded me of an Erika Lovley piece that ran in Politico titled, “Female staffers face uphill climb.” In the article, Lovley reveals that while the majority of entry- and mid-level positions on the Hill are held by women, less than half of the LD and Chief of Staff positions are. Lovley also lays out some of the reasons why the Hill is a difficult place for women to work.
Now, I firmly believe that women can succeed on the Hill, in politics and in Washington, D.C. in general. However, I also believe that it is harder for a woman than it is for a man, but not always for the reasons that you think.
Perception is Reality. When you reach the upper echelons of Capitol Hill, you spend a lot of time with your Boss. You attend fundraisers, dinners, happy hours, conventions and even take trips with the Boss. You’re his first phone call, and most likely, his closest confidant.
Most Congressmen and Senators are male. Washington, D.C. is a place with an electric rumor mill. So a male government official can’t spend huge amounts of time with a woman who is his employee unless he wants everyone to gossip about him. Because they will, especially if that woman is attractive.
So even if you’re qualified, you may get passed over for a CoS or LD position because in politics, appearances matter.
The Old Boys Club. A professor of mine worked in D.C. in the 1970s when there were only two jobs available to her: scheduler and press person. Before I finished grad school, she and I had a long talk about whether D.C. had really changed, and she had an anecdote that really put life on Capitol Hill in perspective.
Washington is like a pyramid. Thousands of people move to town in their early twenties, but very few of them make it to the top. And when they do make it to the top, they don’t leave until they’re carried down on a stretcher.
Most of the people at the pinnacle have been there since the 1970s and 1980s, and because they’re powerful, no one has forced them to evolve. So while it’s easier for women to make it to the top than it was decades ago, some of the men standing on the upper levels still don’t want them there. And if the people at the top don’t mentor, hire and make room for the people on the lower levels, they’re stuck looking up until someone dies.
Camaraderie. You have to hang out with your male colleagues. If they’re going to happy hour, ask if you can go along. If they’re doing a Fantasy Football/March Madness/Rotisserie league, join it. They’ll be happy to have more money in the pot. And if you’re having a barbecue, a birthday party or other event, invite them.
We have a tendency to just hang out with other women, but in a male-driven/dominated industry we need to make more of an effort to be bipartisan. We need to know a little about sports. Pick a football team, just one will do, and learn about your team. Usually, being able to talk intelligently about even one team is enough for a five minute conversation at the water cooler.
When it comes to the guys in the office and their personal relationships, don’t be the gossip, be the guru. Guys are often clueless about how to make birthdays and anniversaries extra special, offer some counsel, if you know the guy well. Trust me, if you become the person who made their girlfriend/fiancee/wife happy, they will come to you for advice every time.
You want to be seen as part of a cohesive unit, The Office, and not as The Girl in the Office. The Office goes to the bar, The Girl doesn’t. Sometimes, you need to to what you can to help yourself and it’s not always hard work.
UPDATE: (I should have mentioned this before.) Having a congenial relationship with the men in the office may not win you the promotion. I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that, being on good, friendly terms with the men in the office will make the work environment better and foster teamwork and cohesiveness.
This can help you enjoy your job more and make it easier for you to work at that office/company/etc. long enough to climb the ladder. It can also help you build a good network, which is an asset in any job.
Women vs. Women. I’ve had male bosses. I’ve had female bosses. Without a doubt, the female bosses were harder on me than the male ones were. Why? Because a woman who has climbed the ladder often thinks that the way she did it is the best way, maybe the only way. So when she sees you doing something she thinks is wrong (read: not the way she’d do it), she’s going to tell you and judge you.
I’m not saying all female bosses are this way. I’m sure there are some great ones out there. But in my experience, women are more likely to micro-manage, judge, over-analyze and be disappointed in their female employees than men are.
I once had a female boss say to me, “I’d love to promote you to (open, higher paying position), but you’re not ready. You’re just not reaching the potential I know you have, and it’s such a let down for me.”
So she promoted a guy who worked there half as long, with less education, who was less adept at getting results. I quit to go somewhere else. The guy was fired three months later for failing to meet his monthly quotas.
She is still in charge of that department and she has no female account representatives, but she has a female secretary, four female interns and a female office manager. Funny how that works out.
Stereotypes. We’ve come a long way in the fight for women’s lib. However, we still live in a world where women are judged differently than men. Men are forceful, women are bitches. Men argue, women are catty. Etcetera.
Now, as you could probably guess, I’m a talker. My parents joke that if I didn’t live on the other side of the country, they would be deaf by now. But I’ll never forget being in a meeting about five years ago where a male colleague talked for 20 minutes of a 30 minute meeting, I talked for five, and my boss later asked me to try not to monopolize the conversation anymore. I was crushed.
How do you fight the stereotypes? You can work harder. You can rethink the way you express yourself. But the truth is, sometimes you can’t. They’re deeply embedded. But you can accept the fact that if standing up for yourself and having your opinions expressed is being a bitch, then you’re a bitch. And you can be okay with that.
So how do we change the culture of Washington?
First off, we have to work just as hard as the men do. We have to put in the same hours. We have to constantly strive to do more, to do better. But it’s not enough to just work hard…
We also have to fight for ourselves. Women get paid less than men. Sometimes it’s sexism, but most of the time, it’s because we don’t fight as hard as the men do for raises. We get told no, we back off. A man gets told no, he reassesses his argument and comes back again and again and again.
Also, women aren’t very good a saying flat-out, “I want this promotion.” We typically wait for someone to recognize us, to see our value and make us an offer. One of my mentors, The Princess, gave me the best piece of advice: You will never get what you don’t ask for.
If the LD job is open and you want it, ASK for it. The worst thing someone can say is no. And if your Boss doesn’t value you enough to promote you (or at least give you a damn good reason why not), move on.
Lastly, we need to support other women. We need to check ourselves to make sure that we’re not holding the women we work with to a higher standard than we hold the men. And we need to do what we can to keep our female employees past the Staff Assistant and Scheduler level. Too many women are evacuating the government and the Hill in their mid- to late-20s because the opportunities just seem to dry up or no longer provide the flexibility that mothers and caregivers need. If you’re a female boss and you have no women in the upper reaches of your office, department, company, ask yourself why and what you can/should do to help.
So what do you say ladies? Is DC/the government/the Hill/politics a hostile work environment for women? And what can we do to fix it?