Stephanie Gidigbi (left), a one-time Hill staffer, greets a fellow staffer during a Womens Congressional Staff Association event. The groups third annual leadership conference will be held this weekend at the Capitol Visitor Center.
When you look at the numbers, it’s clear: Congress is still an old boys club.
Although women constitute more than half of the U.S. population, they hold just 17 percent of the seats in Congress, a staggering disparity.
With such a small number of female lawmakers to look up to in Congress, a group of Hill women banded together in 2008 to launch the Women’s Congressional Staff Association, a group of female staffers in both chambers and from both sides of the aisle that holds events aimed at helping women gain the skills and grow the confidence necessary to climb Capitol Hill’s staff hierarchy.
Since its launch by four women, the organization has grown immensely. The WCSA now touts a membership of 650 women from both Democratic and Republican offices and has numerous mentorship and networking opportunities. The group is also hosting its third annual leadership conference on Saturday.
“Our intent was to create a bipartisan organization focused on career development and mentorship opportunities for women on Capitol Hill,” said Tessie Abraham, legislative counsel for Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Abraham was a founding member of the WCSA and is currently president of the organization.
A Lifelong Community
Women involved in the organization say the networking, professional development seminars and mentorship opportunities have helped them succeed on Capitol Hill.
Catherine Collentine, legislative assistant and scheduler for Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) and the WCSA’s treasurer, said the mentorship program — which pairs experienced staffers with those who are new to the Hill — was especially valuable to her when she transitioned to working on legislative issues for her boss.
“As I was first taking on legislative issues, my WCSA mentor gave me tips on ways that I could grow my portfolio to include the issues I had the most background on and was truly passionate about,” Collentine said. “She helped me to get my voice heard in my office and ask for what I want, and then get it.”
Collentine said the benefits she’s received from the WCSA go beyond staff development. She said she’s formed friendships with the women involved in the organization.
“Joining the organization will hold different benefits for each member — from lasting friendships, to job opportunities and career growth, to advice that will change the way you approach a situation in the future,” Collentine said. “Every member has fun with the events and friends made and the chance to enrich their experience on Capitol Hill.”
Natalie Angelo, a project director for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), joined the WCSA earlier this year. As a woman grappling with the decision of whether to run for office in the future, she said a WCSA forum on why more women don’t run for office — which was held at the Sewall- Belmont House and Museum, a Capitol Hill museum dedicated to women’s history — was one of her favorite WCSA events that she’s attended.
“WCSA is promoting strong, confident females and encouraging them to take on leadership roles, like [legislative director] and chief of staff, as well as run for office,” Angelo said. “It’s something I can really get behind.”
Angelo, who has worked on the Hill for seven years, said she wishes she had joined the organization sooner.
“I feel that along the way, I would have had greater success earlier on networking with other women and seeing what else is out there,” Angelo said. “Instead, I put my head down and worked my way up through the chain and looked up and it was seven years later.”
Annual Leadership Conference
Abraham said this year’s conference will stray from the leadership and development themes of the past and focus on “strategies for success.”
“Our third conference ... will focus on identifying and developing the traits that define exceptional employees, effective messaging and the role of mentors,” Abraham said. “We have asked our panelists to share lessons they have learned along their career, best practices and discuss goal-setting.”
The 26 speakers signed up to present include a bipartisan array of Hill aides, lawyers, staffers at federal agencies and journalists.
The conference will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Capitol Visitor Center. Those interested in attending should register at womenscsa.com.
“I think we have created a great forum for members to learn from the experience of others,” Abraham said.
Correction: June 12, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated Natalie Angelo's title.