Some female staffers working on Capitol Hill say they aren’t allowed to meet privately with their male bosses to avoid even the appearance of impropriety in an age of salacious political sex scandals.
A National Journal survey of 500 female congressional staffers revealed at least five anonymous respondents who reported unwritten rules that bar female aides from one-on-one sessions with a male member of Congress, including meetings, driving, and staffing out-of-office events.
Staffers said walls of separation between male lawmakers and female staffers are erected either out of sensitivity to the politician’s wife or to protect a congressman from allegations of sexual harassment.
But women working on the Hill, and even their male counterparts clued into the discrimination, say it can limit their career advancement. The Office of Compliance, which oversees workplace discrimination in Congress, warned that blocking women from meetings would “create an unequal playing field in the workplace.”
“This has made and makes my job significantly harder to do,” one respondent said of the practice, with another calling the setup “unfair.”
Another aide, who was in a senior role during her 12-year career working for a member of Congress, said her former boss “never took a closed-door meeting” with her, making “sensitive and strategic discussion extremely difficult.”
And it wasn’t just the women on staff who noticed the supposedly separate but equal status. Their male counterparts reported being brought to out-of-office events, despite their junior standing on the totem pole compared to female staffers.
One staffer said his former boss, a member of the House from the South, didn’t meet in private with his female employees or enlist them to staff evening events out of deference to his wife, “who thought it was unseemly.”
“There was never any doubt about the staffers and their behaviour, or the member and [his] behaviour,” the staffer told the Journal, explaining that the congressman’s wife worried his constituents in the Bible Belt might not approve.
Another Senate Republican staffer noted office rule against females driving the boss or staffing evening events that made it hard for women in the office to progress professionally.
“They would have to go somewhere else at some point,” he said.
Another male staffer for a Republican senator also remembered working in an office where women couldn’t drive the senator or staff events.
“It’s still pretty offensive,” he said about the insinuation that women on staff “can’t control yourself enough to drive your boss around?”
Though the survey was scant on details of which congressional offices carried out the practice, at least two representatives went on the record to explain what measures they have taken in their offices to avoid setting the scene for unprofessional dalliances.
Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) both impose strict office hours that prevent staff from being at work too late in the evening and also make sure that a group of staffers is accompanying the congressmen at all times.
“We try to keep more than one person around on staff. And that’s to avoid any appearance [of an issue] and folks running around spreading rumours,” Huelskamp said.
However, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a former Senate staffer herself, balked at the notion of keeping female staffers away from one-on-one meetings with their bosses.
“To me, that’s just extraordinary because of what it implies, the lack of professionalism that it would imply. It implies that a man and a woman can’t have a completely professional, proper relationship. That’s just stunning,” she said.
Of the 435 voting members of the House of Representatives in the 114th Congress, currently there are 84 female representatives versus 347 male members. Of the 100 members of the Senate, there are 20 female senators.
Of the 500 women surveyed by the National Journal, 58% were Democrat and 41% Republican. 59% worked for a male member of congress while 29% worked for a female member of Congress.
Half of respondents said they had experienced some sexism personally while working on the Hill, while 14% said they had experienced a lot of sexism personally.
Here’s what female respondents said about being blocked from meetings with their male bosses
- “I was not allowed to staff my boss at certain events without another male staffer present – because I was a woman…Even though my boss is like a second dad to me, our office was always worried about any negative assumptions that might be made. This has made and makes my job significantly harder to do.”
- “There was an office rule that I couldn’t be alone with the congressman. The rule was meant to protect him and me, but it still felt unfair.”
- “My former boss never took a closed-door meeting with me in the span of working for him, off and on, over a 12 year stretch. Even when I was in a position of senior leadership. This made sensitive and strategic discussion extremely difficult.”
- “I used to work for a member of Congress who did not allow women to drive him. I also had a chief of staff tell me once that he ‘spends more time catering to women’s feelings because they are gentle creatures.'”
- A female House Republican staffer who previously worked for a member of the Senate told the National Journal that though she was initially allowed to staff events for her former boss, it became problematic when she frequently appeared in the background of photos of the senator. “I remember our chief saying that it was not appropriate,” she said. “It’s definitely something that a lot of women on the Hill experience and not necessarily because the boss is creepy or that it’s protecting her. It’s to make situations not seem untoward,” though she added, “It’s demeaning for the staffer. It prevents our access. If you’re serious about your career you’re not going to go around screwing your boss.”
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