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Discuss: Keeping Female Staff at Arms-Length

Since moving out of D.C. last year, I’ve encountered a number of people who think the capital city is a combination of Scandal, House of Cards and All the Kings Men.  Whenever a salacious tidbit about a politician hits the news, someone is bound to ask me whether D.C. is the lascivious, murderous hellmouth depicted on TV.

I assure you it is not.

Granted some of the power brokers can’t keep their hands to themselves, but they can be avoided or discouraged.  I’ve never been asked to dump a body, but my lack of upper body strength makes me a poor candidate for gravedigger.  And while you’ll meet plenty of self-aggrandizing asshats who regale you with tales of their mediocre accomplishments, Machiavellian acolytes are rare.

So when a friend sent me this National Journal article and asked if congressmen really keep female staffers at arms-length out of fear that people might make assumptions, I was sad to report that, yes, that happens.

My Boss’s staff was half women.  In the office, he didn’t treat us differently than our male colleagues.  We were never barred from meetings or prevented from advancing, but outside the office was a slightly different story.

One night, the Boss offered to take us all to dinner at Tortilla Coast.  We left around 9:00PM and were walking down a near-empty corridor, when he suddenly stopped.  It had dawned on him that he was walking with five women and no men.  He would proceed no further until we grabbed a male intern from the office to walk with us.

A picture of the Boss walking through the Capitol, surrounded by five, good-looking women was not a photo-op he wanted.  Nothing untoward was happening, but after two decades in politics, he knew that the truth would matter little if the photo ended up in the wrong hands.  Because when people hate you, they’ll take any lie as gospel.  And an entertaining lie moves with a voracious fervor that the boring truth can never match.

When I left Capitol Hill, these incidents became more frequent.  A Congressman once asked that my seat at a dinner be moved further away from his because our party could be seen from the main dining room.  A female friend was once asked to bring a male colleague to a small dinner at a Member’s home because what grown woman doesn’t need a chaperone?

In a world with a 24-hour news cycle, social media, and gossip columnists, it’s not difficult to understand why elected officials might be squeamish about being alone with female staffers and lobbyists.  The belief that every Member is a cad is so pervasive that even a whiff of scandal is enough to get the ball rolling.  This is not to say that there aren’t Members who play fast and loose, but their number is smaller than advertised.

And for a female staffer or lobbyist, if the rumor mill gets going about you, whether the accusations are true or not, you might as well stitch a scarlet ‘A’ on the lapel of your power suit.

I know a female LD who after eight years working for her boss won’t be alone in a room with him.  She told me once that it’s her job to protect him, and doing anything that might feed a misperception about their relationship isn’t doing her job.

Should it be this way?  No.  Will the culture of the Capitol ever change?  Unlikely.  This double-standard is virtually impenetrable because the public is so willing, almost eager, to believe that every politician is a Bill and every female staffer is a Monica.  And as long as that’s the case, many male elected officials and high-ranking staff will be leaving room for the Holy Spirit between them and their female colleagues.

So I’m curious, have you ladies experienced something similar?  Is this common in other fields as well?  And do you think women will ever get a fair shake or will the fear of scandal always keep us just a step behind the boys?

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    44 comments

  1. dani says:

    To your point on females needing chaperones, my past law firm always asked that I attend client development and fundraising events in the company of a man. It wasn’t just frowned upon that I attended these gatherings solo, it was prohibited. I was single at the time (and my partner knew it) but even if I had been in a relationship, I believe it should have been my decision alone to decide whether and when to invite a guest.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  2. Kate says:

    This is the next frontier in mentoring for sure. We’re at a point now where many senior men are ready and willing to mentor junior women, but feel they have to be ultra-careful about when and where. I’m in academia and one of my mentors invited a male grad student to travel with him when he was asked to serve in an advisory capacity somewhere. I don’t think he could have brought a female student, and that’s not his fault–but we need to figure out ways around this. Obviously, getting more women in power is one key step. I also wonder how gay and lesbian bosses deal with this.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
    • Anna says:

      And yet there are definitely creepy men who have no problem taking a young lady “under their wing” with totally false pretenses. It gives the decent guys a bad name.

