Why Some Male Members of Congress Won’t Be Alone with Female Staffers

Numerous women who work on the Hill say they’ve been excluded from solo meetings and evening events, a practice that could be illegal.

The U.S. Capitol is framed amid reflections from inside the Cannon House Office Building on the last day of the 112th Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Sarah Mimms
May 14, 2015, 4:10 p.m.

It’s no secret that Con­gress is dom­in­ated by men, but as wo­men work to make in­roads in the con­gres­sion­al boys club, some fe­male staffers face a huge im­ped­i­ment to mov­ing up: They’re not al­lowed to spend one-on-one time with their male bosses.

In an an­onym­ous sur­vey of fe­male staffers con­duc­ted by Na­tion­al Journ­al in or­der to gath­er in­form­a­tion on the dif­fi­culties they face in a male-dom­in­ated in­dustry, sev­er­al fe­male aides re­por­ted that they have been barred from staff­ing their male bosses at even­ing events, driv­ing alone with their con­gress­man or sen­at­or, or even sit­ting down one-on-one in his of­fice for fear that oth­ers would get the wrong im­pres­sion.

(RE­LATED: Staffers Share What It’s Like to Be a Wo­man on Cap­it­ol Hill)

Fol­low-up in­ter­views with oth­er Hill aides make clear that these policies, while not pre­val­ent, ex­ist in mul­tiple of­fices — and they may well run afoul of em­ploy­ment dis­crim­in­a­tion laws, ex­perts say. Be­cause of the sens­it­iv­ity of the is­sue, and the fear of re­tri­bu­tion, many of these wo­men and some of their male coun­ter­parts spoke with Na­tion­al Journ­al on the con­di­tion of an­onym­ity and de­clined to pub­licly name their bosses.

“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,” one fe­male staffer told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

An­oth­er re­por­ted that in twelve years work­ing for her pre­vi­ous boss, he “nev­er took a closed door meet­ing with me. … This made sens­it­ive and stra­tegic dis­cus­sions ex­tremely dif­fi­cult.”

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Male staffers said they’d also seen some fe­male aides barred from solo meet­ings with the boss, and that they be­nefited in some in­stances from the ex­clu­sion of their fe­male col­leagues in high-level meet­ings, at re­cep­tions with ma­jor Wash­ing­ton power­brokers, and just in earn­ing a little more face time with their bosses.

For these wo­men, the lack of ac­cess has meant an ad­di­tion­al hurdle in their at­tempts to do their jobs, much less fur­ther their own ca­reers. And in many in­stances, it forced them to seek em­ploy­ment in oth­er con­gres­sion­al of­fices.

The is­sue is hardly the norm. Nu­mer­ous staffers con­tac­ted for this story, both male and fe­male, said they had nev­er ex­per­i­enced or even heard of such a policy. But those who do em­ploy these policies could have a leg­al is­sue.

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Debra S. Katz, an em­ploy­ment dis­crim­in­a­tion at­tor­ney in Wash­ing­ton for thirty years, said she’d nev­er heard of a such a policy be­ing em­ployed in the private sec­tor, but ad­ded that “the prac­tices are clearly dis­crim­in­at­ory in my view.”

Katz wor­ries that lim­it­a­tions on what fe­male staffers could do in a con­gres­sion­al of­fice com­pared to male staffers would hinder hir­ing de­cisions. And even for wo­men who do get hired, the lack of one-on-one time could pre­vent them from mov­ing up with­in their of­fices. “You’re not be­ing per­ceived as a pro­fes­sion­al,” Katz said.

“So much hap­pens in cre­at­ing trust­ful re­la­tion­ships and if you can’t de­vel­op a trust­ful re­la­tion­ship where you’re hav­ing some one-on-one time, as the men ap­par­ently are get­ting — I can see many reas­ons why this is a ter­rible idea, ter­rible in the sense of dis­crim­in­at­ory,” Katz ad­ded, call­ing the prac­tice “clearly un­law­ful.”

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One fe­male House Re­pub­lic­an aide said that when she worked in the Sen­ate, she fre­quently staffed her male boss at events both on and off the Hill. But that came to an end when the of­fice chief of staff said that she was ap­pear­ing in the back­ground of too many pho­tos with the sen­at­or. “I re­mem­ber our chief say­ing that it was not ap­pro­pri­ate,” the staffer said.

When she gets to­geth­er with oth­er fe­male Hill staffers, she said, the is­sue comes up a lot. “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,” the House Re­pub­lic­an staffer said. “It’s to make situ­ations not seem un­to­ward.”

Non­ethe­less, the aide said, the policy was still dif­fi­cult for her to ac­cept. “It’s de­mean­ing for the staffer. It pre­vents our ac­cess,” she said. “If you’re ser­i­ous about your ca­reer you’re not go­ing to go around screw­ing your boss.”

(RE­LATED: Michel Mar­tin on Bal­an­cing Fam­ily and Ca­reer as a Wo­man of Col­or

Staffers whose bosses have em­ployed these policies said that fre­quently the is­sue is much more about the per­cep­tion of an older male con­gress­man spend­ing too much time with a young fe­male staffer, rather than any genu­ine con­cern about the be­ha­vi­or of either in­di­vidu­al.

