Congress is even more sexist than you think: Why some men refuse to be alone with female staffers

A new report suggests that some congressional Republicans are deliberately shutting women out

Published May 15, 2015 7:53PM (EDT)

             (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

An unexpected tip for female staffers who want access on the Hill: bring a chaperone. According to a report from National Journal, certain men in Congress refuse to be alone with the women who work for them. Not because these women are femme fatales out to steal their bosses’ virtue, but to avoid -- in the words of one staffer -- “negative assumptions that might be made” about the nature of their relationships. Add it to the list of barriers women must overcome in order to do their jobs and move up in their fields.

More from National Journal writer Sarah Mimms:

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. [...]
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.

But it isn’t just closed door meetings or after-hours events that are off limits to some female staffers, it’s just appearing in public too often with their male bosses. As one woman told National Journal, "I remember our chief [of staff] saying that it was not appropriate.” She was told she could no longer staff her boss at public events to avoid giving the appearance that their relationship was “untoward.”

"It's demeaning for the staffer. It prevents our access," she said.

The informal policy is also plenty illegal. "The practices are clearly discriminatory in my view," Debra S. Katz, an employment discrimination lawyer in Washington, D.C., told National Journal. "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."

"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," Office of Compliance spokesman Scott Mulligan said in a statement. "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."

While it’s unclear from the report to what extent this informal policy is practiced across Congress, it’s clear that daily sexism -- overt and subtle -- is holding women back. In 2012, there were more women than men working on the Hill, but men were more likely to work in committee and leadership offices, particularly for Republicans. With seniority comes access, better pay and more opportunity. The report from National Journal may focus on just a handful of cases, but it still puts these dismal numbers into a new, unflattering light.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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