      May 15, 2015/Reply
      • Anon says:

        My sister was asked to a conference with her professor, and declined after she realized he expected her to stay in the same hotel room as him. Sadly, women are often in a tough position with these things.

        May 16, 2015/Reply
    • Anna D. says:

      This reminds me of traveling with my former boss – a statewide elected official. As his communications director, I needed to attend out of state speaking engagements with him. We traveled to the airport separately, and once we arrived he made a point to avoid speaking to me or be seen near me. Sometimes he’d have his shoes shined or he’d sit in a separate gate. Once we arrived to our destination, I could never find him once we deplaned. We got into a routine of taking separate cabs to the hotel. This arrangement was never discussed beforehand, it was just “how things were.” I felt very uncomfortable during the first trip, wondering if he was angry with me over a speech or some imaginary issue. It eventually clicked, and I understood what was happened – just wish he’d been upfront. I would have understood and been less stressed as a result. — But at least I was able to accompany him so I could do my job.

      May 15, 2015/Reply
      • Anna says:

        This is all such silliness. There are definitely Members who have the reputation; everyone knows who they are. Talking one on one to a member of your staff, who you presumably employed because of the quality of their work, should not be something to hide. When was the last time someone was called out for being too close to a staffer who actually wasn’t? I worked for a member who was accused of sexual harassment, but he did hug staffers (male and female) and tell the occasional dirty joke. I never felt uncomfortable, but I could see how someone might use that against someone. Fine, be careful about what you say, but going to these lengths is just ridiculous.

        May 15, 2015/Reply
  3. Thanks! says:

    What’s an LD? Google’s not much help…

    May 15, 2015/Reply
    • MK says:

      Legislative Director in a House or Senate congressional office.

      May 15, 2015/Reply
    • Gina says:

      Legislative Director

      May 15, 2015/Reply
  4. Allison says:

    Very true. I’ve run into this. After thinking it through, I realize that I was very sensitive to not be seen alone with my boss when I had one that had made advances on me. Since he did that to me, I’m sure he did it to other women in the office, so I wanted it to be very clear that the answer had been no. Now I have a new boss, he is very nice and upstanding. We were at a company dinner on a trip, and when he left the table a little early I stood up with him because I was tired and wanted to take the opportunity to leave early as well. He was obviously uncomfortable walking back to the hotel with me, and was trying to distance himself. Because he’s such a respectable person I didn’t think twice about walking back to the hotel together. It’s uncomfortable for everyone, but I do think at the end of the day it’s women who get the short end of the stick, because male leaders often feel on guard and less likely to bond with us.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  5. Brittany says:

    It’s unfortunately so true. I honestly didn’t realize just how bad it was until I started working with a female boss, and she’s been a wonderful mentor.

    That being said, I’ve also seen this run the opposite way. A woman I work with has been inappropriately forward with our male board members, to the point where I’ve had one of them come to me and ask me what her deal is, and I’ve had to remind another board member that there are some behaviors that are inappropriate, and we really need him to not engage her when she approaches him with specific offers (no, it’s nothing sexual, but it’s definitely concerning.) Those kinds of women are the women who are creating the kind of climate where, not only do the male supervisors need to watch out, the female staff need to be careful as well. The gossip that starts because of one person’s not-so-innocent behavior can very quickly spread to another person’s completely innocent behavior.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  6. Kate says:

    Thanks for writing about this, Belle! It’s a really important but not super intuitive or visible side-effect of all of the scandals.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  7. Sara says:

    It sort of makes me wonder where networking is going, too. Do men wonder what kind of image they are portraying when talking to a woman at a business event where cocktails are served? Even if it doesn’t make him walk away, it likely crosses his mind. Having an engaging policy discussion could look like a personal connection is being established from across the room. Body language does the talking for us, but it’s all about perception, too.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  8. Gretchen says:

    This one really hit home. I work in the transportation industry (male-dominated) and have more of a leadership role in a large company. I’ve dealt with rumors of my success coming from inappropriate relationships with men, and guess who they come from? Other women.

