My former office in the US Senate found out I was writing an essay about workplace sexism. Here’s what happened next.
Last year, I wanted to write a piece about sexism in Congress. Specifically, about how the old “boys club” culture of whiskey-greased debauchery, waitress sandwiches, kissy old men, and elevator gropings by virile racists has been largely replaced by a much subtler, still pervasive, and uniquely modern form of discrimination. The piece was going to be anchored in my experience working for two leading, unnamed Democratic senators, and include lots of interviews with other women on the Hill.
I sent my pitch to a former coworker who had expressed interest in being interviewed. Despite my request for secrecy, she passed it along to her boss. Soon, because Senate offices are the organizational equivalent of the “Telephone Song” from Bye Bye Birdie, everyone I had ever worked with knew.
People were enraged. Multiple men in the office were described to me as being “up in arms.” I pictured them weaponizing their Twitter accounts with all the opposition research they could fire off to tarnish my reputation. Would they discover my C+ in AP Calculus? Uncover some moody junior high poetry? Use my psychiatric records to discredit me?
There was a scramble to figure out what I knew and what I didn’t and whether the validity of my experience was imperiled because I had never formally reported inappropriate, overtly sexist behavior. I got the sense that, before I’d even written a word, I had broken some secret code of the office. It reminded me of the time Aaron Sorkin scolded a female writer for “so casually” violating the first rule of writers’ rooms, fight clubs, and political offices everywhere: confidentiality. Confidentiality always seems to be particularly convenient for men.
At one point I heard that senior aides had discussed the prospect of trying to “kill” my story. If they couldn’t do that, they would try to manipulate me into liquidating the piece and thinking it was my idea. I decided to meet with one of these strategists in person — coincidentally, the only woman in a senior position in that communications office. During this odd battle of manipulation over curried chicken salad, she wanted to make one thing very clear: She wasn’t telling me not to write the story. It wasn’t until the third time she said that that I really understood what was happening.
It’s worth mentioning that the day the office found out about my piece was the day after Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee for president. In other words, this was a critical moment of messaging for Democrats across the country — a time for us to prove we were the only sane guest at the table — and some of the party’s best communications minds were throwing temper tantrums about my essay. I was equally flattered and terrified.
Ultimately, the reaction of my former coworkers is more illustrative than anything I could have originally written, in terms of shining a light on the volatile, masturbatory, and remarkably hypocritical world of establishment politics as I experienced it.
It was this reaction, and its insane lack of perspective, that freed me from any lingering doubt that I was doing the right thing by speaking out.
From September 2013 to May 2015, I worked in communications for Senate Democratic leadership. My office was a fusion of staff for two different senators who did not always see eye-to-eye, lending the environment an air of semi-functional disharmony. We were split between two physical offices by seniority. Directors sat on the third floor of the Capitol Building. Deputies, like me, on the first.
The first floor office was damp and windowless, with all the inadequate insulation and miscellaneous vermin befitting 200-year-old structures. Every couple months or so, a mouse would scurry across the carpet, bringing operations to a halt as we tried to determine where it had come from and where it had gone. Legend has it, opossums from the golden age of American governance were fossilizing in the walls.
It was made very obvious to me from the start that this was the “fun” office. The kind of office where people played music and told lots of jokes and kicked a soccer ball around between votes and pressers. It’s hard to overstate how appreciative I was to be there, in the fun office, after months of trying to break into Hill politics. And I was still appreciative when the soccer ball came flying at my head during my first week, smacking the skin beneath my cheekbone. (The striker was sincerely apologetic.) Still appreciative when I noticed one of the guys’ jokes was a bit more colorful than I was comfortable with. Still appreciative when I was told not to make too much of these jokes, and the ways he playfully yelled “bitch” or “cocksucker” across the office, because — as one coworker put it — “he has a good heart.”
The fun office had a name, as most fun things do (legendary mansions, goldfish). It was referred to around the Capitol by a noun meaning “an enclosed space where babies may safely play without the need for supervision.”
