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?
I can definitely identify with your comments about female managers vs male managers. Why are women so hard on each other?
No Drama Mama says:
I read the article in Politico. When we are talking about women getting ahead (or lagging behind) it always seems to come down to family. So far, I have managed to continue up without sacrificing a family completely, but obviously I don't have as much time as I would like either at work or at home. No one can really have it all. However, I don't think I would have made it very far on the Hill. I will never be willing to regularly put in more than 9 hours a day. Once every now and then, sure. Thank you for posting this. It makes me a little sad, because I have to give up certain career goals, but all in all I would rather do that than give up having children.
I'd like to expand on your comment about female managers being harder on female staff… In my experience, the reasoning applies to other groups as well. I am an Indian-American. While in school, I found my Indian / Indian-American TAs and Professors were harsher on me than my classmates. I've had the same experience in the workplace when I've had Indian-American bosses.
It was frustrating.
Dr. Jean Grey says:
Belle, you are spot on about younger women staffing older men. Our office has rules against it-being or traveling alone w/ is a no-no. My boss is a perfect gentleman and I like this policy because it protects both of our images! But, at the same time, it means the boys in the office gets lots more face time.
What a great post Belle! I'm currently in college and itching to work on the Hill. This was an eye opener but not discouraging. I have to say though you're right 100% on the we don't ask for it. I'll definitely have to work on this. Thanks for the great advice!
Although the majority of this debate is about DC Government life, I think the advice applies to a lot of different male-dominated fields. I'm in an area of the sciences that has a lot more men than women, and very few women are tenured faculty. Needless to say the old-boy ways, and all the “tips” they gave us for getting ahead in the field were useless, and we had very few female mentors to look up to. I agree completely with Belle that the way to get ahead is a mix of assertiveness (asking for things/going for opportunities and not being afraid of rejection) and firmness (not allowing male colleagues to get away with sexist behavior, and resisting the stereotype that women who speak their mind are “bitchy”). I think over time that these male-dominated fields, and definitely the DC life, will start to change as women rise to the top and begin helping other women to get ahead.
Great post, Belle.
I have to say, Belle, this post really conflicts with a post you wrote a couple of weeks ago about the interaction of men and women in the workplace. I understand where you are coming from in both posts, but I think your advice to young women in the post on office relationships was too extreme. You basically advised in that post that women should avoid any social interaction with men because it might send them mixed signals, or send mixed signals to other people you work with who may assume that you are flirting in order to get ahead (even if you do not think you are flirting or being too chummy). Maybe I interpreted your previous post the wrong way, but I don't think you can have it both ways. Either women should try to treat male coworkers and colleagues the same way they treat female coworkers, or they shouldn't. It seems like you aren't being geniune when you say in this post that women should have “comraderie” with male coworkers and you say in another post that women should avoid any personal questions or relationships with men at the risk of seeming like they are romantically interested.
I think you are right-on in this post, but I think the prevoius post was just written in terms that were too absolute. I really enjoy your blog and the opinions you have to offer, even if I respectfully disagree from time to time.
First of all, great post. It really addresses some of the key issues women face in male dominated industries. I think this issue is not isolated to women working on Capitol Hill. I am an engineer and have had to face and navigate all of the challenges you mention above.
It is an interesting challenge to become a confidant and friend to male coworkers without being seen as a flirt or being gossiped about. I think like you've described above, the trick is to disarm tensions due to gender by being part of the office in group settings as opposed to developing close one on one friendships. Unfortunate as it is, I think you have to be very careful about being too close with a male co-worker on a one on one basis.
I also wanted to comment on your post about female interactions because I have also struggled a lot with this issue. I certainly agree that female bosses tend to be harder on their female subordinates. But as I have always had issues with my female bosses, it has made me wonder if there aren't some issues that I in fact am bringing to the table. I discovered that in the past I have questioned the authority of my female bosses far more than that of my male bosses. Now that I recognize it, that is something that I am working hard to change. I think it's important as women to be supportive of other women in the workplace – as subordinates and superiors.
Thanks for the food for thought.
Actually, women typically earn more money in the beginning of their careers than male cohorts because they account for maternity leave/leaving the workforce because they get married/become caregivers/whatever. You're right that some women do not ask for raises or fight for themselves, but they should!
There's a lot of great advice in this article, but I completely disagree with becoming the “guru” for men in the office. I don't want my male coworkers to come to me for lady advice, they should come to me for reasons related to my job. It's not my job to research when their girlfriend's or wife's birthday is, also, it's mildly creepy and a bit inappropriate. The guys in my office want to befriend me because I'm good at my job, not because I can give them gift ideas, and that's the way it should be.
km-The previous post (and maybe I didn't make this clear) was geared more toward male bosses, Congressmen, lobbyists, fundraisers and other people who you need to network with but don't see everyday and/or are in positions of power. Your male peers at work is a bit of a different thing.
I have six co-workers, one woman, five men. If I can't interact with my male peers during a casual conversation about sports (a topic discussed in the previous post as not being too personal) and have a beer (one beer, maybe two, leaving at a reasonable hour) with them on occasion, this is going to be a very lonely working environment for me.
I think you're right that I didn't do a good enough job of drawing the distinction in the previous post. I wouldn't ask a married lobbyist who I'm meeting for drinks about his wife, his family, his personal life etc. But if you work 8ft from someone, you will learn about these things voluntarily or involuntarily. So it's a bit different, and I should have been more careful drawing that distinction.
I work in a rare office for the Hill apparently. My boss has had 3 Chiefs of Staff throughout his tenure and all 3 have been females. My COS is always on the staff's side making sure that we are all meeting our objectives and also that we are feeling satisfied. I admit that I don't have the desire to be a COS or LD, at least right now. I am content being an LA and maybe that's because as a woman I was taught to not want more but to me it is just my personality. I am a hard worker and I love politics so that is why I am here but I am not looking to be the top dog. I want to do meaningful work and have a fulfilled personal life and I think this job strikes that balance for me for right now. I think I will probably stay on the hill for at least a couple more years so maybe in that time I will be looking for something more challenging, I guess we'll see!
Katie- I guess that would depend on the office. I work with guys who are mostly younger than me or my age, and in the course of working together, I just sort of fell into that role and met their gfs/wives and it worked out that way.
If you don't want people to come to you for that kind of advice, that's fine. But I completely rebuff the notion that being a help to someone who needs an anniversary gift that wows somehow disqualifies me from being respected because I'm good at my job. The two are not mutually exclusive. If a guy asks me if his suit doesn't fit right or if carnations are ugly, great. If he asks me how to solicit co-sponsors or who to talk to on committee, great.
You can be an authority on more than one issue.
Zoe- That is pretty rare, but any situation can work if people want it to and behave professionally. But on the reverse, I've heard members say that they can't hire a woman because they'll be traveling with the person or with the person all the time.
I wonder if female members face the same issue as the men? Probably not.
I think I seemed too extreme in my comment. I'm sure it does vary by office; my office is mostly middle-aged dudes who have the gift thing figured out, but I don't think it's a good idea to set out to become the guru. If you naturally fill that void, then that's great! If someone comes to you for advice, that's usually a sign that the person believes you're an expert on something which, you're right, does not discredit your skill at your job.
What I probably should have said is that I would feel uncomfortable filling the role of lady advice giver because I feel like that would change my title from Coworker to Girl in the Office. My office culture is probably a little different from yours in that I work with software developers, sales people, and consultants, who range from five years older than me to fifty-five years older than me and all of them see me as The Girl. I would prefer that the common ground in my office be something other than my ability to give lady advice, but rather my ability in my job.
I liked the post, but had issues with 2 points:
1.) I don't think that trying to be the person in the office that offers advice on buying gifts for girlfriends helps your point about fighting stereotypes and
2.) I understand your point about encouraging women to take jobs above entry-level positions, but didn't like your use of scheduler as an example. I don't know of many offices who consider their SA's and schedulers to be operating at the same level.
Other than that, I think this was thought-provoking and well written!
I agree with a lot of what is said here, but I am really tired of being told that women need to “demand” or “negotiate” or “ask for” better assignments, promotions, raises etc, when we all know that women who ask, demand, or negotiate on their own behalf are often seen as demanding, aggressive, and ambitous-in-a-bad-way, and people (men and women both!) are less likely to want to work with them. I have seen this phenomenon born out in studies as well as anecdotally. So if we really want to bridge this gap, we need to ask how can women ask for what they want without undermining their likeability. I don't think the answer is just to emulate the way men ask for things because, unfortunately, women are perceived differently.
