Lack of gender diversity on Capitol Hill speaks volumes

A man is silhouetted as he walks down a hallway in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)
A man is silhouetted as he walks down a hallway in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Remember that jarring image of a newly-re-elected President Obama, addressing a sea of male aides in the Oval Office? You could see the president talking with 10 men—and, we were told, Valerie Jarrett was there, too. You could see the outline of her leg if you looked closely enough. It graced the front-page of The New York Times under the headline “Obama’s remade inner circle has an all-male look, so far” and put pressure on the White House to bring more women into the president’s inner circle. 

A new msnbc analysis reveals a similar portrait of Capitol Hill, where men overwhelmingly serve as top advisors to members of Congress. A review of congressional staff data compiled by Leadership Directories reveals 7 in 10 congressional chiefs of staff are male. Men dominate the top echelons of Hill staff, running congressional offices and serving as the top political advisers to members of Congress.

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In the House of Representatives, 69% of all chiefs of staff are men. In the more powerful upper chamber, that figure rises to 76%. A male-dominated Congress leads to even more male-dominated staffs: 73% of male members of Congress hire male chiefs of staff, whereas that number dips to 58% among female members. While male members of Congress have the opportunity to increase gender diversity on the Hill by hiring a woman as their top advisor, only about one in four do so.

There is also a clear party divide. Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to hire female chiefs of staff— 40% of Democrats have a female chief, compared to just 21% of Republicans. Overall, female Democratic members of Congress have the highest proportion of female chiefs of staff. An impressive 52% of Democratic women employ a female chief of staff, achieving gender parity in this top job. It’s a very different story, however, for female Republican members of Congress. Among this group only 9% have a woman leading their staff. Female Republican members, however, are a smaller sample size, with only 4 women in the Senate and 19 women in the House.

Betsy Mullins, president and CEO of the Women's Campaign fund, says having more women serving as congressional chiefs of staff not only affects the current legislative process, it also builds a pipeline of women who will run for office themselves and shapes long-term policy development. 

"The more diverse perspectives you have at the table, the less you are likely to fall into group think and the more expansive your policy solutions become," said Mullins.  

Research seems to back up Mullins’ assessment. Businesses with women in leadership are more profitable than their less diverse counterparts and women legislators tend to approach legislating in a different way than their male counterparts, working more collaboratively and focusing on a different issue set.

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While women in the private sector and serving as members of congress have made slow progress, women staffers on the Hill have not made any gains at the top in the last 4 years. Women currently make up 30% of chiefs of staff in both houses of Congress, down from 32% in 2010, according to data compiled by the Women’s Campaign Fund.

Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which helps congressional offices improve their operations, says Congressional offices lack key resources that can help increase diversity, such as a robust recruiting department.

Fitch, a former chief of staff himself, notes that Capitol Hill is also lagging behind in offering more workplace flexibility, like flextime and telecommuting. “As the private sector offers a more family-friendly workplace polices, the differential between the private sector workforce and Capitol Hill are greater and greater,” said Fitch.

Last week, Alma Adams made history when she won a special congressional election in North Carolina to become the 100th woman to serve in the current Congress. It’s the first time in history that 100 women have served together in the House and the Senate at once. It’s another crack in the glass ceiling, as Congress moves ever-so-slowly towards reflecting the population it represents.  

Going into the 114th Congress, newly elected members can increase gender diversity on Capitol Hill by promoting women to their top staff position. And going into the 2016 presidential election? Candidates could pledge to select a woman as White House chief of staff. No woman has ever occupied that role. 

Additional reporting by Ali Vitali.