The Room Where it Happens: Women in Democratic Politics in the United States

Maddie Ulanow and Maggiy Emery
Maddie Ulanow is an MPP student at the Harvard Kennedy School and has worked on Democratic campaigns in Maryland, Virginia, and Minnesota. Maggiy Emery is the Development Coordinator at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and has served in senior finance roles on electoral and issue-based campaigns nationwide.

To the outsider, it may appear that a long-delayed reckoning with sexism is finally occurring within the Democratic party. In the past two years, women drove the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, the head of the National Institutes of Health declared an end to all-male panels, and women now make up the majority of Congressional staffers at 55 percent. And this year in August, we learned that Kamala Harris will be the first Black and Asian-American woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket.

All-male leadership has become a social faux pas in the liberal conscience, and women are starting to see doors open to panels, jobs, and boards that were previously exclusive to men. However, a growing number of women in politics and policy say they are still ignored, belittled, or cut out of decision-making processes. “Having women in the room is a box they check, not an action they take,” said one senior Democratic deputy campaign manager of such situations. “And it sucks.”

The women we spoke to—all of whom asked to remain anonymous, for fear of losing hard-fought gains in their workplaces—described situations where, despite holding senior leadership roles, they were often cut out of key strategic conversations. A Democratic deputy campaign manager described hitting a glass ceiling within Democratic politics because, despite having accumulated experience in several such deputy-level roles, she was often shut out of important decisions, usually by the male managers and chiefs above her. “There’s an implication that the [male] campaign manager will need my advice and help… but he will be the final word in making decisions,” she said.

A senior Democratic fundraiser described multiple instances in which her male colleagues excluded her from all strategic conversations except those featuring “women’s issues.” “The only planning meeting I was ever invited to was the Women For [the candidate],” she told us, “and even in those meetings, there were still more men than women.” A 2018 Politico article described several situations where women were “left out of the most important big picture decisions” — or as one senior staffer put it, “they won’t let us in on the sexy part of politics.”

Most of the women we spoke to, along with those who spoke to Politico in 2018, did not believe such oversights were malicious, but rather unintentional. The men interviewed for the Politico article were reportedly “startled” and “disturbed” to learn how the women around them felt. Because boys’ clubs are unofficial and often rooted in genuine friendships, it is easy to understand why men may be unaware of their role in perpetuating this cycle. As one male senior consultant put it, the idea that women felt excluded “never occurred to me.”

Real-world consequences of these attitudes aren’t hard to find. For example, although Joe Biden’s senior staff represents a great deal of diversity, and though Biden recently selected Kamala Harris for the vice presidential role, his most trusted allies remain mostly white and male. This trend echoes the Obama administration where, despite appointing more women to the federal judiciary than any president before or since, the president’s inner circle was entirely male. Although women make up the majority of Congressional staffers, they occupy just one third of senior positions. As a result, they experience a pay gap of over $5,000 in the House and $7,000 in the Senate. These dynamics push talented women out of campaign and policymaking positions, perpetuating the cycle of marginalization and underrepresentation.

Needless to say, these issues are compounded by race and gender identity. Research from the private sector shows that Black women are not just less likely to be promoted than men or white women, but also less likely to receive support and affirmation when they do achieve leadership roles. The number of trans women holding national elected office can be counted on two hands. And anecdotally, each of the women we spoke to acknowledged and described experiences, either personal or those of friends and colleagues, who felt excluded, talked down to, or pigeonholed because of their race and gender identity. “I feel like in New York City, a lot of high-ranking commissioners of city government agencies that I deal with are women,” said a senior attorney at a public agency in New York. “But I do feel like there’s not a lot of Black women who work with me, and when Black women are hired on, I don’t think they stay as long.” The result of these dynamics is that despite their best intentions, even progressive and liberal organizations are often making decisions in ways that exclude the groups they hope to serve and are ultimately worse at meeting their stated goals.

These trends exist abroad as well. Research indicates that even when countries institute gender quotas in their national parliaments, and even when they succeed in meeting these quotas, it is often not enough to ensure that women have real policymaking clout. In Rwanda, for example, where after instituting a quota, women now make up 61 percent of parliament, the researchers note that “women’s representation has yet to achieve parity in other federal civil servant positions, and is even less equal in local government, where the constitutional requirement is seldom met.” They suggest “a more normative” understanding of gender quotas, and a recognition that this analysis must involve every level of decision-making.

What does that more normative approach look like? Existing research on women in politics focuses solely on representation, but does not go far enough in terms of ensuring that women can actually contribute and succeed in these roles. That said, a growing body of research sheds light on some strategies Democratic organizations can use to end the dynamics that keep women out of the “room where it happens.” A study by Catalyst found that workplaces that actively encourage feedback resulted in both women and men speaking up against occurrences of sexism. Moreover, when women feel that they are able to express their experiences of sexism to their employer, men report sexism at an increased level as well. A Harvard Kennedy School study found that an action as simple as instituting joint performance evaluations resulted in women being evaluated by the same standards as men and included less language around stereotypical behavior patterns. In other words, cultural change must be layered with institutional change, and vice versa, in order to empower women in seats of authority.

It is clear that despite an emerging cultural mandate for female representation in leadership, women in progressive politics continue to be ignored in strategic and decision-making conversations. In many cases, women have been allowed into the room where it happens in word, but not in deed. However, this is not inevitable, nor is it unchangeable. Increased research, shifts in workplace cultures, and acknowledgment of stereotypes are ways that each of us can play a role in ending exclusionary sexism in leadership. This kind commitment—from institutions, leaders, and folks of all genders—is the only way to make equality-minded organizations live the values they preach.

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