1.) We've been through this before with baking for the office. There's a difference between being labeled a woman who bakes or a woman who knows about jewelry than there is with being told you're catty, bitchy, etc. One is extremely negative and universally pervasive, one is a category you can choose to be in or not be in depending on your situation in your office.
2) First off, it says entry- and mid-level. Second, the Politico article called scheduler entry level. Third, I think they defined the titles using salaries which are often somewhere between staff assistant and LA. Certainly, not entry level responsibilities, but sometimes it's your first job or pays very little.
Jenny-I didn't tell anyone to ask for it like a man asks for it. I said not to give up if you hear no once. Sometimes employers will say no just to see how serious you are about it. I've had two bosses who did that.
Also, there's a difference between being “demanding” and speaking to your boss as a valued employee, who contributes, can illustrate why she deserves an increase and requests one in the appropriate way. If your boss suddenly “dislikes” you because you asked for a raise, you have bigger problems than your pay.
I'm not saying be rude and demanding. I'm saying don't assume that your Boss will automatically offer you a raise or a promotion or more responsibility. Instead, express your interest in a new job or more work and make an argument for why you deserve a raise.
There is a happy middle ground. I'm encouraging women to find it. I've been promoted, gotten raises, etc. and I've done it without hurting my standing in my office, so can you.
I really enjoyed this article, although I work in a corporate environment rather than on The Hill. My main thing is the salary difference. I completely think it is a 2 way street. I AM afraid to ask for a larger raise, promotion, etc where a male my age would be chomping at the bit to increase the opportunities. It's my fault. I'm afraid to ask because I want to be liked AND because I know I'm just going to (more than likely) quit or go part-time in a few years so my husband and I can start a family. Also, I like my job alot, but I would honestly rather (once I have kids) be at home cooking, doing laundry, taking care of my family, going on playdates, etc. So, even though I have a Masters degree & am a CPA I feel like ultimately I'm going to leave my job in the dust to pursue my family. Gosh, I'm a sucky feminist, but I just can't help it. Love your blog!
Women are undeniably scare in positions of power in DC. It doesn't help to change that when women placed in these positions of power, say, Chair of the CEA, they complain about how hard it is. ((Aside – Would Summers, not known for his jovial personality, play nice with ANY CEA chair??))
Women have made great strides in DC. Many forget that only fifteen years ago a female secretary of state was a novelty because there have since been three women in that position. I'm sure Belle and her readers hold positions that were virtually unobtainable by women thirty years ago. It doesn't help to complain about how hard a job is when getting the opportunity to even have that job was a long struggle fought by previous working women. It's almost irresponsible to pull the gender card when in many cases it's possible to work harder or be more assertive – blaming it on femininity it merely reconfirms stereotypes. It is detrimental and self-defeating to see the world in a way that's unfavorable to women – even if it is, there's not much to gain with a preoccupation of said injustice. Better just to work harder and out-preform your coworkers of any gender. And sure, working harder can mean many things – being a better co-worker or friend to your male counterparts can be one of them. But I don't think the next SecDef will be appointed because she's a football aficionado, it will be because she worked hard enough to beat the boys.
Emily- I understand the hesitancy, we've all been there. But just because you're leaving in a “few years” doesn't mean you're not worth more NOW. If you think you deserve a raise, do a prep session. Write down the reasons why. Work on making it concise. Have a mentor help you write it well, then either email it or talk to your Boss about it using your prepared notes as prep.
And don't think I'm judging you or anyone for choosing family over work. Having the choice is the important thing.
K-I agree with most of that. I would say though that getting along with the boys as you climb the ladder makes the working environment less hostile which can make it easier to stick around and succeed.
Thanks for your thoughts on this, Belle. As a younger woman who has recently begun working in government, I appreciate hearing people's perspective on issues like this. A bit disheartening, but in my (limited) experience it may only be an issue if you and everyone else make it one? Maybe I'm just lucky, but on the issue of being The Girl socializing with The Office, I could bring in cupcakes, discuss the merits of Green Bay vs. the Patriots, give girl advice, and head out to the bar all in one day with no nonsense about perceived attraction or other awkwardness. I was respected as a woman, but was also included in camaraderie (in an office with mixed age and gender).
