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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.