“I know this move!”
That’s what Sarah Mimms, a deputy editor at BuzzFeed News, thought this week when she read about an agreement between Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence.
Mike Pence won’t eat alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, and he doesn’t attend events with alcohol unless Karen is present as well. Or at least he didn’t back in 2002, when he was a Congress member from Indiana. This detail about the Pences’ marriage was included in a Washington Post profile about Karen Pence.
The vice president’s office has not confirmed whether the Pences still have this agreement. We also don’t know whether it applies to Mike Pence’s women staffers, or just to social relationships outside of work.
Still, Mimms is familiar with members of Congress who follow similar rules restricting their contact with women: She reported on the phenomenon in 2015 when she worked for National Journal. She found that among a small group of congressional offices, women staffers were not allowed to spend one-on-one time with their bosses. For these young women, the rules could be a serious career hindrance.
I spoke to Mimms about her story to gain an understanding of why some congressmen would enact such a policy and how that could impact the careers of young female staffers. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What did you learn when reporting out the story?
We were doing a “women in Washington” feature at National Journal. We sent out anonymous surveys to women who worked on Capitol Hill. There was one question in the survey that was, “Has your gender ever gotten in the way if your work on the Hill?” And there were, I believe, two or three women who said point blank: I’m not allowed to spend any one-on-one time with my congressman boss because of how it will look, or for whatever reason.
So I started to report out the story. I talked to some female staffers who worked in offices where they weren’t allowed to drive around with their boss around or interact with them at evening events where drinks were being served.
I also talked to male staffers who felt that they benefited from this policy because they were able to spend more time with their boss at evening events when a more senior staffer, who was female, was barred from attending.
Based on my reporting, it doesn’t seem like this is a very large problem on Capitol Hill. I didn’t find that a majority of offices do this. But there are certainly some. And for the women in those offices, this is a huge problem in being able to advance in their careers. What generally happens is that they hit a certain level and they realize they’re not gonna get past it. They move either to a new office or off the Hill entirely.
Why does this happen? What was the cause?
Between talking to some members who had informal policies like this and staffers who were in these kinds of offices, it seemed like this wasn’t about feeling like female staffers are lascivious or anything like that. They’re not concerned about what is actually going to happen. The concern is about giving people a reason to start rumors in a town that loves to start rumors about politicians and sex.
In some cases, it seems like it’s the wives that are uncomfortable with it. I heard that from a number of people. A lot of these guys, particularly in the House, they are from these more rural, small-town-based districts where the idea of walking around with an attractive woman under the age of, say, 30 at night, and being seen constantly with a young woman next to you could be a problem. So it’s really about trying to stop rumors before they start.
What’s interesting is when I talked to members who have this policy or who have similar, more informal policies in their offices, like not letting a female staffer drive them around, I felt that the idea that this could be preventing these female staffers from advancing in their careers honestly had not occurred to them.
When I was reporting out that story, I talked to congressmen Jason Chaffetz and Tim Huelskamp. Chaffetz, he won’t allow staffers to stay very late or show up very early, and Huelskamp said he likes to make sure that he’s surrounded by several people so that he can’t wind up being alone with any one staffer. Both [Chaffetz] and ... Huelskamp, who is actually not in Congress anymore, but who was at the time, were saying it’s really more preventing a certain perception. And I completely understand that. That makes sense to me.
But here’s what other women who have been in different offices are saying. They’re saying, I can’t become chief of staff if I can’t spend one-on-one time with my boss. They were saying, I can’t advance my career if I can’t spend this time with them. Men are being allowed to go to these events at night where, quite frankly, a lot of policy talk happens, and I can’t be there.
I got the sense that this just didn’t occur to congressmen who had this rule. It wasn’t something they had thought of. Again, this is not something that affects a large number of offices. But it still seems to be happening. It doesn’t seem to have changed. And I think the reason for that is that members of Congress have to get reelected. Everything in their lives is about perception. And it’s just such a big deal to them that that’s kind of taken precedence.
