Inside the numbers from new study on Senate staff diversity

Only 21.4 percent of mid-level Senate staffers are people of color — about 20 points lower than the proportion across the general U.S. population — according to a new report on staff diversity in the Senate.

The study, courtesy of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, dissects racial representation in mid-level jobs in Senate offices, career pathways for Black staffers and confronts issues with data availability.

One other critical finding in the report: Black mid-level staffers are less likely than other racial groups to see internal promotions to top positions.

Both parties in Congress have a perennial problem when it comes to building and retaining a staff with comparable levels of diversity to the country’s population. Democrats as a whole still employ more mid-level staff of color than Republicans, though, according to the report. Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of the study’s findings:

MID-LEVEL STAFF

The 21.4 percent of mid-level Senate staffers who are people of color, according to the report, falls well short of that group’s 41.1 percent of the total U.S. population.

Mid-level posts can pave the way for staff to move into more prominent roles and serve as a pipeline for senior positions in Senate offices. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which has been studying staff diversity since 2015, defines mid-level or “pathway” staff as all deputy chiefs of staff, senior advisers, legislative assistants, counsels and press secretaries/deputy communications directors working in senators’ personal offices.

“Employing a pathway staff that lacks diversity could limit the opportunity to employ a diverse top staff. Many congressional top staff job advertisements also specify a preference for candidates with previous Capitol Hill experience,” wrote the study’s authors, LaShonda Brenson and Kimberly Victor. “Diversity in the pipeline would ensure that more staff of color meet the preference for Capitol Hill experience.”

Senators of color — from both parties — employ people of color as mid-level staff at rates more reflective of the U.S. population than the Senate as a whole, according to the report.

When breaking it down by age group, senators under 60 years old employ the highest percentage of mid-level staff of color in their offices, comprising 29.6 percent of staff of color in those mid-level posts across the Senate.

Senators aged 60 to 69 employed the fewest at 14.8 percent of the total mid-level staffers of color. The staffs of the oldest senators, those older than 70, reported employing 19.5 percent of mid-level staffers of color.

BLACK STAFF PROMOTIONS

None of the Black staffers in top jobs as of January 2020 were still in those jobs as of June 2023, according to the new study, and all six Black top staffers included in the October 2023 report did not rise to those jobs via internal promotion.

In this area, the study built on a 2023 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies on top staffers in the Senate, which showed disparities in recruitment and retention of pathway staff.

Instead, those staffers moved Senate offices to be hired in their top roles. In contrast, during the same period the report shows that white, AAPI and Latino top staff were promoted internally.

“For African Americans in particular, representation as pathway staff does not lead to similar levels of representation as Senate top staff,” the report says.

SENATE GOP LACKING DATA

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies pursued their own data by contacting and recontacting staffers directly to collect, confirm or correct information for the report.

While Senate Democrats have conducted their own self-reported diversity studies for the last seven years, there is not comparable data for the chamber’s Republicans.

Federal law requires that employers with more that 100 employees both collect and disclose racial and gender demographic information of their employees to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the Senate has exempted itself from that law.