When Rahm Emanuel ran for Chicago mayor in 2011, his well-known propensities for infighting, rage and swearing were seen as evidence he was fit to follow in the footsteps of the legendarily volatile Richard J. Daley.
As senator and then president, Lyndon B. Johnson was known to throw things — including drinks that had not been mixed to his specifications — at his terrified assistants.
But when a woman is in charge, or wants to be, a different and contradictory set of standards comes into play, something political scientists describe as “role incongruity.” Women are expected to conform to gender norms as warm nurturers, even as they break the mold.
We saw that during the 2020 presidential campaign, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was hit with a spate of stories that described her as a difficult and sometimes abusive boss. While no one should excuse mistreatment of employees, Klobuchar was the only presidential contender who received that degree of scrutiny, or who had the internal workings of her Senate office raised as a gauge of her fitness to sit in the oval one.
In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions got flustered when then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) hit him with a line of rapid-fire questions during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. That kind of aggressiveness would hardly have been noteworthy in a male senator, but an obviously surprised and offended Sessions told Harris she made him “nervous.”
Now, of course, Harris is vice president, and under a spotlight as the first of her gender to hold the office, as well as having the pole position to run for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Biden.
A June 30 Politico story — quickly picked up in other outlets — told of “dysfunction” roiling Harris’s vice presidential office. The publication, relying on anonymous sources, described Harris’s operation as having “low morale, porous lines of communication and diminished trust among aides and senior officials.”
It is worth noting that it has been only 24 weeks since one of the most chaotic presidential transitions in modern history.
Even if the handoff of power had gone smoothly, Harris would hardly be the first high government official to make some early stumbles or require an adjustment period. Add to that the fact that she and her new staff are being handed some of the thorniest issues that confront the Biden administration, including fixing the chaos at the border, voting rights and police reform.
Much of the anonymous carping about Harris’s operation has centered on the vice president’s chief of staff, Tina Flournoy — who, like Harris, is a woman of color. One beef against Flournoy: She tightly controls access to the vice president. Well, that is pretty much the primary requirement of an effective chief of staff.
Among those reported to be most incensed are political donors, though it is hard to imagine they would have such expectations of access to Biden. “Either she can be out there doing the job she was elected to do, or she can sit around having tea with you. Which would you prefer?” asks veteran fundraiser Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization aimed at building the political power of Black women.
Meanwhile, just as the profile of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is being raised as a key moderate vote in the Senate — and a potential roadblock to Biden’s agenda — there come reports, again anonymous, of a “demoralizing” work environment in her office.
According to a list of supposed grievances detailed by Business Insider: Sinema’s interns feel underpaid, overworked and stressed out from dealing with hostile incoming phone calls to the office. Such has been the lament of interns since … forever.
It was hard to figure out what to make of the fluctuating staff turnover statistics cited, which used data compiled by the congressional-staffing database LegiStorm.
Sinema ranks 29th out of 100 senators for the most turnover this year, which puts her well in the mid-range, but was 94th out of 100 in 2020, which meant she had one of the best records in the chamber.
Calling out double standards is important, but there is only one thing that is likely to get rid of them: Seeing more women in charge.