Can you elaborate a little more on why this can be damaging to female staffers and their careers?
Moving up in a congressional office is really about forming a close relationship with that member. It’s really like in any work environment. You get closer to a boss by being able to anticipate their needs, by understanding them on a policy level, by being able to write in their voice. And you can’t get that with limited access.
In some of these cases, I heard about how female staffers couldn’t sit with their boss in his office with the door closed. How are you supposed to have a conversation with your boss about raises, about moving forward in your career, about things you could be doing better, or issues with another office, how are you supposed to be having those conversations when the door is open? You really can’t.
A lot of women were saying to me, I had to leave my job, or I’m going to have to leave my job because I just don't see any other way for me to advance. And they’re saying, I care about my career and that’s why I came to Congress and Capitol Hill, because I wanted to work here and I want to do it at a high level and do it very well. But how can I move forward when men are able to have these interactions and I’m not?
Is this practice discriminatory?
I talked to a discrimination lawyer here in DC and Congress’s Office of Compliance. The lawyer, her name is Debra S. Katz, she said this was pretty cut-and-dried. If this was happening in the private sector, it would be discriminatory. These women would have grounds to sue. It would be a really, really major problem. The question is how does that apply to Congress and does it apply to Congress?
She’s been doing this for a while and reached out to a few other colleagues for me and passed on their responses as well. Their overall consensus was they had never seen this. Not in modern times. This is not something they had cases about, and they had not heard about this from clients. This was just not a thing outside of Congress.
And I think again that some of that is the nature of Congress. It’s very image-focused, it’s all about crafting an image around yourself, avoiding scandal, and it’s kind of the nature of Washington and Washington reporters. We love this kind of scandal. But also, it’s pretty old-fashioned up on the Hill in general. So it’s almost — I don’t want to say it’s not surprising, but if I knew that it was happening somewhere, it seems like Congress would be that place.
Do you feel like the Mike Pence controversy fits into this practice?
I was reading about the Mike Pence controversy the other day and immediately thought, “I know this move!” But for one thing, we do not know if this applies to meetings with staff. This is something that he said 15 years ago about having dinner with women or going to events where there’s alcohol with women without his wife present. So I don’t know if it applies to him having meetings with staff or anything like that, which was true in Congress. So just that caveat.
But with the Pence thing, this seems to be similar to the Billy Graham rule ... modeled after the famous evangelist. His rule was that you should not spend any time with a woman who is not your wife one-on-one as a married man. The rule says there’s no reason to do it, it’s better for the marriage, and you should avoid temptation and scandal.
Now, I didn’t see any particular correlation between this [female staffer exclusion] happening with very religious or evangelical members, although there were certainly some who fit that. But I do wonder how prevalent this really is outside of Congress and within the Christian community in general.
Are there any women who don’t mind the policy?
One former Capitol Hill staffer who I talked to was a young woman working for a House Republican, and he had a similar policy, not letting women drive him around and things like that. She was not bothered by this policy. She told me she appreciated that he was showing her that kind of respect. For her, it was more a sign of respect. Which I thought was really fascinating.
But that was a minority opinion of the women that I talked to. Now, it’s very possible that it was a self-selecting group of people who weren’t bothered by it who didn’t talk to me for the article. In particular, in light of this Pence thing, I have had a lot of people tweet at me about the topic, saying this is relationship goals, this is the way men should be — only wanting to spend time with their wives. So I think there’s a very interesting debate here.
But again, one of the reasons I wrote the piece and one of the things I talked to a lot of these members about was that I think what’s sort of flying under the radar here is just how much this can affect a very young woman’s career, particularly the career of a woman who wants to go into public service. And I think that’s the important part here.
Correction: This article has been edited to include that some male staffers felt that they benefitted from being able to attend events in place of a more senior female staffer barred from going.