As for promotions and raises, I know I'm going to have difficulties with this later on because I am HORRIBLE at asking for things. From what I've seen on other discussions, it seems like a good strategy is to build your case for it – time at the office, your accomplishments, if you can gather “data” on people similar to you … and maybe even flat-out ask “I want to be (here). What do I need to do to get (here)?” And a perfect time to do this is your quarterly/semi-annual/annual review, if you're somewhere that does that. It may still be an uphill battle to advance compared to men, but if you're well-prepared with evidence on WHY you deserve more, it can't hurt and at least you have evidence of your accomplishments (perhaps for when you're ready to jump ship to somewhere that will acknowledge and reward your performance?).
I appreciate this post very much. I am a new follower and I'm thankful for your insight and honesty because it's lacking in the blogosphere… we need more ladies like you. I am a younger “twenty-something” who has already faced serious sexism and harassment. Your (welcomed) thoughts help to give direction to those of us who possess determination, but still need a little more guidance, more specifics as how to best apply that determination. Last week I found this video and as I read your post I thought you might get a kick out of it: https://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/madeleine_albright_on_being_a_woman_and_a_diplomat.html Thanks again. Looking forward to reading through more of your posts. 🙂
so such a good blog entry that i couldn't resist blogging about your entry. alot of people really need to read this.. as many people as possible in this field.
Anna Della says:
I shudder at the thought of my male co-workers bringing their lady problems to me. I don't even want to know what those nerds do after the office happy hour.
Anna Della- Like I said it's a personal choice, and clearly it ain't for everyone 😉
Find what fits in your office. Maybe it's not anniversary gifts or happy hour, but I think this is an excellent point that when you spend 9 or 10 or more hours a day somewhere, it is important to be a part of the group. I eat lunch with four 60-year-old men almost every day because that's what the partners at my (SMALL) law firm do. Even though I'd prefer (financially and nutritionally) to bring my lunch. After spendining this non-work related time with these guys, I know them and they known me and I feel like my relationship with all the other attorneys is better, I get more interesting work, and I got a raise without having to ask. There's a whole lot more to “work” than simply doing your job.
This post sums up a lot of what frustrates me about working on the Hill and in DC in general. I do press, which is seen as “feminine,” and it's the classic glass escalator situation where men who go into press are promoted much faster and paid more. In my experience, press work is seen as less important in political offices, and I think much of that comes from the idea that it's “women's work.” But as I always remind my colleagues on the Leg side, they can put in countless hours on a bill, but our Boss gets nothing out of it unless his constituents actually hear about it – and that's my job!
Can't agree and disagree more on a few of your points. Let me explain:
Agree: Old Boys Network. I was at a very small dinner, maybe 15 people with two very, very high ranking Republucan Congressmen. I have not spent much time in politics and it was an eye opener to say the least. I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1965. The female staffers waited on the congressmen not as colleagues valued for their intellect but as foot servants. The conversation was offensive at times, they openly spoke complimentary about my appearance on a number of occasions, they smoked like freight trains throughout dinner (we were inside) without concern that anyone would be bothered by the massive amount of smoke, and they literally held court with the other men in the room hanging on their ever word. The only thing that surprised me was that I didn't get smacked on the ass and asked to refill their scotch! Nothing about that evening said 2011 or frankly even 1991. They worked hard to get there and they aren't going to make way for new (or female) blood any time soon. Hostile work environment? It absolutely leaned in that direction.
Disagree: Sports Talk- as a woman who LOVES football I acknowledge that it has helped me build relationships with men at the office and has sometimes been my only in-roads to starting a relationship with some of the high level executives with which I work. However they can smell a farce a mile away and nothing is more annoying than a woman talking about sports when it's clear she spent “five minutes” learning about a team. A few questions in it becomes evident that that the woman is trying too hard. The sports thing is useful but it will work against you if you don't really care or only have a cursory knowledge. You are better off not going down that road an finding something else to talk about unless you really are a fan of a sport.
Girl Problems: unless you really have a good friendship with a guy at the office, finding out his girlfriends bday will make you look like a stalker. It would be awkward and do the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish.
At the end of the day I think conversations likes this are useful and I applaud you for getting this one started. It's not easy to put yourself out there for someone to criticize. I think it's all about having a good feel for timing. Any woman looking to breakdown the barriers has to be hyper-aware of her situation and, although there is a degree of truth to all of your suggestions, you have to be savvy and smart about the right time and place for the moves you make to improve your circumstances. Play to your strengths and dont try to be something you aren't.
I just stumbled across this blog in preparation for an internship on Capitol Hill that I will be starting this summer. I agree with you on all points here! I will be sending this to my female and male friends as food for thought!