Opening the door for female leaders in the workplace

Getting ahead in Washington, D.C., isn’t always easy — it involves everything from who you know to where you live. Add in being a woman, and the stakes get even higher.

A quick look through the Bureau of Labor and Statistics paints a bleak picture of female professional development. Despite accounting for more than 47 percent of the national workforce, women make up only about 27 percent of the nation’s CEOs. The same trend extends into politics — while more women are serving in the House and Senate than ever before, they still only make up a paltry 18 percent of Congress.

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But don’t count them out as not being involved: this past election, women made up a majority of the electorate. This result does bring to light a troubling issue: if women are just as engaged as men, why aren’t they aiming for higher positions?

Over the past few years, a number of programs have sprouted up across the city to reverse this trend. From nonprofits to consulting firms, these groups work to accommodate young women looking to get ahead both in the nation’s capital and in their careers.

One recent player is GlobalWIN, a bipartisan nonprofit that focuses on innovative women in major fields like business and the sciences. Lauren Wessler, a staffer for the group, noted that it only recently began holding career development programs and lectures for women, and that the popularity of the programs has skyrocketed.

“We offer classes on things like public speaking, goal mapping and social media,” Wessler says. “We’ve learned that some of best peer networking comes at events like happy hours and meetings.”

Despite the group’s primary focus on technology and innovation, GlobalWIN has extended its efforts to support women in a variety of fields, including those employed on Capitol Hill. It’s all part of what Wessler calls the “leadership pipeline:” when staffers are able to see other successful women, it motivates them to get ahead as well. It’s also a chance for women on Capitol Hill to “see what else is out there,” particularly for those staffers whose interests apply to thinks tanks or lobbying groups they might otherwise not have known about.

Because the events are focused on workingwomen, GlobalWIN makes sure to account for things like timing and cost. 

“If we hold a breakfast event,” Wessler explains, “we try and make it a little later in the morning so women have time to drop their kids off at school and not feel rushed.” The same goes for post-work events, which are held as soon as the standard workday is over.

Wessler mentions cost as another barrier women face when they look to get ahead. Contrary to programs that require fees or membership dues, GlobalWIN hosts free events in order to draw in women — particularly those who are younger or new to the city — who couldn’t otherwise afford the chance to network.

In addition to nonprofits like GlobalWIN, consulting firms geared toward female leadership and development have also cropped up around the city. A relatively new player, Clifton Consulting LLC, “specializes in women’s leadership and communications” according to its CEO, Marjorie Clifton. She began the company with the intention to “create new ways to train the 21st century workforce around professional development, communications and leadership — and to bring this issue of gender into the spotlight.” 

Clifton has worked with clients on and off Capitol Hill, but sees the “power dynamic” of politics as a particular barrier for women looking to get ahead. “It is easy to get lost in the haze of power-as-currency that exists, meaning that young women in particular can feel afraid to stand up and speak up or ask for what they want.” 

To counteract this, Clifton’s firm helps advise organizations on ways they can include more women in leadership roles, as well as offering panels and “boot camps” that teach participants the ins and outs of climbing the career ladder. Helping with an organization’s “structural change,” Clifton says is one of the first steps groups can take toward making leadership gender equality a reality.

For women still in school, the city’s professional development resources are even more abundant. The Women & Politics Institute at American University offers a variety of courses each year that revolve around educating women about politics and leadership, as well as teaching them ways to network and become more active in their careers. Particularly popular courses include a number of weekend seminars devoted to special topics like “Women in Congress” or “Political Skill Building.”

Even after students graduate, many local universities still provide career support and connections as young women make the jump into full-time work. It’s that group, Wessler says, that stands to gain the most out of professional development classes and experiences. 

All of these efforts promote the same end goal — having more women engaged, and helping promote them to higher levels of leadership across the board. With so many opportunities citywide, chances for female professional development are always available, no matter your age or the point in your career.