Battling the Structural Barriers to working in Congress

The following is a guest post from TechCongress Advisory Board Member Brooke Hunter.

TechCongress has been committed to building a diverse and inclusive team of cross-sector leaders since the beginning of the program. But as we were recruiting for our fourth class, we kept hitting some of the same hurdles in recruiting that we have been from the beginning.

We’ve written before about how we’ve fallen short of our goal of reaching gender parity in prior fellowship classes.  This year we doubled down on our recruitment outreach to groups of women in tech to try to reach equal representation.  We were also intentional about capturing feedback from prospective fellows, and it confirmed a lot of what we already suspected: there are some hard-coded structural barriers to entry for some of our most promising candidates.

Time and again, we have conversations with potential Fellows, or take questions on informational calls about some how much flexibility exists for people with family obligations and whether remote work is supported. Unfortunately, there just isn’t much flexibility when it comes to working on the Hill. Every office is different, but very few allow the kind of flexibility people need to provide reliable care for children and other dependents.

Then there’s the looming factor of a time-limited fellowship with no guarantee of continued employment afterwards. Because we are recruiting from the tech sector, we are often asking people to leave behind their housing, their social networks, and sometimes their families in order to take a risk on a new field of work, in a place with a very competitive and expensive housing market. Those who are risk-averse have an even harder time making this leap.

Imposter syndrome is another barrier. This is the sense that you are a fraud in a new field, that you don’t belong and will be found out for not having the “right” credentials. I spoke with several potential candidates who were pretty sure they weren’t qualified to work on the Hill, when in fact they were a strong match for the kind of person we were looking for. Congress is intimidating, especially if you have no experience in policy, and this can increase the weight of imposter syndrome on potential fellows.

All of this adds up to Congressional staff that are alike in many ways. That homogeneity can create real risks. In the same way that the tech industry has suffered from a lack of different perspectives at the table when new products are being developed, Congress also suffers from a lack of people from varied backgrounds being at the table when legislation is drafted.

As the contemporary workplace changes to accommodate the needs of employees by embracing remote work and flexible schedules, Congress remains stuck in the same traditions as always. All too often, great prospects remove themselves for consideration for the Fellowship because they have family obligations at home. Most often, this is women caring for children or parents, though it has happened with some of the men who’ve applied as well. While flexibility is clearly on the minds of some in Congress, progress remains slow. How much talent will we miss out on in the meantime?