Can men and women ever just be colleagues?
This is no When-Harry-Met-Sally-inspired, retrograde hypothetical. Apparently it’s a live debate on Capitol Hill, where some legislators have declared the answer to be no.
At least, that is the implication of a recent survey by National Journal.
The publication anonymously surveyed female congressional staffers on what it’s like to be a woman on the Hill, seeking out the good, bad and ugly.
Alas, there was more than enough ugly to go around. Women reported your run-of-the-mill sexist encounters, including getting interrupted in meetings to have the identical point they were making made by a man and noticing how people tend to address their remarks to less-senior — but male — colleagues.
These offenses smack of unfairness, but at least they’re likely to be done inadvertently or unconsciously. The worst transgression, which multiple women reported (and National Journal’s interviews with male colleagues confirmed), was a more deliberate inequity: In some offices, only male staffers can spend time one on one with their (male) bosses.
“There was an office rule that I couldn’t be alone with the congressman,” one anonymous staffer reported.
Another: “I was not allowed to staff my boss at certain events without another male staffer present — because I was a woman.”
And another: “My former boss never took a closed-door meeting with me in the span of working for him, off and on, over a 12-year stretch. Even when I was in a position of senior leadership.”
One woman said she was told she could no longer join her GOP congressman boss at events because the chief of staff decided her presence in so many photos was “not appropriate.” In another case, a similar call was made at the behest of the wife of an unnamed Southern Republican, because the Mrs. thought such interactions looked “unseemly.”
Some staffers reported that women were barred from driving their bosses around. Who would have guessed that a legislature whose members get periodically obsessed with the imagined encroachment of sharia law would adopt such Saudi-like vehicular restrictions?
These rules — which inherently sexualize what should be mundane work interactions — seem predicated on the premise that either (A) all women are devilish temptresses irresistible to their libidinous bosses or (B) all women are liars who will fabricate sexual harassment charges at the slightest provocation.
And while such policies may violate anti-discrimination law, they are hardly unique to Capitol Hill.
Several years ago, at the American Economic Association’s annual confab, I found myself chatting with two male economists. One, a middle-aged man, mentioned that he never joins a female advisee for meals or drinks, at least not alone. Likewise, he said, any in-office meeting had to be conducted with the door open 90 degrees. Such restrictions did not apply to male students, but then meetings with 20-something men were less likely to inspire “misinterpretations” of lechery. His stated concern was not that improprieties would occur, but rather that they’d be erroneously inferred by onlooking busybodies. When the other, younger economist at the table — without whose presence, presumably, my own participation in this conversation would have been deemed unacceptable — protested that such rules put his female advisees at a disadvantage, the older professor demurred. The restrictions were intended to protect his female students, too, lest office gossips get the wrong idea about the, ahem, source of their success.
But of course these kinds of rules limit women’s opportunities for success. Female subordinates need to gain the trust of their advisers and managers to advance, and it’s impossible to build that trust if they must be constantly chaperoned. In the meantime, women also will have trouble just doing the jobs they already have; respondents in the National Journal survey reported that the restrictions on access to legislators shut them out of important conversations and, in one woman’s words, made “sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult.”
No wonder female staffers earn, on average, about $6,000 less annually than their male counterparts, a disparity largely driven by the fact that women are underrepresented in senior positions. These gender hierarchies will continue to reproduce themselves so long as predominantly male bosses insist on never becoming true mentors, confidants and sponsors to talented women.
And as for concerns about busybody onlookers? One effective way to head off suspicions of funny business is to treat normal interactions between professionals as, you know, normal and professional. Likewise, there’s no better way to cultivate suspicions of lechery than announcing to the world that you can’t be left alone with a lady.