Former Chief of Staff John Lawrence for Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi conducts his last staff meeting with Janice Mays, left, on January 22, 2013. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Janice Mays never needed to hold a gavel or be a household name to become one of the most powerful people in Congress.

When Mays announced she was leaving Congress in May, she had worked on the House Ways and Means Committee for more than 40 years. She helped guide lawmakers through complicated policy battles including a complete tax code overhaul in 1986 and crafting the Affordable Care Act in 2009.

Her departure left the House with seven female committee staff directors out of the 40 slots available. Ten of the 36 available Senate slots are also filled by women.

She joined the staff at Ways and Means shortly after completing law school in 1975 and worked her way up to staff director and chief counsel for committee Democrats. She’s the kind of staffer who was regularly called a secret weapon, a pioneer and the most powerful woman whose name you’ve never heard.

Earlier this year, Mays decided it was time for a change and took a high-profile, lucrative job in the national tax services division of consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers. Before she left the Hill, she sat down with PowerPost for a wide-ranging interview on how politics and power dynamics have changed in Washington over her four-decade career.

Her answers have been edited slightly for length.

PowerPost: You are one of the longest-serving staffers in the House. Has the treatment of women changed in the time that you’ve been here?

Mays: Oh, it’s improved a lot. The sexism has improved a great deal partly because women have been able to stay here. Often, you’ll find if a couple is working up here — you’ll find that the guy is the one who leaves to make the bigger money to send the kids to college or buy the bigger house. Women have been able to stay here longer in some ways.

Some areas have also just generally attracted more women. My health world is almost all women. We have one man right now who is a fellow.

Some of it is we have stayed [here a] long [time] and it is hard for us not to eke up to the top. It used to be men that had all of those jobs. Some of it there is just more acceptance. A lot of it is that this generation cares less about differences than my generation.

PP: You mention men moving on and women staying. That creates its own inequalities though, doesn’t it?

Mays: You can’t make a lot of money here. When we lost the majority in the House in 1994, all of the senior guys left. One of the reasons I’m as close to my members as I am is I became their chief nurse. I was their connection back to the days that [House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.)] was here and they were in power. I was kind [of a] reminder that that might come again one day.

I was the person who stayed. They became used to this woman at the top. Before that, I think I was more of an aberration.

I was also here at the right time. I have a law degree and Rostenkowski was close to indictment at that time, so he liked to have counsel around in case there were any private conversations he needed to have. Nothing ever came of it. He was also very proud of it, saying ‘They all think I’m such a pig — but look what I’ve done! I chose a woman!’

I think that was less of his sexisim and more of his background of being a Catholic schoolboy where he protected me.

PP: That’s such tokenism.

Mays: It is. But that’s how it was. He was actually proud to have come so far as to have picked a woman.

The guys were just more comfortable with men.

PP: Is it really all that different now?

Mays: I don’t know. I was surprised to hear men like [former Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott [(R-Miss.)] say ‘I’m never in a room alone with a woman so I could never be accused of sexual discrimination.’ I mean, really?

But has it come a long way, absolutely. It is very member-driven.

I have to say, [Ways and Means Chairmen Reps. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.)] both had the same philosophy. They wanted you to find the smartest people for any job — but if you could find smart people who were diverse, that was the best thing you could do. It isn’t tokenism. It is about [the fact] that there are good people out there. Let’s find them and let’s help give them their start.

PP: In the tax world a woman really stands out.

Mays: Yes, that’s true. One of the reasons I really survived this long up here is in my early years, being a Southern female helped me. I was not abrasive. People who were did not last long up here — in that particular world at that time.

Today, a lot more attitudes are ‘Okay, people will respect you for what you think and what you say.’ I could always find a way to soften that. I would still always say what I thought — but find a way phrase it so I wasn’t threatening.

PP: Why do you think women stay here longer?

Mays: This is the closest you come to finding family. You aren’t keeping time-sheets, you’re working to an aim and everybody who has left here and come back has said, ‘I miss the family-like atmosphere.’ I think that does help women.

We have women who come back after having babies and it is an easier place to be. People take up your load while you’re gone. Not every business can do that. You can come and go. It isn’t always easy to break back in. But government you can come in and out of whereas business is a little bit harder.

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