Do Women in Politics Face a Glass Ceiling?

Originally posted on and written by Liz Chadderdon Powell

This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.

Is there a glass ceiling for women in the political consulting industry? 

Whenever an article is written about the professional glass ceiling for women, men get jumpy. They defensively point to articles written about women sportscasters interviewing male football players in the locker room, female soldiers fighting along side their male counterparts and wives out earning their husbands. They usually say this with a look on their face clearly saying, “C’mon, what more do you want?” 

There are plenty of examples of women succeeding in traditionally male dominated professions. But lets define success as actually running the company, the corporation or even the country. You know—the good jobs with the power and sweet paychecks. There are 19 female CEO’s running Fortune 500 companies. This sounds good until you remember there are 500 companies in the Fortune 500 (thus the name) and women only run 19 of them. That is only 3.8%.  And then there are the celebrated seventy-four women in Congress. Seventy-four seems applause worthy unless you count all five hundred and thirty five seats in both the House and Senate. That means women hold only 13.8% of Congress while being 52% of the voting population of America. We may have come a long way, baby, but we still have a very long way to go before we have an equal share of the real power in this country

That is very true in the political consulting industry. Women are making inroads but they are small victories. Mary Beth Cahill managed John Kerry’s presidential campaign but all male consultants surrounded her. More disturbing, she was the only female in a visible, top-level role among the 04 Democratic presidential nominees. While Karen Hughes played an advisory role for President Bush, she was always second to Karl Rove, who definitely got all the credit for Bush’s victory. Furthermore, there is not one female in a high level position on Bush’s internal white house staff. And while Secretary Rice’s influence is impressive, let me know when she gets Rummy’s job. 

At the political committees, there are women scattered through the organization, usually in fundraising positions. But, there are no female Executive Directors or Political Directors at any of the four committees (DSCC, DCCC, RNCC, RSCC) and neither national party has a woman Executive Director or Party Chairperson. So women work there but none have achieved the most visible, and most profitable, positions. Women are working for the cause. They are just not leading it. 

In the consulting industry, women have again achieved some success. You might assume that women fare better on the Democrat side than the Republican side, but that is not true. On the Democrat side, there are women who have achieved partnership status with consulting firms or started their own firms. But their successes pale in comparison to the number of men in partnership positions or who own their own firm. In the recent Campaigns and Elections Magazine Annual Directory of Political Consultants, Products and Services, there are eighteen Democrat media firms listed and only two had a named female partner and none had sole female owners. 

Furthermore, the 2005 Campaigns and Elections “Rising Star” list has only two female honorees out of twenty-two. In 2005, there are only two women out of twenty-two honorees. How sad—at least for the women. 

Sarah Brewer, Associate Director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, says her research on female political consultants shows women often work twice as long in the field before starting their own firms. I assume this is true because you need an extensive Rolodex to start your own firm. Women are often in middle level positions at firms where do they most of the project management, but little of the client contact, so it is harder to build their Rolodex. 

I see three primary causes of the political consulting industry’s glass ceiling: 1.) Women have children, which means they are not available to their clients 24/7/365 and loose that edge to their male competitors, 2.) Being a committee ED or a partner in a firm requires a killer instinct and some women shy away from being that aggressive and 3.) People in powerful positions (usually men) are loath to move out and give others a leg up. 

It is a societal issue that children hurt Mommies in the workplace more than Daddies, not just a political consulting issue. The idea of men being able to work late nights with no adverse effects to their family because the wife will always handle it is archaic. Women in every professional industry will remain trapped beneath the glass until their male counterparts share equally in parenting. Men are no longer the sole breadwinners so why should women be the sole caregivers? 

As to women not being aggressive enough, I know there are plenty of aggressive women in the political business. But there are plenty more who fear the label of “bitch” or “hard-ass,” which prevents them from making the tough decisions and rising to the top positions. By now, we should be wise to this age-old male defense mechanism. Women need to move past this and see it for what it is—an intimidation tactic. Not to mention a load of horse crap. 

So, the solutions to breaking the glass ceiling require effort on everyone’s part. Women need to get over the stigma of being aggressive and close the deal. Men need to stay home and change a few diapers. And, consultants who worked for George McGovern or Richard Nixon need to retire. This will immediately usher in many new women to top positions.

Furthermore, women consultants need to work together to train and support the next generation of female campaign operatives. We all know how tough it is to get that first campaign job and to live “on the road” for a few years while building your resume. Women tend to get off the road and take safe jobs far more often than men. I envision training seminars exclusively for female operatives given exclusively by female consultants. After the training, these operatives would receive mentoring support from a female consultant, giving them advice and encouraging them to stick it out, even when they want to take a “real” job. Then perhaps young women would stay on the road longer and get the experience they need to get the higher-level jobs. 

I would also encourage female candidates and female oriented PAC’s to work only with female consultants. If we don’t help our own, we will never be successful at tearing down walls. Men have been hiring men exclusively for years and I think it’s high time we follow their lead. In 2001, a male staff member at the DSCC told me I could not run one of the top Senate races because I was female and none of his candidates would take orders from a woman. If that is true, then female candidates should stop “taking orders” from male managers and male consultants and start working with more women. 

I am not interested in sparking a “gender war” within this industry. I am interested in seeing the Campaigns and Elections “Rising Star” list have as many women as men. I am interested in seeing the C & E Political Pages list at least ten Democrat media firms with named female partners. I am interested in seeing 278 women in the Senate and House, to reflect the 52% of the voting population women represent. 

I am interested in never being asked again whether there is a glass ceiling for women in the political consulting industry.

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