Capitol Hill: Very Male, Very White, and Why It Matters

July 08, 2011

Packed into a buzzing meeting room in the Dirksen Senate building, I took a long look around. As a summer intern at AAUW, I was thrilled to be at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing addressing the impact of the Wal-Mart v. Dukes Supreme Court decision — a case throughout which AAUW has remained a strong advocate for the women plaintiffs. Glancing at the other attendees, staff, and witnesses, my mind jumped to the question it seems hardwired to ask: How many women are here? How many are testifying as experts? How many of them are women of color?

It did not take a lot of counting to answer the last question: one.

The witness panel included three white men, one white woman, and one black woman — Betty Dukes herself. Two of the three men presented testimonies sympathetic to corporate concerns, and the two women testified in support of the plaintiffs, emphasizing the necessity of being able to address gender discrimination in the workplace through the court system. Though many men are effective advocates for women’s issues, I suspect that the hearing would have been very different without those two voices on the panel.

A recent demographic survey of 319 congressional staff members paints a stark picture of the lack of sexual and racial diversity in top-level staffers. The 2011 results of the quadrennial survey reveal that 68 percent of top staffers are male and an overwhelming 93 percent are white. One former congressional staffer noted that because staff members often serve as gatekeepers for events like Senate hearings, a lack of diversity among staff can have serious policy implications for women and people of color. Or as Professor Melissa Hart — one of the women witnesses in the judiciary hearing — put it, we tend to tap people on the shoulder who look like us.

For me, it was a reminder of the critical importance of a simple idea: Women have to be a part of the policy making process on issues that affect women. With women making up only 17 percent of Congress, AAUW knows that closing this long-standing political leadership gap requires more women running for office. It reinforces the importance of programs like Elect Her, an AAUW initiative that empowers and trains women to run for office at all levels — an effort that could change the face of politics in America.

A welcome face lift, if you ask me.

This post was written by AAUW Public Policy Intern Layne Amerikaner.

By:   |   July 08, 2011

2 Comments

  1. Janet L. Bohren says:

    Excellent observations and comment. Hope you can continue your work in the future for greater representation of women of all colors in the halls of Congress.
    Janet Bohren Mason/Lebanon Branch, Ohio

  2. xeginy says:

    Great post. Capitol Hill definitely needs to expand out from being “very male, very white.”

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