By Felecia Pohl
WASHINGTON — When it comes to comparing freshmen in Congress to veteran women lawmaker, one thing stands out: The newcomers are putting more women in key staff positions than the old guard.
Women make up 23 percent of all members of Congress. But the surge of women who ran for office and won in 2018 may be the beginning of the change in dynamics for who makes the decisions in politics. In all, 39 women were elected to the 116th Congress, which now has a record high of 127 women in total. Those freshmen women also appointed other women to leadership positions on their staffs as well.
“It’s important to have women in key positions everywhere across the country and in every industry,” freshman Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) said. “It’s important to have diverse staff no matter where you work.”
Women are moving up on the Hill
Leticia Mederos has worked on Capitol Hill since the late 1990s. Beginning her career as a legislative assistant for former Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), she has since moved up to hold titles such as director of labor policy for the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor; director of labor policy for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Education Committee; and most recently, chief of staff for Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
When she started her career in politics, Mederos said, she wasn’t used to the male-dominated field she experienced on the hill.
“When I came to Congress, it was wild. All the clichés were true. Women had to work harder, women had to be more aggressive, there were a lot fewer women, and men definitely were deciders,” she said.
Another woman who asked that her name not be used, to protect her current job, said she often felt overlooked for leadership roles although she would take the initiative to take on more work and projects. She said that being a woman might have played a factor in why she was overlooked so often but she eventually did get a key leadership role on a current member’s staff.
The importance of a woman’s perspective
TMN looked at the top five leadership positions of every congresswoman’s staff between March 25, 2019, and April 25, 2019. Of the 127 women in Congress, 52 have female chiefs of staff, 49 have female legislative directors and 49 have female communications directors. Also, 31 have female press secretaries and 100 have female schedulers.
When comparing senior congresswomen to freshmen congresswomen, only 33% of senior congresswomen hired women to three or more of those leadership positions, whereas 54% of the female freshmen hired women in three or more of those leadership positions.
Emily Burns, chief of staff to freshman Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), is one of those women.
“We see it time and again,” Burns said. “The more representative people in power are, the more they represent the people that they’re making these decisions for, [and] the more those people’s perspectives are really echoed in the decisions that are made.”
Melinda Hall, an assistant professor of philosophy at Stetson University in Florida who specializes in feminist theory, said that for good policy making, it’s important to have a diverse team to make sure all perspectives are covered.
“When you only have one perspective to solve problems,” she said, “you’re automatically at a disadvantage.”
Hall said people can’t understand the perspective of a woman if they are not a woman, and women tend to understand issues like family care and women’s health better than a man because of differences in socialization between men and women rather than biology.
“The issues that [women] bring to the table are often different,” Mederos said. “They often come from experience from within the family, or their parents, or as mothers, or as professionals. And those professionals can be nurses or doctors.”
Megan Savage, chief of staff for Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), agrees that women’s diverse viewpoints can be invaluable. Savage said that as a working mom, she brings “a different perspective than a single man might or even a man married with kids.”
Women bring “a different life experience. We talk so much about jobs and the economy and workforce issues, and women face different issues. My husband also works but I’m the only one that has to step away for a few months to have a baby,” she said.
“It inherently can’t be equal because only one gender is the one having the baby; somebody has to take the central role in raising children,” Savage said. “I think women and men process issues differently. They speak about issues differently and all those different viewpoints are really important. I think having women involved in the conversation raises issues that wouldn’t otherwise be raised.”
Mederos said that while she might be a bit biased, she thinks women do their jobs differently, too.
“They throw their minds, hearts and souls into it,” she said. “There is no detachment between their daily lives and their work. There’s less distance. It’s like their whole being.”
“There’s not a lot of ego in what we do,” Burns said about her job. “That’s not to say that’s what you get with men, but it’s very collaborative, it’s very supportive, it’s very no b.s. and [we] just focus on getting done what we have on hand.”
In addition to the freshmen women elected to Congress, the women in Congress who are running for president tend to have more women in leadership positions on their staff as well.
Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif) all have women in four out of the five top positions, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has women in every top position on her staff. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) only has one woman in a top position on her staff.
Other high-profile women include Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has women in four leadership roles on her staff. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has women in two leadership roles, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has one woman in a leadership role. TNM reached out to Ocasio-Cortez’s team about why the women on her top staff are lacking but got no response.
TMN looked at all the male presidential candidates who currently hold positions in office. Of those men, most only have women in one or two leadership roles on their staff. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) has one woman in a leadership role, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Ind.) has two, and President Donald Trump also has two women in leadership roles: Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president who has acted as a spokesperson as well.
But some male presidential candidates do have many women in leadership roles on their staff. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has women in every top leadership position, and Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.) has women in three of those positions. Although Democrat Beto O’Rourke is a popular candidate as well, it is difficult to track if the former Texas representative has any women on staff because he currently does not hold a position in office that requires a staff, and his campaign staff is very likely still being created.
Role models for young women
Burns said it is important to have women in leadership roles because it shows other women and young girls that these leadership roles are possible for them.
“I think seeing my mom [as] a small business owner and boss growing up … was kind of really helpful in shaping my belief that, ‘oh yeah, of course, I can do this, of course, this is something that I would want to take on,’” she said. “I just think that all of the subtle ways that having women in leadership positions expands women’s understanding of what’s possible.”
Savage shared a similar thought to Burns.
“The more women we have in leadership the more women who will be hired. And the more women in leadership that young women see, the more they will feel like it’s attainable and it’s a goal that they should have for themselves,” she said.
When asked if it is important to have women in leadership roles on staffs, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said that there’s only one answer to the question, “yes.”
“I think that when women get into positions to help make decisions it encourages other women to try and shows how successful they can be,” she added.
While it is easier for women to put other women into leadership roles, Savage said she thinks it might be a little bit “tricky” for men to do the same.
“Not tricky, I don’t mean it like that, but the politics,” she said “There are always going to be some men that are hesitant to have … women in leadership because they don’t want to have this perception that everywhere they go they have this woman with them. … But I think that while that may exist I think that will get smaller and smaller as it is expected to have women in leadership roles, and people don’t assume that you’re a mistress when you’re there, they assume that you’re the boss or the chief. I think it’s incremental, but I think it’s in the right direction.”
Future of women in Congress
Mederos has worked on the hill for almost 20 years and has seen the changes to not only members of Congress but their staffs as well. While she has been a part of the women who trail-blazed their way to the top, Mederos said she has some reservations about what the future will hold for women in Congress.
“Progress will continue to be slow because the forces against are always present. Given the politics of today, we need more women to make the choice to run for office but there’s also a lot of deterrents to do that,” she said.
But others are more optimistic. Savage said she has seen changes since she was promoted four years ago.
“I feel like there are more female chiefs than when I was first promoted,” she said. “Not as many as I would like and then we lost a number of members this last cycle, and we lost some of my female chief friends, but I do think it’s moving in the right direction.”
Burns said she sees what younger members and their staffs are doing and how they are shaping the way for the future.
“I feel that there’s a lot of momentum,” she said. “I just think that with each thing that they do, they help to break down these barriers. It’s been happening for decades and it’s just like the next step, I think, on the journey to equality.”