Discuss: Keeping Female Staff at Arms-Length
May 15, 2015
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?