    Thankfully I have plenty of mentors and colleagues – peers and executives – both male and female, who know better. In my case the rumor ended up hurting the rumor-spreader, but dealing with it was humiliating.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
    • Anna says:

      The National Journal survey the story links to speaks to this as well. It’s sad but sometimes women are the worst to each other, or just play into the stereotype of being catty and vindictive instead of mentoring those coming up behind them.

      May 15, 2015/Reply
  9. GoGoGo says:

    Kate said it well. Glad you brought it up.

    Yes, I think I’ve also picked up on this vibe in small ways when working on the Hill, not in the office but at social occasions. It’s a totally understandable instinct for those guys to be wary. I am sympathetic.

    I wonder if people our age will have less anxiety about this when they are public figures? Our generation as whole is probably more accustomed to platonic friendships than our parents’ was, and here in DC we’re a bit more removed from the Charlie Wilson’s War days–and even from Bill and Monica, as you say.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  10. GoGoGo says:

    Hm, a further thought…

    As I think about it, one of the interesting things that might be tempering gender dynamics in my field as I age through it is the increasing number of gay men and women I’m running into who are 100% out in their professional lives. I was trying to think through the last few networking drinks I had with people, trying to remember if any were stilted because of concerns about romantic appearances. I realized they were like: gay guy, straight woman, gay guy, guy of unknown orientation who I don’t know is gay but wouldn’t be surprised if he was, straight married guy, woman of unknown orientation… Maybe as we all start with fewer assumptions about people’s personal lives, this issue will simmer down naturally.

    That said, now that also gets me thinking about what it must be like for openly gay public figures and authority figures. Man, do you think they worry about this just, constantly, and twice as much? I could see that being incredibly debilitating logistically.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
    • kim says:

      Interesting. That earlier post about worry less about what others think and more about what you think of yourself comes to mind. But easier said than done of course.

      May 15, 2015/Reply
  11. Maggie says:

    My boss is a kind man, but the generation he’s from has definitely given him certain cultural tendencies that I would call sexist. I know it’s not malicious, it’s just “how things are” to him. I’m actively looking for another office where I can be seen as an equal, but no luck yet. This article definitely gave me a couple nuggets of advice to keep my chin up: https://www.nationaljournal.com/pictures-video/what-s-it-like-to-be-a-woman-on-capitol-hill-20150514

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  12. Yael says:

    My first job out of college was in finance. One good hearted older male colleague became my mentor and helped me avoid a lot of the office scandals by warning me about the office bad apples. I was specifically told to never enter a particular man’s office alone. I suppose since then I have been both kept at arms length and harassed.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  13. Hill staffer says:

    As a mid-twenties Hill staffer, I have definitely experienced this—and am grateful for it because it protects the female staffer’s professional reputation, too. My old boss would never have a female member of our team staff him at an evening event alone. There were times I felt left out or missed events I really wanted to attend (and could only attend as a member’s staff), but in the end, it was the best policy for our office. It benefited everyone. Because at Capitol Hill High School, the gossip (even if unfounded) is rampant and sticks like glue.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
    • Hill staffer says:

      **This isn’t to say that I couldn’t participate in one-on-one time at all with my boss. It was necessary and valuable to have one-on-one meetings with each other. That dynamic was never compromised.

