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Why we need more women on Capitol Hill

The number of women chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill is better than the number at the top of corporate America. But we still have a long way to go.

In the Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln," there is a scene toward the end where the House of Representatives is engaged in a dramatic debate over a proposed 13th amendment to the Constitution, which would once and for all abolish slavery in the United States. A conservative Democrat (remember they were mostly for slavery) sarcastically asks what would be next after abolition. "My gosh, would it mean women actually vote?" he exclaims, receiving bipartisan laughter from all of Congress at the ridiculous notion of women's suffrage. “Of course not!” It’s a powerful reminder of how far women have come in this country. It took us another 55 years from the abolition of slavery, but yes, we can vote now fellas!

I was recently on MSNBC host Krystal Balls’ online show, "Krystal Clear," and had the opportunity to discuss the most recent percentage of women chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill. The good news is the number is better than the percentage of women at the top of corporate America. But the reality remains that we still have a long way to go. In the 113th Congress, 24% of U.S. Senate chiefs of staff are women while in the U.S. House of Representatives, 31% of chiefs of staff are women. But what struck me as most interesting was this statistic: 52% of Democratic women members of Congress have women chiefs of staff. Among Republican women members, only 9% have women chiefs. That translates to only two Republican women members having women chiefs. 

"When women are in leadership, we bring our voices and our experiences."'

To be fair, there is a vast difference between the number of Democratic women and Republican women serving in Congress. But the significant difference in women chiefs between the two parties did make me think about why Democratic women are so much more apt to choose another woman to be her top staffer. And why does it matter?

First, let’s look at the pipeline. Chiefs of staff come from a variety of places -- often the campaign trail or a long tenure working your way up on Capitol Hill. The pipeline seems to be more robust on the Democratic side for women in top leadership. Additionally, there seems to be a purposeful selection of women by Democratic women. When you look at the Republican side, whether it is women candidates for office or potential women chiefs, you see a vastly smaller pool of applicants.

There are many reasons for this -- one is that in the campaign sphere you see far fewer women in top positions managing campaigns who then move to become chief. Also, I think you see stronger gender norms on the GOP side that may encourage a Republican woman member to “balance” out her top position with a man. 

So why does this matter? The other day I was at a party and reconnected with an old friend who works on the Hill as a chief of staff. She is pregnant and due to give birth this month. I asked the inevitable question, how much time are you taking off from work for the baby? She told me that she talked with her boss -- a fairly conservative member -- and he gave her three months of paid leave. She then told me, “You know, I realized that we had no policy in our office for women who are pregnant. So I changed that. Now we have a policy -- now other women on the staff will know what to expect when they are ready to start a family.”

And that’s the point! When women are in leadership, we bring our voices and our experiences. We make change for all the people involved, not just other women, but also the families who support the great folks who work tirelessly to support our elected leaders in Congress. So let’s encourage and nurture more women to take leadership roles – because that power really can make the kind of change we need.

Jessica N. Grounds is the Co-Chair of the Board of Directors & Co-Founder of Running Start, an organization committed to empowering girls and young women to run for political office. Jessica is also the former president of Women Under Forty PAC. She has worked with and advised women running for political office throughout the U.S.