Women rise on K Street — slowly
Women are increasingly taking up positions among the top lobbyists in Washington, a century after their first predecessors lobbied members of Congress for a more fundamental right — the right to vote.
Today, women hold six places among the top 20 lobbyists in Washington, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which ranks lobbyists by the number of clients they represent.
They are descendants, in a way, of the first women who used political power to shake up Washington.
Abby Scott Baker was one of the organizers of the national suffrage parade in 1913 and later became one of the most effective lobbyists for the National Woman’s Party, according to the Library of Congress. Anne Martin would travel to urge voters to call for congressional action on suffrage. Maud Younger was the chairwoman of party’s lobbying and legislative committees.
These women paved the way for female lobbyists, though women are still underrepresented along K Street’s gilded corridor.
Lobbying firms and corporate government relations offices with strong female representation have existed over time, though they are rare. Today, more women are rising in the ranks or opening their own shops to slowly balance the playing field.
“It is very challenging. It is still a boys’ club out there. I think you see fewer women in the multiclient space because they still either have to or want to build in time to be with their family. That doesn’t always lend itself to the evening activities and fundraisers, which is one of the reasons we see such a giving gap between men and women,” said Karissa Willhite, a principal at Ogilvy.
Lobbying is a typical next step for lawmakers after leaving Congress. But men dominate the pool of former members who have gone downtown.
“I think that not as many female members or senators become lobbyists maybe just because of the … traditional nature of our American family. We serve and then you just go back home and take care of your family, your grandkids,” said former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who became a senior adviser at Akin Gump after leaving office in 2019.
She added, “You just don’t see very many retiring female members become lobbyists. I think they should because usually, we are more people-oriented and we don’t mind going to events and talking to people. I think we’re just naturally inclined to be better lobbyists and I wish that more would make that transition.”
Of The Hill’s top lobbyists of 2019 list, about one-third of the corporate lobbyists recognized are women.
“I think that as a conservative Republican woman I bring what generally is viewed as a different perspective to my clients more so than some of my male counterparts,” Greta Joynes, senior policy adviser at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, said. “I think clients have begun to notice when there’s a lack of female leadership or input on client teams and there’s been an effort to fill holes where they exist.”
Joynes worked in Congress for more than 13 years before Brownstein, most recently as deputy chief of staff and legislative director to Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).
“Why aren’t corporate lobbyists 50-50 men and women? Let’s start by looking at Congress. We are working in that ecosystem. You have the majority of senior staff positions on the Hill traditionally held by men,” Alethia Jackson, vice president of federal government relations at Walgreens, said.
“You also look at the fact most CEOs of major companies are men, so this is all still working in that same ecosystem so that culture and those differences translate into the lobbying world as well.”
Jackson has been at Walgreens for nine years and before that was vice president of federal affairs at America’s Health Insurance Plans.
“When I started my career, I was the youngest woman and one of only a few women of color lobbying in the insurance industry. So I know the value of hearing everyone — and making everyone feel heard,” she said.
Lisa Kountoupes worked in the Clinton administration as special assistant for legislative affairs and argues that more women in government overall will increase women on K Street.
“As women’s numbers increase in executive branch positions and congressional offices, I think that women’s positions will increase in lobbying, too,” she said.
Kountoupes is one of only a handful of women who have founded their own lobbying shop.
“I think women certainly bring a valuable perspective and approach to this line of work. We’ve certainly walked in different shoes, literally, than our male counterparts. I think a good lobbyist, regardless of gender, knows a couple key things — we’re not the star of the show and the client is the boss,” she said.
Willhite was deputy chief of staff to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) before joining Ogilvy and works to organize events to connect female chiefs of staff, legislative directors and other leadership staff with networking and mentoring opportunities.
“A lot of lobbyists are recruited from the Hill, so if you’re not getting the top jobs on the Hill, you’re not getting offered senior positions downtown,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on the role of male and female lobbyists.
“I do a lot of calls and meetings with the women members and helping get women candidates. Every one of those calls is completely different than a call dominated by men. It’s a completely different conversation, child care comes up every single time, balancing the work life balance, and during COVID there’s more talk about how to juggle virtual school and work,” Willhite said.
Ros-Lehtinen added that male colleagues often are focused on businesses reopening and the impact on the economy.
“I’m thinking, the center of all of this are the kids and schools and day cares,” she said “As mothers and grandmothers, we’re more attuned to at the center of it all is the family structure and until we get this family situation squared away and kids in day care, kids in school, how are parents going to work from home?”
Joynes, who works on telecom policy, has a unique perspective on COVID-19.
“It certainly took on a unique perspective when I had a first grader and a preschooler doing distance learning in the fall, in addition to two working parents all on the same Wi-Fi. I never thought I would be coordinating Zoom calls for my 3-year-old, a Blackboard Collaborate class for my 7-year-old all while trying to manage a client Webex, but that’s 2020 for you,” she said.