      May 15, 2015/Reply
  14. Kay says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience Belle. Side note, the article is from the National Journal.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  15. K says:

    I kind of wonder if, at least on the Hill, this is more of a partisan issue. The article only names Republican offices, and as a former Dem staffer, and with many female Dem friends with male bosses, I have never heard that this has been a problem. The idea of not taking a closed-door meeting with your male boss for propriety’s sake is crazy to me! I’d be curious to hear from folks if any Dem staffers have had this experience.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
    • A says:

      D staff here. Never an issue. We weren’t allowed to go clubbing with my boss (I totally agree with that decision), but never barred from attending professional events together. The older of my bosses even had a female chief with whom he often attended work dinners and receptions. It’s almost as important for the staff to be there to foster those connections as it is for the Member.

      May 15, 2015/Reply
      • GoGoGo says:

        Yeah, I think, as Hill Staffer above suggested, a lot of us agree that caution about appearances at public events is one thing, but never taking a one-on-one meeting would be quite another. No private meetings at all would be hugely debilitating.

        D here — Never worked in an office with any rules like this. Definitely heard fellow staffers talk about there being lots of hard lines and formality when it came to any travel or CODELs with either D or R Members. I don’t think of it as being a partisan thing, though I’d have to think.

        May 18, 2015/Reply
  16. kim says:

    This is so well written Belle. Can’t help but notice this wouldn’t be an issue if the politician were female. Of course, maybe that would just shift the problem from that of the staffer to that of the politician.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  17. anonymous says:

    I worked my butt off to win a state senate seat for a candidate and didn’t get hired as his LA (which was the promise when I took the job, realizing that I was a fresh college grad and would be spending 6 months after graduating fully dedicated to the campaign and not job hunting).

    Why? His wife thought it would look bad if he had a female assistant. She also told me that “we almost didn’t hire you for the campaign job because we didn’t want people talking about [ the candidate] spending so much time with a young female”.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
    • GoGoGo says:

      Oof, that sucks and that seems very extreme.

      May 18, 2015/Reply
  18. Kay says:

    On the other hand, what if the boss is a woman? I know women Members of Congress that have male executive assistants/drivers that spend a lot of time and late evenings together. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be the same extent of caution or hesitation in these situations.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
    • GoGoGo says:

      I remember hearing that there was a female Member a few decades ago who made a point of having an all-male staff and would play around with this image of them being her entourage, like she’d take a picture of them all doing her yardwork or something…I think I’m not making this up. It’s going to bother me. Has anyone heard of this story? I don’t want to get it wrong.

      May 18, 2015/Reply
      • G says:

        (It may have been Helen Chenoweth-Hage? But I don’t want to get this wrong and accidentally cast aspersions. I do remember hearing this story and I’m pretty sure it was an R office and the Member sounded like a real character and now I’m really interested to know who that was, if anyone’s heard of this story. Female Member who’d jokingly pose with her staff like they were the Pit Crew on RuPaul’s Drag Race.)

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Chenoweth-Hage

        May 18, 2015/Reply
    • Staffer says:

      This is a issue I have struggled with during my time on the hill – I know a lot of female Members have a male chief of staff or senior staff, but there seems to be no hesitancy on any ones part in those situations. Especially looking at the age of some of these senior staff – I feel that if the situation was reversed, the woman’s credentials would be questioned, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue in some of the female Members I have interacted with.

      May 18, 2015/Reply
    • Angie says:

      I think there’s less of a concern because the (ridiculous) gender stereotype is that older women in positions of power will be professionally appropriate and older men will not. Meanwhile, the opposite is assumed about younger female staffers: that the women are somehow more easily lured by powerful bosses but male staffers aren’t.

