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Opinion: Making Congress a better place for women to work

I remember the spring day in 1994 when I returned to Congress for the fourth time. I was driving along the tidal basin. It was a beautiful morning with the cherry blossoms in full bloom, and I felt I had won the lottery. I had worked previously as a house intern, senate intern, and in a member’s personal office, and I was returning to the Hill as a professional committee staffer.

It was an exciting time. As a young staffer I knew I had many more opportunities than my mother did as a U.S. Air Force lieutenant in the nursing corps circa 1950. There had been real progress for women – large and small. More than once I had heard that Capitol Hill was a place where women had opportunity and could advance on merit.

Yet the majority of our colleagues and bosses (elected and staff) were white and male. I met very few women senior staffers on either side of the aisle, and even fewer members. It wasn’t until the 1990s that women could even wear pants on the Senate floor. I was denied floor access in the late 1980s by a staffer, tasked with among other duties, guarding the Senate floor from my pants. My dress code followed my Mother’s advice – be clean, neat and tidy. (Mom had a lot of good advice. She’d have been a great Senator. She also had a closet full of pantsuits.)

What my colleagues and I didn’t realize at the time was the continuous impact of the invisible walls and ceilings left behind as laws and policies openly discriminating against women in the workplace were abolished. Fast forward 25 years, and the recent stories regarding sexual harassment could have been expected. Like any tipping point, they just needed the right combination of incidents and events to prompt a new important change.

We now have an opportunity for positive change, and Congress and voters get to decide what happens next. It can start with Congress setting a goal of becoming a best place for women to work – one where gender equality is the norm and Congress is a leader in workplace innovation and management. As Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff succinctly stated, gender equality is part of a total package with four doors: equal opportunity, equal advancement, equal pay and preventing sexual harassment.

Here are three things that can move Congress toward this goal.

Focus on leadership and management

Congress is unique. It relies on a network of administrative, security and policy support offices to help members staff and run offices and committees in Washington and across the country. And it does this with taxpayer money.

Voters (men and women) have a right to expect representatives and senators to be excellent CEOs and leaders who hire talented and diverse managers and staff to run their offices effectively and to advise them on complex policy issues.

Congressional staff and interns want to work in well-run offices where they can focus on the jobs they are hired to do and where they enjoy an equal opportunity to succeed.

Well-run offices and committees are better able to address the human resource issues that occur in any workplace. Congress is no different. When Congress is equitably staffed there is an increased likelihood that it is equipped with the multiple skill sets required to address both the policy issues of our day and the human resource issues that can occur in every work environment.

But it has to choose to be a leader in gender equality and decide to manage workplace issues quickly, professionally, and ethically if it wants to govern at its best. What voters elect them to do.

Get and use data

We need to use available data better to show how offices are managed and staffed. Congress can systematically track and analyze current and historic human resource data to learn how each individual office, committee and Congress stacks up with respect to gender equality. As Adlai Stevenson said, “We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.”

Better data will flag offices with high turnover, unusual staff ratios, low salaries and gender pay gaps. It will identify offices with a strong record of promoting women to senior management and policy positions, and allow for meaningful comparisons including retention rates and career paths of different staff groups. Better data can tell us how many managers are receiving management training and whether unconscious bias is a part of that training.

Better data can also shed light on whether certain congressional jobs are traditionally held by men or women. For example, who handles the member’s primary policy issues; how do committees compare; and whether leadership, longtime members, committee chairs or ranking members have hired and retained women chief of staffs or senior staffers?

Increase accountability

As voters, we want to consider the management practices of members and candidates. Running an efficient, equitably staffed office is a prerequisite for governing effectively.

For current members and senior staff, now is a time for self reflection and to ask both current and former staff what they experienced and what can be changed. Former members and senior staff, many of whom are in positions of influence, can ask themselves how they can make a difference for the next generation of women, including calling on their successors for change.

Making Congress the best place for women to work is a shared responsibility. There are no districts, no states where only men are allowed to vote. It’s an obvious but particularly relevant point because in 2019 and 2020 we celebrate the centenary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Congress can mark this important anniversary by supporting and funding an initiative to gather the stories of current and former women members and congressional staffers. They are powerful and worth capturing. They are positive, humorous and at times absurd and poignant. Together they tell a story of progress for gender equality and what is yet undone.

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