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Multiple male legislators refuse to be alone with female staffers. That’s a big problem.

Members of Congress
Members of Congress
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

National Journal has discovered that multiple male senators and House members have policies that prohibit female staffers from being alone with them during work functions, as if we needed another reason to be annoyed as all get-out with the workings of our great nation's legislature.

This is what happens when sexism is only wounded and not dead, you guys.

You might think this policy is the result of overzealous adherence to sexual harassment policies, but you would be wrong about that. This isn't about creating a safe working environment for female Hill staffers, as sexual harassment laws intend. Rather, National Journal found in its reporting, this policy is intended to protect male bosses from damage to their reputations if people thought they were sleeping with their staffers.

The consequences are significant: these rules create an unequal workplace in which men have access to members of Congress — and thus to career opportunities and avenues of influence — that women do not.

Male legislators are treating their female aides as potential sexual scandals rather than valued employees. That's discriminatory, but it's also just plain depressing. How can we still be fighting these basic battles after so many decades of women in the workplace?

How these rules limit women's success on Capitol Hill

National Journal first discovered the policies when it conducted a survey about what it's like to be a woman on Capitol Hill. After several women reported that they weren't allowed to spend one-on-one time with their male bosses, the magazine conducted follow-up interviews with other aides working on the Hill. Those interviews revealed that the policies, "while not prevalent, exist in multiple offices."

For women who worked in offices that prohibited one-on-one private contact, that meant no closed-door office discussions, no driving the senator or congressman to meetings, and never being the sole staffer accompanying him to events.

One woman said she had worked for her previous boss for 12 years, but he had never once taken a closed-door meeting with her. Unsurprisingly, "this made sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult." Another told the magazine, "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."

A number of male staffers confirmed that the policies existed, and that they gave men in those offices an advantage over their female colleagues. Male staffers had more time with their bosses and additional opportunities to shine at work and to stand out in important meetings or receptions with "major Washington power brokers."

One male Republican Senate aide confirmed that a rule prohibiting women from driving the boss or staffing him at events meant that women who valued their careers "would have to go somewhere else" in order to advance professionally.

Rules like this show that sexism in the workplace is still a huge problem

The issue here isn't just that these rules, formal or informal, are almost certainly illegal. (Just to be clear, though, they are: DC employment lawyer Debra Katz told National Journal that such policies are clearly discriminatory and unlawful.) Rather, the issue here is about what happens when legal and social norms about women in the workplace improve, but actual respect for women does not keep up.

Those norms have changed. In previous decades, back in those glory days when terms like "sexual harassment" hadn't even been invented yet and women took the blame for sexual encounters, men were held to looser standards when it came to things like sexual relationships with their female subordinates. And there were very few women in the workplace at all. A legislator could have an all-male office, or one in which the only women were secretaries who had no expectation of advancing beyond that position. In that kind of environment, avoiding appearances of impropriety was easy-peasy lemon squeezy — in large part because no one was likely to care.

But now women in the workplace are no longer just secretaries. And greater awareness of problems like sexual harassment means that men's behavior is under greater scrutiny than it would have been in previous decades. That's a good thing: adding a talent pool of smart, effective women to the workplace benefits everyone, and as a professional woman myself, I'm pretty pleased that sexual harassment is frowned upon.

But apparently these male legislators find those changing norms difficult-difficult lemon difficult and so are trying to turn back the clock a few decades. Rather than taking on some of the burdens of making the workplace more equal, they are pushing those burdens back on women, by creating rules that limit women's workplace advancement just so male bosses don't have to worry about any appearance of impropriety.

That's sad, because if they truly respected their female aides and valued their work, they would see them as something more than just a risk of sexual scandal. Women will never enjoy true equality at work until that changes.

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