      May 18, 2015/Reply
  19. Jenn says:

    People have mentioned several professional fields, and I’d like to add one more to the discussion: churches. The same concern exists with male pastors and female staff or female church members. I attended a church that had surveillance cameras in the pastors’ offices to allow female church members to come in for discussion or counseling but still protect the pastors from rumors. This seemed extreme until the day when a pastor WAS falsely accused of being inappropriate with a younger female church goer (who, turns out, had made several accusations like that against pastors at several other churches, but those pastors had little to use to defend themselves). Because there was video surveillance to prove her fraud, the pastor was spared a humiliating and undeserved scandal. It saddens me that relationships within a church environment must be guarded like that, but I also won’t hold it against the men of the church for being guarded.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  20. Samantha says:

    During college I interned for a congressman whose predecessor had recently resigned after having an affair with a staffer. The staff assistant told me that there was a high level female staff member who would have liked to eventually be promoted to chief of staff, but knew it would never happen because she couldn’t be alone with the member in a room. And when I asked to meet with the member at the close of my internship to discuss job possibilities, he had another female staffer in the room. It’s so unfortunate that this is an issue.

    May 15, 2015/Reply
  21. KC says:

    Maybe my experience was unique, but I worked as an intern for a female senate representative, and her driver and chief of staff were male, but the LA’s, comm director, LD, and chief legal counsel were all women. Never had any issues like what is talked about here in terms of behavior, but there was the occasional rumor that would go around about her, if only because she wasn’t married!

    May 16, 2015/Reply
  22. GB says:

    I get that this is a reality for many, but talk about why we still need feminism! As a married woman, I’m insulted that gossip might arise about my professional relationships with men – even if they (men in power) don’t have personal integrity, I do. It’s insulting to both genders to have this limiting our working potential. And also, talk about heteronormativity run amok!

    May 16, 2015/Reply
  23. SN says:

    Wow! Let’s just bring purdah back! It’s what it’s for! This is not the answer-it just makes things worse and curtails everyone’s freedom, but most of all, women’s, as always. I have been in academia my entire career, in biology, where women outnumber men, if anything. Things have got better in my field due to workplace legislation and social change. I am not saying such things never happen, but they are not the norm-nor is using purdah-like restrictions to deflect gossip. One observation I can relate to-a commenter mentioned women undermine each other. For my generation, growing up in the 70s, we really tried to support our female colleagues because there were so few of us. In the last 15 years, as a manager, I have seen a “Mean Girl” ethos in young women entering the workplace that I do not like at all. It goes along with gossiping on social media (which we did not have) and being bitchy to one’s boss, as happened to me with a couple of my direct reports-unbelievable that anyone thinks this is appropriate in the workplace. I also see a disturbing idea that feminism isn’t needed anymore because all victories have been won. Well, this article makes it clear there is still a long way to go. Purdah is not the answer.

    May 17, 2015/Reply
  24. JF says:

    This is the BEST response I’ve seen on the National Journal Article. I’m an LD on the Hill for an R member. We’ve had semi-unofficial policy regarding late nights when we have votes (past 8-9pm) that a female won’t be alone in the office with the boss, another staffer has to stay late as well. As a female, I’m probably never going to have the same amount of access as my male colleagues as long as I’m on the Hill working for a male member. It is frustrating, but the reason is there are always going to be people wanting to drag the Member into a made-up scandal. I wish there was a better solution.

    May 18, 2015/Reply
  25. sherry @ save. spend. splurge. says:

    Happens in all industries. All my guy colleagues say that they do not fraternize, do not go alone with or are seen alone with (nor mention it) other women, married or not. Especially strange women (strangers.. not that they’re weirdos necessarily). Until they KNOW the woman, and KNOW them well (personality, etc) and in some cases know their husbands/partners as well, they will keep their distance for a long time.

    May 18, 2015/Reply
  26. Angie says:

    I don’t work on the Hill, but I see this happen in academia too. It ranges from the benign-but-discriminatory (younger prof takes his male PhD advisees but not his female PhD advisees to a baseball game; word gets around that his wife “gets extremely jealous” so he’s careful never to socialize outside of campus with female students) to blatant sexual harassment (older male prof asks his female student to travel with him as his research assistant, then insists that they share a hotel room). Harassment issues make even the kindest and most unoffensive male profs wary, to the point that they compensate by leaving their door open during meetings with female students, which makes it difficult to confide professionally or personally to a mentor/potential mentor.

    May 18, 2015/Reply
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