According to the National Journal, with data from LegiStorm, women comprise nearly 52 percent of the staffs for Democratic senators and just more than 53 percent of Democratic offices in the House. Though gender parity has been achieved at the overall level, the numbers look a little different when you zoom in on senior staff. This is a tougher metric to track, but a 2011 analysis by the same publication of all congressional staff found that just 32% of top aides were women. Only 20% of members of Congress are female.
The numbers suggest that as you move higher up the political food chain, women have less and less representation. I observed this firsthand. In the fun office full of junior and mid-level staff, the women employees eventually came to outnumber the men. In the upstairs office, where our bosses sat — all eight of them — there was one woman. This ratio did not budge during the entire time I worked in the Senate. Which is not to say there wasn’t any movement. Four people transitioned into that office during my tenure. All of them were men.
My mother sometimes tells me stories of working in the hedonistic world of late-70s accounting. Like of the time three male superiors told her they would treat her to lunch. “It was a big deal [for them] to take you out to lunch,” she says. “Usually it was a restaurant you couldn’t afford.” She still remembers what she wore: “a blue wrap dress with white piping.” She still remembers because she was the only woman at the restaurant wearing clothes. Her bosses had taken her to a strip club. When she eventually left that job to work for another businessman, her manager gave her a going-away present: knee pads.
Something similar happened to Senator Claire McCaskill during her time in the Missouri House of Representatives.
Thanks to cultural shifts and legislation and the gradual dying-out of history’s workplace pigs, the type of sexism most young women experience today is not the type our mothers experienced.
Workplace sexism in 2017, on the whole, is much less overt, harder to pinpoint, and thus trickier to police. But it can be just as powerful in the ways it harms women and lowers office morale.
There are a number of ways writers and academics have described this subtle sexism, from the cushy-seeming “soft discrimination” to the delicious “sugar-coated discrimination.” Names aside, this kind of treatment creates a Sisyphean task for young women. In the past society may have told us, “Don’t hurt your pretty self trying to lift that rock, sweet thing.” Now, women enjoy the basic presumption that we are smart and plenty mighty. Yet we still can’t seem to get to the top of the hill.
“It’s a common misconception on Capitol Hill that sexism is when the old Republican dude pinches your butt in the elevator,” said one of the female staffers I spoke to for this piece.
Rather, this subtle, modern sexism is behavior categorized by “everyday slights,” implicit biases, and systemic marginalization — small, discreetly disrespectful acts that reassert the traditional male dominance of the workplace.
Here are some examples of this soft, sugary, enigmatic sexism, as culled from my interviews with current and former female staffers:
· Being constantly ignored or interrupted in meetings
· Staying stuck in the same position as you watch less qualified men fail up
· Your male chief of staff instructing you to “show your softer side,” as one woman recalled
· Being routinely omitted — from email lists, all-male bonding excursions, train trips to office holiday parties in the senator’s home state
· The general, exclusionary camaraderie of your male bosses and peers
· This policy in some Senate offices, uncovered by the National Journal in its survey of 80 female Hill staffers, which bans elected officials from being alone with female employees, thus denying these women any opportunity to establish the requisite trust of a close adviser
· Being laughed at and brushed aside by men in the office for bristling at an offensive comment, not being able to take a joke — earning the dreaded “PC Police” label
· Internalizing every time a coworker calls a female reporter a dumb bitch, or a hot bitch, or really any qualifier of bitch
· Your married-with-a-kid boss getting drunk and hitting on your friend at a happy hour, as one woman experienced: “he was gross” and “she was my age…at that point, in a way, [our] relationship was sexualized”
· Getting trapped in assistant positions by glass walls and shepherded into caretaker roles — i.e. always bringing the birthday cupcakes
· Noticing that two legislative aides out of a pool of seven received significantly smaller bonuses, and those two aides were women, as another staffer observed
· Filing an unfair pay complaint, only to be told the bonuses were justified because the men stay later and work harder, even though you get the same amount of work done (more, actually)
· This study, which found that women ask for a raise just as often as men do, but are 25% less likely to receive it
· Working in an office where a fiery, reactionary intensity is seen as the best way to do your job
· Realizing that the only people who seem to possess this desirable intensity are the men
· A small talk culture driven by the “casual language of sexism” — guys talking about “what chicks they banged last night,” what chicks they wished to have banged, what chicks they would, at some point, presumptuously, bang
· Hearing this and realizing that, as a woman, there is no way out — no level of power and status attainable that guarantees you freedom from objectification: “It’s too bad she’s not fuckable,” said one interviewee’s male coworker, about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Of course, it might not have stung so much if we didn’t think we were working for the good guys. Every woman I spoke to for this piece had worked for a Democrat with a sterling record on women’s issues — which is basically just saying they held the viewpoints that presuppose women are sentient beings with autonomy over their bodies.