While not ex­pli­citly ban­ning solo meet­ings with wo­men staffers, Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Jason Chaf­fetz of Utah and Tim Huel­skamp of Kan­sas said they’ve ad­jus­ted their of­fice policies to avoid, as Chaf­fetz put it, “the ap­pear­ance of any im­pro­pri­ety in any way shape or form.”

Chaf­fetz has in­sti­tuted a “sev­en-to-sev­en” policy, not al­low­ing any staffers of either gender to ar­rive in his of­fice be­fore 7 a.m. or leave after 7 p.m. without ex­press per­mis­sion. “You do the best you can to make sure those people are leav­ing at reas­on­able hour, make sure there [are] plenty of people around and that sort of thing,” Chaf­fetz said.

(Michelle Rhee: Go Ahead, Ruffle Some Feath­ers

Sim­il­arly, Huel­skamp said he makes sure to keep nu­mer­ous staffers around him and send the whole team home at a reas­on­able hour. “There are a lot of reck­less charges around here and people politi­ciz­ing things as well. So 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 ru­mors,” Huel­skamp said.

The Kan­sas Re­pub­lic­an ad­ded, however, that dur­ing nor­mal of­fice hours the wo­men serving in his of­fice “get a lot of ac­cess to me”.

One male Re­pub­lic­an staffer said that when he worked in the House, one of his bosses de­clined to meet privately with fe­male aides or have them staff him at even­ing events at the re­quest of his wife, who thought it was un­seemly. “There was nev­er any doubt about the staffers and their be­ha­vi­or, or the mem­ber and [his] be­ha­vi­or,” the staffer said. But his boss’s wife wor­ried what oth­ers would think, par­tic­u­larly back home in his South­ern con­gres­sion­al dis­trict.

(Ruth Bader Gins­burg: Male Justices Can Live and Learn

As a res­ult of the in­form­al policy, the male staffer re­mem­bers be­ing asked to ac­com­pany his boss to an even­ing re­cep­tion with a group of de­fense con­tract­ors, even though he was much more ju­ni­or than the fe­male staffer who covered the is­sue. “I’d say, ‘she has more ex­per­i­ence, this isn’t my area.’ They’d still say, ‘we need you to staff him to­night,’” he said.

An­oth­er male aide who works for a Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an said he was pre­vi­ously in an of­fice where wo­men wer­en’t al­lowed to drive the boss around or staff him at even­ing events. For his col­leagues, it be­came clear that if they val­ued their ca­reers, “they would have to go some­where else at some point,” he said.

Al­though his boss was wor­ried about the per­cep­tion of spend­ing too much time with young wo­men, the staffer wor­ried about the mes­sage it sent to his fe­male col­leagues. “It’s still pretty of­fens­ive. You can’t con­trol your­self enough to drive your boss around?” he said.

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Former House Re­pub­lic­an staffer El­len Car­mi­chael, now pres­id­ent of the La­fay­ette Com­pany, said she had one em­ploy­er who avoided spend­ing time one-on-one with his fe­male aides. But Car­mi­chael said she wasn’t bothered by the policy.

“It was a re­flec­tion of his per­son­al and re­li­gious val­ues. It wasn’t typ­ic­ally an in­con­veni­ence, as it was only really lim­ited to rid­ing in the car, and I ap­pre­ci­ated that he was earn­estly try­ing to be re­spect­ful of me, too,” she said.

A spokes­man for the Of­fice of Com­pli­ance, which over­sees work­place rights and dis­putes in Con­gress, said that they were un­aware of any of­fices that had sim­il­ar policies, but warned that such prac­tices would be dis­crim­in­at­ory.

“Policies, of­fi­cial or un­of­fi­cial, that pro­hib­it fe­male staff from be­ing alone with a Mem­ber can be dis­crim­in­at­ory and cre­ate an un­equal play­ing field in the work­place,” OOC spokes­man Scott Mul­ligan said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al. “A prac­tice like this means that wo­men can nev­er be­come trus­ted ad­visors or rise to high po­s­i­tions with­in an of­fice based solely upon their gender. Em­ploy­ers should con­cen­trate on en­sur­ing that their staffs are trained in work­place rights laws and that the work­place is free from har­ass­ment and dis­crim­in­a­tion rather than try­ing to build un­law­ful fences around their fe­male staff.”

Sen. Susan Collins, who star­ted her ca­reer on Cap­it­ol Hill as a Sen­ate staffer in 1975, said she had nev­er even heard of such a policy as a staffer or now as a sen­at­or her­self.

The Maine Re­pub­lic­an said she was “just stunned” that some of her male col­leagues would be so con­cerned about work­ing closely with their fe­male aides. “To me, that’s just ex­traordin­ary be­cause of what it im­plies, the lack of pro­fes­sion­al­ism that it would im­ply,” Collins said. “It im­plies that a man and a wo­man can’t have a com­pletely pro­fes­sion­al, prop­er re­la­tion­ship. That’s just stun­ning.”

Collins said the re­verse, to avoid hav­ing male staffers drive her around the state or meet with her privately, “nev­er oc­curred to [her].” She laughed as she con­tin­ued: “That’s why I’m hav­ing a hard time wrap­ping my head around this be­cause I can’t — I’m think­ing of this male staffer who has been with me for 18 years in my ho­met­own of Cari­bou and runs my Aroostook County of­fice, and the idea that we wouldn’t be alone in a car to­geth­er is laugh­able.”

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