By Megan R. Wilson - 04/29/14 06:00 AM EDT
Women are busting through K Street’s glass ceiling, seizing positions of power in an industry once almost the exclusive preserve of men.
Whether they’re managing the lobbying operations of Fortune 200 companies, running their own shops or building up a roster of big-name clients at mega-firms, women are steadily moving into roles once considered part of Washington’s “old boys club.”
While men still outnumber women on K Street by a significant margin, the environment has changed dramatically from just over a decade ago, when a prominent lobbyist felt she couldn’t successfully open a firm without a man’s name on the masthead.
The late Laurie Sullivan had built a successful lobbying career, including work at the health insurance giant Aetna. When she decided to hang her own shingle on K Street in December 2001, she used the name of consultant friend Nick Baldick, who didn’t work at the firm and never would.
“Unfortunately in this world, she felt like she needed a man’s name on the door,” Baldick recalled of the lobby shop, which was launched as Sullivan & Baldick.
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Within its first year, Sullivan’s firm banked more than $1.4 million, according to lobbying disclosure reports. Her clients included Aetna, United Health Group, Citigroup, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.
When Sullivan and Tracy Spicer, a lobbyist and former senior aide to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), rebranded the firm in 2006 — calling it Avenue Solutions — it was one of the few all-female firms in Washington.
Though Sullivan lost her battle with breast cancer in 2008, Avenue Solutions is still run by Spicer and three other female lobbyists. Revenue at the shop exceeded $3.5 million last year, making it one of K Street’s most successful boutique firms.
The rebranding was meaningful, Spicer said, because it “shows how far women have come in our profession.”
The Hill spoke with about two dozen established female lobbyists for this article. While most said they were encouraged by the progress that’s been made in breaking down gender barriers, the consensus was that there is a ways to go before women are true equals on K Street.
One hurdle for women in the lobbying profession, many said, is the clubby atmosphere that often results in deals being struck on the back nine.
“I despise golf, but I took it up because that’s where the guys like to socialize and network,” said Cristina Antelo, a principal at the Podesta Group, who worked at Goldman Sachs before entering lobbying.
“The female members [of Congress] are getting that, too. There are female [members] who very obviously don’t golf but throw golf fundraisers. They set them up, and then walk around to each hole and socialize. They get that, if you want the male’s money, you’ve got to go out and do what the men do,” she said.
Some lobbyists expressed frustration with a networking double standard, which Antelo described as lawmakers or other male counterparts handling “women with kid gloves” in professional interactions “because they’re scared of the innuendo.”
“There’s a comfort level with men hanging out with men,” said another female lobbyist who asked not to be identified.
Some said lawmakers or networking colleagues become nervous about getting a meal or drinks alone with a woman because of how it might appear — something men largely don’t have to think about.
Still, at a time when there are more female members of Congress than ever and Hillary Clinton is a front-runner for the presidency, the prominence of female lobbyists reflects a broader shift underway in Washington.
Kathryn Karol, the leader of Caterpillar’s Washington office, said the growing political power of women has changed the networking calculus.
“A man might have gone hunting [back in the day], but I’m doing a field trip with a mom who’s an elected official,” Karol said.
“It comes down to the quality of the work, if you love the work that you do,” said Melanie Nathanson, a former Democratic staffer who co-founded the firm Nathanson+Hauck. “When you spend a lot of time trying to do it well, the biggest competition tends to be with yourself.”
Avenue Solutions is one of several thriving lobby shops with women at the helm.
Others, including Kountoupes | Denham, Heather Podesta + Partners, Chamber Hill Strategies, Nathanson+Hauck and TwinLogic Strategies have also built impressive client rosters.
“There are more women willing to take the risks and go out on their own than there were even five or 10 years ago,” said Missy Edwards, who started her own firm, Missy Edwards Strategies, in 2010.
While women have overcome the hurdles that once would have stopped them from owning their own businesses, mega-firms have been behind the curve, according to Holly Fechner, a partner at Covington & Burling and former chair of the firm’s public policy practice.
When the heads of the largest public policy practices in Washington get together twice a year, Fechner said she is consistently the only woman at the table.
“It just gives you a sense of how far women need to go in that part of the practice — and I do have confidence that they will,” Fechner said, adding, “I have made terrific friends with these men. It’s a place where there’s a lot of mutual respect.”
The latest female addition to Washington’s executive class is Meredith Attwell Baker, a lobbyist for Comcast who last week was named the president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association.
Other prominent women in the lobbying and trade association space include Melissa Maxfield, who runs Comcast/NBCUniversal’s mammoth advocacy operation; Nancy Dorn, the head of government relations at General Electric; Maria Cino, the head of Hewlett-Packard’s lobby shop; Melissa Lavinson, who leads the Washington office of the California-based PG&E Corp.; Sid Ashworth at Northrop Grumman and Susan Molinari at Google.
Laura Lane, the president of global public affairs for UPS, worked in several male-dominated environments — including as a U.S. Foreign Service officer and within the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative. She recalled how, earlier in her career, she would walk through government hallways that were mostly lined with official portraits of white men.
That’s changing throughout the government, and especially at the State Department, where Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton have all served as the nation’s top diplomat.
“Once those role models started to exist, other women started to join the leadership ranks,” Lane said. “It’s not just the mold being broken, but also the inspiration that’s provided to the next generation.”
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