My former coworker described the disillusionment she felt at the persistent mistreatment by her bosses: “All these people think that they are the saviors and they’re on the right side and they’re on the good team, then they act the same as the side they vilify. They just can’t own up to it.”
It seems likely that senators and representatives are unaware of the quotidian realities of their staff, and that maybe if they were, they would see the irony in lambasting Republicans for anti-women positions while maintaining at least symbolic control over workplaces that devalue women.
“Members are so disconnected from their offices,” said one staffer, who worked for a liberal congresswoman. “This culture of sexism would be a complete shock.”
A helpful way to think of this modern discrimination in Democratic offices is in terms of the sociological concept “selective incivility,” defined as subtle hostility directed at one group of employees with no obvious intent to harm. It’s the behavioral manifestation of secret biases, rooted in strains of sexism or racism, but deeply camouflaged. It’s this targeted discourtesy that ensures men — especially white men — maintain disproportionate influence over the workplace. Selective incivility is particularly ostracizing for women of color.
Because selective incivility is so hard to identify (unless you’re the target), it’s even harder to combat. While it leaves the recipients with a lingering sense of uneasiness, the perpetrators get to enjoy the comfort of thinking they’re still “good guys” with progressive values. As University of Michigan Professor Lilia M. Cortina writes, “These subtle behaviors could be attributed to many factors other than race or gender (e.g., instigator oversight, target hypersensitivity), making it particularly difficult to label them as discriminatory. They are thus means by which personnel can mistreat women and people of color while maintaining a nonprejudiced image to themselves and others.”
It makes sense that the man in my office who routinely shushed me, sighed when I spoke, addressed me in the most patronizing tones, and was most enraged when he heard I was writing this piece left his job to go try and elect the first female president. It’s proof that people with no obvious prejudices, who may even consider themselves feminists, can still play a role in creating a hostile culture for women.
Subtle sexism is so precarious because it is thought-provoking — for the targets. Management and psychology researchers Dr. Eden King and Dr. Kristen Jones have found that implicit biases can actually be more harmful than outright discrimination for several reasons, including: the higher frequency with which they occur, the lack of clear legal recourse, and the amount of time women spend analyzing these perceived slights.
“People will spend a lot more time ruminating and trying to figure out [an example of subtle bias] than a clear-cut case of sexism,” write Drs. Kings and Jones. “This rumination, the longer it continues, can be significantly depleting to cognitive and emotional resources.”
Reading this study reminded me of how I bonded with one of the women over a shared experience: both our jobs had driven us back into therapy.
When I quit my job last year, I told my bosses that I wanted to switch careers and write full-time. In truth, I left because my self-worth resembled something like the pixelated Luna bar at the bottom of my handbag. I had started to see a therapist and a psychiatrist and been placed on my first regimen of anti-depressants since high school. Was my job entirely to blame for my mental illness? Of course not. Did it make me feel small and worthless at times, thereby exacerbating my own predisposition towards worthlessness? Definitely.
Because all these tiny, subtly sexist offenses and low-level stressors add up. And they can make you feel emotionally burnt out. And they can make you want to get the hell out of politics.
And maybe that’s why there’s only one woman upstairs.