Women Taking Charge in Capitol

Posted October 12, 2007 at 6:35pm

The ratio of female to male Members still lags behind population figures, but the rise of top female staffers on Capitol Hill is encouraging, according to the Women’s Campaign Forum. In fact, there are more top female aides than female lawmakers.

The nonpartisan WCF, which works to bring women who support abortion rights into political roles, on Wednesday released a study that analyzed the number of current female chiefs of staff or equivalents in personal offices and broke them down by chamber, party affiliation and boss’s gender.

The study found that 23 percent of top Senate staffers and 31 percent of top aides in the House are women, compared with 16 percent of Senators who are women and 17 percent of House Members.

The fact that more women are stepping into those top staff roles is encouraging, according to Ilana Goldman, the group’s president.

“The staffers, the advisers — particularly chiefs of staff — these are incredibly powerful positions,” Goldman said.

Will that translate into more female Members? Maybe.

“I think there is a long-standing tradition of folks getting their feet wet and getting inspired,” Goldman said.

Democrats hire more women as chiefs of staff, the study found. In the House, 37 percent of Democrats hired women for the position, while 25 percent of GOPers did. In the Senate, the difference was smaller — 26 percent of Democrats hired female chiefs compared with 20 percent of Republicans.

Broken down by gender, House Members almost equally hired women as top aides — 35 percent of Congresswomen and 30 percent of Congressmen. But male Senators are more likely to have female chiefs — 31 percent among the male Senators and 21 percent among female Senators.

While the numbers still aren’t equal to the population, it is important to note the growing rise of women on Capitol Hill, Goldman noted.

“We are incredibly focused on thinking about how we can engage women on every part of the political process,” she said. “There are a lot of ways for women to have an impact.”

Lisa Sherman, who has worked in various political positions for about 16 years, said she has seen a rise in top female aides on Capitol Hill, particularly among younger women.

Sherman, who currently serves as chief of staff to Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), said that shift is visible in Davis’ office.

“Whenever we have a job opening in our office, we get a lot more women applying,” she said. “It’s actually harder for us to find men.”

Stacey Leavandosky, chief of staff to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), echoed those sentiments. Many of the older female chiefs, who have served on Capitol Hill for decades, have helped their younger colleagues, she said.

“Stepping back, the reason that I look at why I’ve been able to excel … it’s been those female chiefs of staff who have mentored me,” she said.

And it’s important for women to get involved, Leavandosky noted.

“Different types of questions are being asked, questions that are more likely debated and thought about,” she said. “It brings [together] everyone that needs to have a stake in our country.”

Elizabeth Stanley, chief of staff to Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), said it is important to note the study found many male Members hired female chiefs.

“That said, I think nothing can replace firsthand knowledge,” she said. “That’s why we need more female Members.”

All the women said they entered politics because their families were involved. Leavandosky’s parents both were involved with local politics, Stanley’s served as educators and social workers, while Sherman’s worked on Capitol Hill.

“I grew up running around the offices, playing with the phones,” Sherman said. “I kind of always knew I wanted to do it.”

But most women don’t make the same leap on their own, Goldman noted, arguing it is unlikely women will decide to run for political office without some outside prodding.

“There’s a ton of research that shows that women are much more likely to run if they are asked,” Goldman said. “So many of them will tell you, their steps in public life started because someone asked.”

And Goldman’s group is taking on that challenge with its “She Should Run” campaign.

It’s a pretty simple campaign, consisting of a Web site where people can nominate a woman to run for political office anywhere, from school boards to town councils to judgeships to top federal positions.

On Thursday, the WCF’s focus was on the women working as top Congressional aides. The organization honored female chiefs of staff during a reception at Lounge 201.

“It’s really a chance to be with women who are rarely in the public spotlight, but work so hard for the public every day,” Goldman said.

It’s the third time the forum has held the reception. Since the original event, the number of female chiefs has doubled, Goldman noted, adding that even as her organization was sending out invites to the event, a few more female chiefs were hired.

“It’s incredible to see the relationships,” she said. “This one really feels like a family in so many ways.”