The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The uncomfortable truth of working as a woman on Capitol Hill

Lurid tales are spilling out of Capitol Hill. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Quiet sexism on Capitol Hill can be boiled down to a tale of two congressional aides: One is a man who can meet with his boss after hours without anyone asking questions. The other is a woman who cannot because that might give people the wrong impression.

An anonymous survey of female staffers and follow-up questions by National Journal found several women who work with congressmen or senators reported they’re not allowed to drive alone with their male bosses or talk one-on-one behind closed doors.

Some of the highlights, published Friday: One representative’s wife thought the frequent presence of a female aide was “unseemly.” A chief of staff felt a female aid appearing in too many photos with a senator was “inappropriate.” A manager feared spending too much time with young women might spark rumors.

If such policies exist, they may violate employment discrimination laws. Beyond that, they can disrupt a staffer's daily duties -- and their careers. A male staffer with equal experience at the starting line may get ahead faster through bonding with leaders and gaining experience informally closed off to his female counterparts.

"Even though my boss is like a second dad to me, our office was always worried about any negative assumptions that might be made,” one respondent said. “This has made and makes my job significantly harder to do,"

National Journal set out to understand: What’s it like to be a woman on Capitol Hill? The magazine’s sample from the notoriously secretive world is small. Editors reached out to 500 staffers and received 80 responses. Only four reported this kind of uneven access to their boss.

But it’s a glimpse inside the culture of a historically male dominated institution. There is now a record number of female lawmakers on the Hill and they’re still drastically outnumbered: 108 women serve alongside 430 men in the 114th Congress. Let the Post’s Reid Wilson break it down graphically:

Harder to track is the gender ratio for congressional staffers. A 2011 study found 68 percent of top aides were men.

Pay disparities, however, are well-documented. Female Republican congressional staffers made an average of $10,000 less than the male staffers in 2012, according to salary data from LegiStorm shows. (Women working for Democrats in the House made about $1,500 less and women working for Democrats in the Senate made about $4,900 less.)

Friday's findings launched a fascinating discussion on Twitter: