The Sisterhood of the Hill

Staffers’ Group Offers Support

Posted February 24, 2009 at 2:58pm

When Devon Barnhart, 28, came to Capitol Hill more than a year ago, she landed her first political job thanks to the advice and help of older and more established women. Barnhart, now a legislative aide in the office of Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), was surprised to learn, though, that this kind of help didn’t exist in a larger and more formal way.

So last July, she and three others formed the Women’s Congressional Staff Association.

“Women really need an opportunity to bond across offices and not just with the people that you met through your own office or in your own party,” she said. “It’s really important for us, especially if you want to move up and be in positions where you need to negotiate across party lines.”

The WCSA begins at a time when women hold an unprecedented amount of power on Capitol Hill: 91 women, the most ever, serve as Members, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and several influential committee heads. Three more serve as nonvoting delegates. Female staffers also serve in high positions. Tessie Abraham, vice chairwoman of the WCSA, mentioned Pelosi’s chief of staff as an example.

That level of success raises the obvious question: Why bother having a group to help promote women? Asked whether the momentum renders the group unnecessary, Abraham said no.

“I think, at this point, it can only help — it can’t hurt. So I think, at this point, we want to reinforce the positive direction we’re moving in,” said Abraham, who works as a legislative aide for Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.).

While the WCSA is the only official bipartisan women’s group on the Hill, there are other groups reaching out to female staffers. The Women’s Information Network connects “young, Democratic, pro-choice women” in Washington, D.C., according to its Web site. Current and former Congressional staffers are also invited to hit the links with the Women’s Congressional Golf Association.

Since the WCSA began about six months ago, it has hosted several events with current and former female staffers giving advice about networking and interviewing. The first event included five House and Senate chiefs of staff, who spoke about their own ascensions on Capitol Hill and passed on hard-earned advice. Barnhart said one of the later events attracted more than 300 attendees.

The most recent event was held during the Presidents Day recess. Senior White House aides from the Bush and Obama administrations shared their experiences and advice with more than 50 Hill staffers.

In addition to the events, members are added to a Google group that alerts them to job openings and networking opportunities. The WCSA holds happy hours and coordinates community service, as well. Plans are in the works for a Web site.

Hill staffers interested in joining should e-mail womenscsa@gmail.com.